By LIZ BUTTON
After operating for more than five years under an expired contract, the Rye Police Benevolent Association has reached a five-year agreement with city negotiators that also settles the union’s lawsuit against the city.
In the course of forging this agreement, which delivers a 2.25 percent annual raise on officers’ pay, the City Council made a move completely unprecedented. Over the last few months of talks, small groups of council members joined the city manager, city labor attorney Vincent Toomey and members of the PBA and their attorney at the negotiating table.
“I think both sides made a conscious effort to work together and to see things from the other side’s point of view,” Mayor Joe Sack, a Republican, said.
Years of contentious negotiations since the contract’s Dec. 31, 2008, expiration date ultimately led to intervention by a state arbitrator in 2011 who awarded police a retroactive contract for two years: 2009 and 2010. But these last few weeks took on a different dynamic, Sack said, making for a process that was “filled with mutual understanding.”
Members of the City Council are looking forward to approving the agreement, which is retroactive from Jan. 1, 2011, and runs to Dec. 31, 2015, according to Sack. The council will vote on the agreement at its May 21 meeting, after press time.
The police union ratified the contract on May 9.
In addition to annual 2.25 percent raises, the final agreement increases employee contributions to health insurance for police officers, who are currently required to pay 25 percent of their healthcare costs. New hires’ contributions will now be capped at 9.5 percent of their base salary, which is considerably higher than the 4 percent paid by cops currently employed by the department.
“Within the past couple of months, we increased the frequency and intensity of the discussions we were having with police,” according to Sack.
Urgency continued increasing once the PBA filed a lawsuit against the city on Jan. 29 to nullify the state arbitrator’s Oct. 23, 2013 decision that awarded police a retroactive contract for 2009 and 2010.
The union balked at the arbitrator’s decision on the grounds that the 3 percent pay raises, that the award offered would only be available to officers who were members of the police’s collective bargaining unit as of the date of the decision.
The new agreement stipulates the PBA will withdraw its lawsuit under the condition the arbitrator’s decision terms would now apply to Rye Police Sgt. Louis Olivier. The sergeant is the only officer of those referenced in the suit who was an active member of the union during the period affected by award; Olivier retired before the date of the award.
“I would say it’s a fair deal for both the city and the union,” Sack said. “We avoided the litigation costs of protracted arbitration and we spared ourselves the tension and drama of a drawn-out process, so I think it’s a win-win for everyone. I think we were able to accomplish it because we all made a concerted effort to change the dynamic [of the process].”
One aspect of the dynamic, according to multiple sources, was the role played by former City Manager Scott Pickup during contract negotiations. Both police and city officials commented that each side was not getting a complete picture from the former city manager, who was the point person for collective bargaining on behalf of the city.
Rye PBA attorney Christopher Harold, of White Plains-based law firm Harold, Salant, Strassfield and Spielberg, said it was helpful to have the mayor, Councilman Terry McCartney and Councilwoman Julie Killian, both Republicans, at the bargaining table over the last few weeks.
“I just think there was a desire to get something done,” Harold said.
Killian said one of her positions during last year’s City Council campaign was increasing council involvement in the ongoing police contract negotiating process.
As she sat at the table over the last few weeks, Killian said it was was invaluable “to be able to hear directly from [police] what their concerns were and what they were looking for…As a city and as council members, we really value our police. We really didn’t want to go to arbitration again.”
Sack stressed that, while other council members took part in the process, there were never more than three members of the council present during discussions at any one time, so there was never a quorum, which would be a violation of state Open Meetings Law. Each group reported back to members of the council over months, but it was McCartney and Killian who stepped into leadership roles toward the end of the process.
“The direct involvement of individual members of the council present in the negotiating room demonstrated to the police our strong commitment to getting a deal done,” Sack said.
According to Sack, interim City Manager Frank Culross was also present at all meetings after stepping in for Pickup, who signed a resignation agreement with the city late last month.
When it comes to the final agreement ratified by the PBA, Killian said the aspect related to health insurance costs is one of the most important, especially since healthcare had been a sticking point during negotiations.
“There are a couple of key pieces in the agreement that may not be obvious when reading,” she said, such as the tenet that allows police to change their health insurance carrier from MEBCO, a plan from third party benefits administrator POMCO Group that is managed by the city, to Aetna Insurance.
“The other plan, MEBCO, was self-insured, and that made no sense for the city and was risky financially,” Killian said.
To former Mayor Douglas French, a Republican, the importance of addressing healthcare costs was something already in place prior to the most recent round of negotiations.
French told the Rye City Review on Wednesday that, the increase in employee contributions to healthcare costs, one aspect of the new agreement, shows that Toomey was able to leverage the pattern established by the arbitration award win from last year into even further gains.
Last October, in the aftermath of the arbitrator’s decision, both Pickup and the French administration expressed satisfaction that the arbitrator’s contract award reflected a long-term view in light of rising healthcare costs.
“[The contract is] consistent with the pattern we set forth with our lawyer for affordable increases and significant healthcare reform changes,” French said.
Rye PBA president Franco Compagnone could not be reached for comment as of press time.