By Ross Markman
Confusion surrounding a potential incentive for police officers was the sticking point during Tuesday night's labor negotiations for the Havre Police Department.
The police union's contract expires on June 30. Regardless of when the new contract is signed, its terms are retroactive to July 1 and would run until June 30, 2004.
The union, the Montana Public Employees Association, is asking for a $5,000 bonus to be paid to an employee classified as a senior patrol officer or less after he or she has worked five years with the department.
According to Havre police Lt. George Tate, who did not attend the meeting, the department sometimes struggles to hold on to officers. Some leave for more money, others to be closer to family, Tate said.
"We see a high turnaround between years two and five. They just go to bigger departments and move on to better paying jobs," he said. "But there's other reasons too, like moving back home."
In recent months, Tate said, two officers have left Havre for the Billings Police Department. Both had three or four years with the Havre department.
"If we paid better, I think we would have retained at least one of those guys," he said. "Still, for us to say it's strictly a money issue is not true."
That's where the bonus would come into play.
Union representative Dick Letang requested it be retroactive to the employee's date of hire, and start even before the officer had completed his or her one-year probation.
Under these terms, one current officer would be eligible for the bonus this year and two the next. The bulk, he said, would receive their bonus in the fourth or fifth year of the incentive plan, 2005-06.
The Havre City Council labor negotiations committee agreed, but was confused. The committee, chairman Tom Farnham said, understood that the incentive plan would go into effect when the new contract is signed. The bonus would therefore only apply to officers hired after July 1.
"We feel that the wages we offer in Havre are comparable to cities of similar sizes," Farnham said. "But every area in north-central Montana is having difficulty keeping its officers."
In addition to the five-year retention bonus, the MPEA is asking for a 3 percent, across-the-board increase in each year of the two-year contract. The union had initially proposed a 4 percent raise for its employees, but agreed to the city's counterproposal of 3 percent.
The union is also asking to change the longevity increments for sergeants and lieutenants from one-half percent to 1 percent. The city did not address the request.
"We still need to do something for the sergeants and lieutenants," Letang said.
The MPEA is also proposing that the city pick up the increased cost of health insurance premiums for the duration of the contract.
Farnham said the rates are expected to increase due to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but he's not sure how much. The labor negotiations committee will wait until it knows the amount of the increase before it proposes what to do with the insurance, which has not gone up for a decade.
Steve Mariani, owner of Steve Mariani Insurance in Havre, is the city's insurance agent, representing Intermountain Administrator, the city's provider.
"It's unbelievable, almost unheard of that it's stayed the same for 10 years," he said. "But it's going to go up. We just don't know how much."
The labor negotiations committee meets with the MPEA again on July 16 at City Hall. The time has yet to be determined.