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What seemed easy to understand...

June 03, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

Simple stories aren't always as simple as they seem.

So I found out last week after The Herald-Mail printed an editorial about a last-minute change sought in a contract the Hagerstown City Council was about to sign with its largest employee union, Local 1540 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The change the union wanted read as follows:

"The mayor and council are hereby stating its intent that should remaining contract negotiations result in a higher compensation package to another employee group, AFSCME 1540 will be provided the same level of additional compensation."

In other words - or so it seemed - if another union gets a better deal, Local 1540 wants the same consideration. Both union negotiator James Bestpitch and Gary Dean Rowe Sr., Local 1540's president, declined to explain that night why they were seeking the change.

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But after the editorial ran, suggesting that the council should only agree to a change like that if Local 1540 made a large concession to help the city save money, both men contacted me to say that it's not about money as much as it is about fairness.

In a nutshell, Bestpitch said, here's what happened:

Under the existing contract's language, the amount of worker's health care premiums can't go up more than the raises they get. For example, the city can't grant workers a $1-a-week raise, then up health-care premiums by $1.50 a week.

In 2001, city workers didn't get a raise, but health-care premiums went up anyway. Local 1540 took the matter to arbitration, though he said other city unions declined to join the effort.

The arbitrator decided in favor of Local 1540, ruling that the city had to refund $58,000 in savings to those workers it had collected them from. But even in victory, Bestpitch said, the union was magnanimous and agreed to a compromise.

By agreeing to a new health-care policy, Bestpitch said Local 1540 cut its 150 members' costs by $114,000. Though legally entitled to put both that and the $58,000 in members' pockets, the local elected to repay its members the $58,000 out of the plan's savings.

Not so the firefighters' union, Bestpitch said. Their representatives got City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman to sign a letter months ago saying that firefighters would get both the savings that resulted from the new health-care plan and the dues repayments.

What's good for them should be good for our folks as well, Bestpitch and Rowe said.

"We're the only union that took our savings and paid for the award from our arbitration," Rowe said.

The concession the editorial suggested is one that Bestpitch himself had proposed in October 2001. Called workplace re-engineering, it involves changing workplace rules so that union workers can be cross-trained and the work force can eventually be trimmed through attrition.

That same month, I interviewed Jeffrey Repp, Cumberland's city manager, who saidthe city had put the process in place for its water and sewer departments. In three to five years, Repp said, they expected to save $500,000 to $600,000 annually.

Sounded great, but Bestpitch said Local 1540 can't agree to it because after city officials visited Cumberland, they decided it's not for Hagerstown, in part because it involves some up-front expense. But Rowe, the union's president, said the administration hasn't shut the door on the idea, and continues to study it.

A representative of the International Association of Fire Fighters' Local 1605 did not return a call seeking comment for this column.

City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman confirmed that he did write a letter to firefighters in line with the council's direction that the city will live within its means while providing consistent compensation to all its employee groups.

Beyond that, Zimmerman and John Budesky, the city's director of administrative services, declined to comment on AFSCME's account of the payments, citing ongoing negotiations. AFSCME is scheduled to sign its contract this afternoon at 4 p.m.

On the issue of workplace re-engineering, Zimmerman said that he and Budesky were part of a group that went to Cumberland to study the idea and have already implemented some changes.

The water and sewer departments have been merged and some positions combined, Zimmerman said.

"We're willing to do more of that, but we need to get direction from the union that that's of interest to them," he said.

"We're pleased with the relationship we have with all our unions," Budesky said.

In a tough economy in which the city's expenses for things like health care are rising faster than revenue, everyone knows that sacrifices are necessary. These folks just want some assurance that if they make a sacrifice, everyone else will, too.

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