A Lakewood City Council decision to spare utility customers a tax hike has complicated negotiations with at least one of three city unions that are working without contracts.
The contracts for unions representing Lakewood’s police officers, community service officers and about 100 other employees expired at the end of the year.
In November, the City Council directed staff to reduce costs for employee medical insurance instead of raising electric and natural gas utility taxes on residents. City Manager Andrew Neiditz had recommended a utility tax hike to help balance the 2013-14 budget.
“It certainly made it a more difficult process for all three of the unions because it changed the landscape of the way we had been negotiating prior to that,” said assistant city manager Choi Halladay, the city’s lead negotiator.
The city is proposing to give a fixed allowance to about 100 employees represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1938 instead of paying 90 percent of their monthly insurance premiums outright. Employees are responsible for paying the remaining 10 percent under the current benefits.
Mayor Doug Richardson said the council’s move was aimed at reining in health care costs. It also offers some predictability to future increases so budget writers weren’t waiting around each year to see how much the insurer would raise premiums, he said.
“That just wipes you out each year” when there’s no uptick in revenue, the mayor said.
In most cases, members of the city’s largest union would see their out-of-pocket expenses increase under the proposal, depending on how many dependents they cover and which plan they select, said Dan Penrose, the AFSCME local’s president.
Under the most popular health care plan, the city’s proposal would result in his members paying between $142 and $185 more each month, Penrose said.
The adopted two-year budget contains no cost-of-living adjustments for employees.
AFSCME reiterated its concerns about the proposal during a two-hour meeting with the city last week. They are meeting again this week.
“We’re committed to working through the negotiation process to get to a position that is sustainable for both employees and the city,” Penrose said.
Both Penrose and Halladay expressed confidence that new contracts can be reached. The assistant city manager anticipated agreements could come as early as this month.
“Even though we may not agree on a lot of things, we have good working relationships with all of (the unions),” Halladay said.
Police guild President Eric Bell said negotiations got off to a late start, but he anticipates no major sticking points. The guild is in the midst of negotiating “non-financial items,” such as work hours, before it gets to wages and benefits, he said.
“We know it’s going to get done, and we’ll take care of it when it gets there,” he said.
Bell said there may be a delay in wrapping up negotiations because of the departures of Neiditz and Richardson to other local government agencies.
“That brings in a lot of unknowns,” he said.
Neiditz was selected Wednesday to head Pierce County’s new 911 emergency response system and will leave city employment next month, at the earliest. Richardson’s last day on the Lakewood City Council is Tuesday; he leaves for the Pierce County Council.
A representative of the Teamsters Local 117 representing city community service officers declined comment about its labor contract.
City employees will continue to work under the terms of the expired contracts until new accords are finalized, Halladay said. State law bars police officers from striking, he said, and the prior contracts included provisions prohibiting strikes and lockouts.
The AFSCME local and the police guild each have about 100 members. The Teamster local represents five employees.
The city also has about 25 nonunion employees.