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Police union, city continue negotiations

July 11, 2003|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

Two years after the city's unionized police officers' contract expired, negotiators still have not hammered out a new deal, people close to the talks said this week.

While benefits, seniority and other employment issues still are covered by the old contract, the unionized police officers will not receive annual cost-of-living pay increases until a new contract is settled.

The head of the police officers' union had a one-word answer when asked about the pace of negotiations.

"Slow," said Hagerstown Police Officer Wayne Hose, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3373, which represents about 70 city patrol officers.

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"They're not exactly going at interstate pace," Hagerstown Mayor William M. Breichner said of the talks.

Hose and the union's chief negotiator, James Bestpitch, say the talks have stagnated because the city wants to take away basic rights, and further delays in settling the contract may not bode well for the police department's hiring process.

City officials, however, say that while they are trying to offer a deal that doesn't treat police better than the city's other unionized employees, they are not worried that hiring could be affected.

"We feel that we're offering comparable and consistent benefits packages to all employees," said John Budesky, the city's director of administrative services and lead negotiator for the union contract.

The contract between the police union and the city is the only one of four union contracts that remains to be resolved.

When the city reached agreement with the other three unions - fire, water and sewer, and light department workers - the union employees received a 2.5 percent cost-of-living increase that covered this past fiscal year, then a 3.1 percent increase kicked in this month for the coming year.

But union and city officials said the police situation is complicated by an arbitration agreement earlier this year.

An arbitrator found the city had broken its contracts by raising health care premiums without raising pay. As a result the city compensated workers, but said the payments could jeopardize cost-of-living increases by doing so, Breichner said.

Breichner said there was only so much money for the combined possible cost-of-living increases and the health care arbitration.

"We have a bottom line," Breichner said. "We don't have a magic wand that creates more or makes more, so we had so much money for that purpose."

Bestpitch said the city has offered the police the same cost-of-living increases as the other unions, but only if they give up the health care negotiating rights like the other unions did.

Bestpitch said the police union rightfully is entitled to the health care arbitration as well as the pay raises.

"They want us to use our own money to give us our raise," Bestpitch said. "If we gave up our negotiating rights, they could give us our 3.1 percent pay (this year), but they could turn right around and take it away with (raising) our health benefits."

Breichner said, however, that the city needs to have better control over a costly health care package he describes as a "Cadillac program."

Budesky said the mayor and council were going to discuss the police contract next Tuesday in closed session, but Hose said he was not optimistic that things would be resolved soon.

"I've had a lot of hope in the past," Hose said. "But it seems like when it comes time that the hopes just get dashed, so I really don't know."

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