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Public safety unions, city remain deadlocked

By Staff | Oct 11, 2011

The impasse between the city and the local public safety unions appears to stand as the city shot down the unions’ proposals Tuesday during talks.

The city’s labor negotiators met with the Cape Coral Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 33 for an afternoon bargaining session, after first meeting with the Cape Coral Professional Firefighters Union Local 2424 in the morning.

During the sessions, the city rejected the unions’ newest proposals.

“It doesn’t work for the city,” John Hament, the city’s labor attorney, told the police union, calling their proposal “very seriously flawed.”

Union members would have increased their pension contribution 3 percent in the plan, up from the current 7 percent. Members would also have agreed to take on 40 or 32 furlough hours each year, based on their years of service.

The proposal would have saved nearly $807,000, an estimated $348,513 from the pension contribution increase, and $458,265 from the furloughs – a figure comparable to a 2 percent salary cut, according to union leaders.

The fire union proposal shot down Tuesday involved $1.165 million in savings – 7.6 percent of payroll, according to union leaders. Members would have put 10 percent toward pension, up 3 percent from a 7 percent contribution.

In addition to the $1.165 million, the city would have reportedly saved an additional $260,000 as three positions became vacant, plus an extra $1.2 million in savings if pay increases remained frozen in the next two years.

Both unions expressed frustration Tuesday after the sessions.

“We put together the numbers that the city was looking for,” Kurt Grau, president of the police union, said.

Fire union president Mark Muerth referred to a one-word outburst by him toward the end of the meeting as representative of the tension.

“Things do get contentious in there,” he said. “I think it just represents the frustration at the table.”

As for city’s rejection of their proposal, Muerth said the city wants it their way, and impasse proceedings may be the only way to resolve the issue.

“The city is very very firm that they are going to maintain their most recent bargaining position,” Hament told the fire union Tuesday.

“We’re not changing our position,” he said.

The city has been seeking a straight 8 percent wage reduction from the unions since declaring impasse last month over both contract negotiations.

“The council is extremely upset and disappointed that the deal broke through, broke up,” Hament added Tuesday.

In July, police union members voted 185-1 to reject tentative agreements for a 3 percent pay cut and 2 percent pension contribution hike for officers, sergeants and lieutenants. Those totaled about $802,000 a year in savings.

The city and the fire union had also reached tentative agreements of a 3 percent wage cut and 2 percent pension increase, which totaled $1.8 million in savings. Rank and file rejected it 166-0; battalion chiefs, too, by 11-0.

Muerth pointed out Tuesday that the Cape Coral City Council never approved the agreements either, postponing their vote until after the union’s vote.

He argued that the newest proposal also offers the city savings.

Hament explained that the numbers do not match up, and that the city’s priority has been addressing the budget shortfall. He noted that making sure the department is on par pay-wise with others in the region is not a focus.

“When you have the resources, it should became a priority,” Hament said.

Muerth argued that the city considered “comparables” when City Manager Gary King was hired and when it came to his incentive pay, as well as when the new economic development official was recently hired “at the top of the grade.”

“Comparables aren’t important when it comes to police, fire, the man out on the street,” he said. “You guys are going after the workers in this case.”

“We’re asking for fairness and the city doesn’t want to play fair,” Muerth continued. “The priority now is to take the money out of the pockets of the city workers.”

As for the police union’s newest proposal, furloughs were a sore spot.

“We’re trying to get out of the furlough business,” Hament told union leaders Tuesday. “It (the city) wants people to work full-time.”

He argued that furloughs are a temporary fix, that once they are lifted, the situation and related issues still exist. He said they are used to maintain high pay levels by avoiding salary reductions and permit employees to work less.

Grau explained that furloughs will not affect service levels, and the savings from the newest proposal match what was lost in the tentative agreements.

“I know it’s not ideal, but it gets the job done,” Grau said.

The police union’s attorney agreed, questioning the city’s motives.

“The city has asked the union to give – the union has responded by giving handsomely,” attorney Gene Gibbons said Tuesday. “If the city is getting the money they need, I don’t understand why they care how it’s packaged.”

As the city and union negotiations continue, the impasse with both stands. The city has waived the first step – mediation – which one party can do, by law. The next step is a special magistrate, which both parties must waive.

As of Tuesday, a special magistrate had been assigned for the police union and city’s impasse case. For the fire union case, one was assigned, but later resigned, so a substitute special magistrate must be chosen to oversee it.

Hament previously said the city wants to waive the first two steps and take the issue directly to the legislative body, which would be the city council. The magistrate can provide a recommendation, but the council has the final say.

Kunkel, Miller & Hament has been representing the city in the negotiations with fire and police, as well as general employees. As of Sept. 7, the city had paid the firm $114,527 for its services in regards to the general employees.

The city had paid $54,348 regarding fire and $74,318 regarding police.

More recent figures were not immediately available Tuesday.