By Ross Markman
The City Council labor negotiations committee and the Havre police union Tuesday night agreed to enlist the services of a state mediator to hopefully put an end to the police contract negotiations going on since April.
If the mediator is unsuccessful, the union the Montana Public Employees Association can either bring in an arbitrator or go on strike.
"It's an effort to get both parties closer to an agreement," union negotiation Dick Letang said today of mediation. "He meets with both sides together and individually."
A mediator from the state Department of Labor and Industry was called in at last year's negotiations.
"It was difficult last year. It fundamentally boiled down to two things the rank structure and the cost associated with it," said Paul Melvin, last year's mediator.
Last year, Melvin said, he was successful.
"We just talk about and see if there's some way through it," he said, explaining the process. "These are difficult settlements by nature."
If mediation doesn't work and both parties agree to arbitration, the state provides them with a list of either five or seven arbitrators, Melvin said. The union and the city labor negotiations committee would take turns removing names from the list until one remains.
The union's contract expired June 30. Regardless of when the new contract is signed, its terms will be retroactive to July 1.
The city's final offer Tuesday night gave the union two choices. The first, a two-year contract, offered the 16 officers a 4 percent across-the-board salary increase for the first year and 3 percent the second year. The city also proposed to pick up half of each member's insurance increase in the contract's first year. It left insurance open for discussion for the second year.
In the second option, the city proposed a one-year contract offering to pay the officers a 3 percent raise and half their insurance increase.
"We feel we're only being fair. We're not only representing the police department, we're representing the taxpayer," committee chairman Tom Farnham said.
The city's insurance rates haven't gone up in 10 years. With the city paying half the increase, Farnham said, a single officer would continue to pay nothing, a married employee with no children would go from paying $105 to $152.50, and a family of three or more would go from spending $150 a month to $192.
The plan also calls for a hike in the deductible for major medical expenses, from $1,000 to $1,500, and minor medical from $100 to $250.
The union, Letang said, wants the city to pay the entire premium increase. And, he said, it wants a 4 percent raise a year for either the one- or two-year contract.
"They're willing to pick up what they're paying now. They're not willing to pick up any insurance increase," he said.
"We recognize nobody here knows what the insurance will do next year, but we're here to protect our members the best we can," Letang added. "I think nobody's an evil villain here. But understand what this does to us."
The city, Farnham said, is trying. That's what the proposed raise is for, he said.
"With the economy the way it is and the budget, this what we can handle," Farnham said. "The economy ain't growing. The budgets ain't growing."