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Labor attorney paid $80,000

August 26, 2003|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

In the last two years, the City of Hagerstown has paid a private attorney more than $80,000 for his help with labor negotiations involving the city's four unions.

"It is a lot of money but sometimes in the course of events you have to bite the bullet," said Mayor Wiliam M. Breichner.

Starting in June 2002, the city paid labor attorney Richard Vernon of Bethesda, Md., $215 per hour for his help with labor matters.

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While the city has since reached agreements and signed contracts with three of the four employee groups, it does not have a new agreement with the police union.

Vernon was paid about $35,000 for collective bargaining work he did with all four unions, including drafting a contract with common language that could be used in all negotiations, said John Budesky, Hagerstown's director of administrative services.

The total costs of $82,600 for working with the four unions includes expenses related to arbitration with two union groups, he said.

The only other city costs were copying charges and staff time, Budesky said.

The city said in June 2002 it would retain Vernon. The city previously used his services on workers' compensation cases and for general employment legal advice.

It was the first time in about 16 years the City of Hagerstown used outside counsel during collective bargaining, Breichner said.

The city made the move because it was dealing with four union groups at once, which is not normally the case. And the negotiations involved complicated issues, including health care and workers' compensation, Breichner said.

About 300 of the city's 460 employees are represented by unions, city officials said.

At the time, Breichner estimated it would take at least three months to complete negotiations.

After Budesky took over union negotiations, Vernon was asked only for assistance with consultations, Budesky said.

In mid-July, the city announced that since the union that represents about 70 Hagerstown patrol officers rejected the city's latest contract offer, the officers would not get retroactive pay for the two years they worked under terms of an expired contract.

Negotiations were put on hold, city officials said.

When the city, over the last year, reached agreement with the other three unions - fire, water and sewer, and light department workers - the union employees received 2.5 percent cost-of-living increases that covered the past fiscal year. A 3.1 percent increase went into effect this month for the coming year.

Union and city officials said the police situation is complicated by an arbitration agreement earlier this year in which the arbitrator decided the city broke 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, Breichner said.

Breichner said there was a limited amount of money for the combined cost-of-living increases and health-care arbitration. A union negotiator said the police union is entitled to the health-care arbitration, as well as the pay raises.

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