By Tim Eberly
Eight months of contract negotiations between the city and a union representing Havre police officers have failed to produce an agreement, prompting discussion of a possible strike.
The police and members of the Havre City Council have been mired in negotiations since May over the pay of the 16 police officers in the Montana Public Employees Association.
Both sides say no agreement is in sight.
"Overall, the council feels our patrolmen are very professional," said City Council member Tom Farnham, chairman of the labor and negotiation committee. "It's just that we don't have the money they'd like to have."
The next scheduled negotiation session is Jan. 8 at 7 p.m. in City Hall but MPEA representative Dick Letang is trying to set up a meeting for Dec. 26 or Dec. 27.
If no aggreement is reached by Jan. 8, Letang said, the MPEA will consider either setting a strike deadline or soliciting the assistance of a nonbinding arbitrator from the state's Board of Personnel Appeals.
"We're going to meet at least two more times," Letang said. If there is no progress, "we'll make a decision then."
The union is asking for a 7 percent raise each year of a two-year contract for the top four pay grades, including sergeants, staff sergeants and two levels of lieutenant. It wants a 4 percent raise for the five grades below sergeant, from probationary to master patrol officer.
Eight members of the Police Department occupy the lowest three grades and seven are either sergeants or lieutenants in the upper tier. Only one officer occupies the middle tier. The top three police administrators are not members of the bargaining unit.
"There's no way we can do that," Farnham said at a negotiating session last Wednesday, which was attended by Helena mediator Paul Melvin, Letang, two union members, and members of the labor and negotation committee. "I don't know where we would come up with the money to start with."
The last contract, approved in July 1999, provided 4 percent annual raises in each of the two years to all grades. So the 7 percent raise request not the lower grade officers' 4 percent increase is the main roadblock in the negotiations, Farham said.
"Over the years, we have kind of fallen behind on our pay compared to other departments of our size," police Sgt. Bill Wilkinson said Tuesday. "And we're losing officers to larger towns because of it. What we want to do is become competitive so we don't lose any more of our officers."
Havre's starting salary for a first-year officer is competitive with same-size towns. Rookie police officers in Havre are paid $11.80 per hour, compared to $10.93 for probationary officers in Anaconda, a town with a population size nearly identical to Havre.
The police, however, have made the case that they are much busier than in years past. In 1979, when they had 17 staffers, the police received fewer than 2,000 calls for service, Police Chief Kevin Olson said at last Wednesday's meeting. This year, with a crew of 19, Havre police have received roughly 17,000 calls for service, according to Olson.
In October 1994, the city added three more officers with the help of a federal grant. When the grant expired in 1997, the city came up with the money to retain those positions.
"Because of the workload, the city felt we needed to keep everybody there," City Council member Helen Hill said at the meeting. "But at the same time, to keep those three people was really a strain on the budget."
The police officers were willing to accept a 4 percent annual raise for four years, which Wilkinson said was originally agreed upon by both sides. The union members planned to give 3 percent of that yearly money to all 16 members of the union, and then distribute the remaining 1 percent among the upper-tier union members. But when the city backed out of the tentative deal, Wilkinson said, the union members decided to leave the 7 percent raise request on the table as their latest offer. Farnham said the city never committed to the four-year plan because of uncertainties of how future legislation could impact the city's budget from year to year.
"They turned around and said they couldn't do it," Wilkinson said. "The possibility of a strike is there because they keep backing down on what they're offering."
The city budget approved by the City Council includes 3 percent raises for all police personnel. Giving the police a 4 percent raise could be worked out if the Police Department has leftover money in its budget, said Farnham. Not included in the 3 percent raise is a half-percent longevity raise officers receive each year from the city.
"We could probably work that out if there's any money left over from the other line items," Farnham said. "But the budget's always tight."
Other alternatives have also been discussed and rejected by the union members. For instance, the city and the police have discussed decreasing the number of grades on the force, which would facilitate promotion and make it more attractive to work for the Havre Police Department.
"They didn't want to go that route," said Farnham.