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Cuts in sick day buy-back planned

November 29, 2003|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

The Hagerstown City Council is taking a tough new stance with its employees in unions: Accept a reduction in the sick leave buy-back program or face not getting a pay raise during the next fiscal year, Mayor William M. Breichner said Friday.

The action potentially could force the city into renegotiations with the city's four unions if they reject the city request, Breichner said.

The council is scheduled to discuss employee wages and benefits during a 4 p.m. work session Tuesday at City Hall. No public comment generally is taken at work sessions.

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The council is recommending a 2.5 percent wage increase for all employees, Breichner said. The number of personal days would increase from two to three days.

If the unions do not accept the city's fiscal 2004-2005 wage and benefit offer that includes the sick leave buy-back reduction, the union employees will not get the pay increase for the next year, Breichner said. The 2004 fiscal year begins July 1.

The city then would work on negotiating contractors for the 2005-2006 fiscal year, Breichner said.

The buy-back program, under which employees can sell back some of their unused sick days to the city every year, cost $271,020 in the last calendar year, according to Finance Department documents.

The program has cost the city about $2.5 million over the last 10 years, Assistant Finance Director Ray Foltz said.

Earlier this year, the City Council cut the program in half for the city's 128 non-union employees. Those employees now are given one day's pay for every two sick days.

The new proposal calls for making the same cut for the approximately 300 union employees as well as reducing the total number of sick leave days for employees from 15 to 12.

The council decided to ask union employees to reduce their sick leave buy-back program after determining it "was way out of proportion" with what is provided at other municipalities, Breichner said. The city has done a comparison with what other governments offer its employees, he said.

"We are just trying to be fair and get a handle on the budget," Councilman N. Linn Hendershot said Friday. The proposal is a way to both deal with an expected tight fiscal budget and personnel costs, he said.

The city has renegotiated contracts with three of the four city employee unions in the last 18 months. It has not yet approved a new contract with police department employees.

In August, the city publicized the cost of the sick leave buy-back program with Human Resources Director Donna Messina saying the city wants to make information about the program's costs known to taxpayers because of its potential impact on future budgets.

The city has a problem with expenses growing faster than revenue, and the buy-back program is part of that problem, city officials said.

The sick leave buy-back benefit, instituted in the 1970s, was intended to deter abuse of sick leave.

James Bestpitch, chief negotiator for two of the union groups, said that without the program employees would call in sick more often. The program provides employees an incentive to work instead of calling in sick, he said.

At Tuesday's meeting, the council will publicly discuss for the first time a contract offer for the police union.

On Wednesday, Bestpitch said he has not seen either of the city's proposals.

"All I can say is, 'Bring it on,'" he said.

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