Nigh, negotiator criticize sick leave buy-back plan

December 03, 2003|by SCOTT BUTKI

Hagerstown City Councilwoman Penny May Nigh and James Bestpitch, chief negotiator for two of the city's four union groups, criticized the rest of the council Tuesday for a proposed reduction in the city's sick leave buy-back program in the next budget year.

Nigh's comments at Tuesday's council work session were applauded by some of the approximately six union members in the audience.

The program, under which employees can sell some of their unused sick days back to the city each year, has cost the city about $2.5 million over the last 10 years, city officials say.

The proposal is for the fiscal year starting July 1.

The city has renegotiated contracts with three of the four city employee unions in the last 18 months. Those contracts expire June 30, 2004.


The city has not yet approved a new contract with police department employees.

If the city's unions do not accept the city's fiscal 2004-05 wage and benefit offer that includes the sick leave buy-back reduction, the union employees would not get a 2.5 percent pay increase proposed for all city employees, Mayor William M. Breichner said.

Bestpitch and Nigh on Tuesday accused the city of not acting in good faith by publicly releasing information about the proposal before first giving the details to union representatives.

"That was a no-no," Nigh said. "If I were union, I would certainly be up in steam."

Breichner denied the city acted in bad faith or did anything inappropriate.

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

The city now wants to make the same cut for the approximately 300 union employees and reduce the total number of sick leave days from 15 to 12 per year.

The sick leave reduction would save the city about $60,000 per year, Finance Director Al Martin said.

A pay raise for all employees would cost the city about $400,000 annually, he said.

The city is scheduled, at its Jan. 20 work session, to meet publicly with representatives of the four bargaining units to receive their acceptance or rejection of the city's offer for the next fiscal year.

Nigh and Bestpitch on Tuesday said they oppose the city action.

"We are not going to accept an ultimatum," Bestpitch said outside the council meeting room.

He said he will recommend the employee groups that he represents reject the proposal until there is further negotiation with the city.

Bestpitch represents the police union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1540, which has about 150 city employees in the public works and water and sewer departments, along with other city employees.

The council agenda packet, made available to the public on Wednesday, included a staff report explaining the city's proposal. The proposal was detailed in a story in Saturday's Herald-Mail.

Union members, especially its leaders, should not have to hear about a proposal by reading about it in the newspaper, Nigh said. Councilmen Lewis C. Metzner and Kristin Aleshire said they agreed.

City officials said they talked to union members Monday about the proposal.

"Rather than debating it, let's just acknowledge it: We screwed up," Metzner said.

The city should have told union representatives about the proposal before releasing it publicly, he said.

The council decided to ask nonunion employees to reduce their sick leave buy-back program after determining it "was way out of proportion" with what other municipalities provide, Breichner said Friday.

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

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

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