By LIZ BUTTON
A decision was reached last week in a contract dispute that is now five years and counting between the Rye PBA and the city, setting the stage for a return to the bargaining table.
The award handed down by a state arbitration board, which only covers years 2009 and 2010, includes changes in health insurance contributions for active members as well as a 3 percent retroactive salary increase.
The Rye Police Benevolent Association’s last contract with the city expired in 2008 and, since then, the union has been in tough negotiations with the city, which is represented by labor attorney Vincent Toomey. Both sides have been intractable, while hundreds of thousands of dollars of legal fees incurred by the city have been passed on to the taxpayers.
Amidst this news of relative progress, there is also some disappointment to be had on both sides. The city and the PBA still have to sit back down at the bargaining table to complete an updated multi-year agreement that would require retroactivity to 2011.
“We hope that they will come back to the table and bargain and that’s always our approach,” said City Manager Scott Pickup. “We’ve been consistent with making overtures and really wanted to settle these issues through bargaining, not through arbitration.”
Pickup said the city is still confident that the bargaining process will work.
However, Republican Council-man and mayoral candidate Joe Sack is not happy with the performance of Republican Mayor Douglas French’s administration.
“The point is, we’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on outside lawyers,” Sack said. “And we still don’t have a contract. The arbitrator awarded the police a 3 percent raise retroactive to 2009, when the police said all along they would take 2.5 percent increase.”
But Pickup said Sack’s is not a portrayal that accurately shows the financial impact of the arbitrator’s decision.
The salary issues cited by Sack are more complicated than they are being made out to be, given the issue of longevity pay, Pickup said, which are extra wages provided given length of state service.
While many of the PBA’s conditions were rejected in the ruling, the arbitrator recognized that the city could reasonably afford a 3 percent wage increase for current members of the Rye PBA bargaining unit as [this increase] “does not substantially diminish the relative standing of Rye in relation to its comparator communities.”
In the years-long bargaining process, City Manager Pickup said the city’s focus was on the total cost of employment and the importance of controlling the long-term impact of healthcare premium growth as well as the 2 percent state tax cap on local property tax levy increases.
“[The police] would like us to focus less on those long-term costs and more on just the economic issues that impact them directly, and the city, I think, does not have the luxury to be able to do that. We have to be able to look at the longer term,” Pickup said.
Republican Councilman and independent mayoral candidate Peter Jovanovich called resolving the police contract impasse “the most salient issue” of the day in Rye, and blamed rising healthcare and pension costs from the state for recent tax increases.
According to Jovanovich, in 2011, the city’s Finance Committee projected that, if the police negotiations were not complete by 2016, the city’s reserves would dry up and an override of the tax cap would be inevitable.
Calling the arbitrator’s ruling a groundbreaking decision, Jovanovich said the arbitrator’s statement issued a reform “of how healthcare costs burdens are shared within the City of Rye. And now, that one third of the police officers who were not paying healthcare now are paying healthcare,” he said.
Jovanovich argued that Sack wanted to let the police have a big salary increase and accept the police’s last best offer, which provided for no healthcare reform.
But even as a conclusion to negotiations is arguably closer to fulfillment than in five years, some, like Sack, point to apparent damage these arduous negotiations have wrought.
According to the Rye Police Department enforcement statistics report, there has been a significant decrease in productivity over the past six months in the department’s daily activities.
Sack suggested that morale is at an all-time low because a contract covering all five years is still not in place.
“You could say they still have to do their job whether they have a new contract or not, and I would agree with that,” Sack said. “However, people are only human, and that is a residual effect of the city losing them as a negotiating partner because they feel like they have been disrespected.”
Rye PBA President Franco Compagnone agreed that this is one reason for low morale and thus lower activity stats.
Compagnone said that, while it is important to get a contract in place for 2011, 2012 and 2013, and it does not want to cause the taxpayers any more pain, the union is not afraid to go in the direction of arbitration again, if necessary.
“All they had to do was sit down and negotiate amicably,” he said, but the hardline, grinding-on style of negotiating by Toomey and Pickup instead has cost the taxpayers of Rye hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, according to Compagnone.
The PBA president said the police have been suffering as well, shelling out their PBA dues for the union’s $60,000 legal fund over five years, and struggling to adequately provide for their families while living on 2008 pay in 2013.