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No plans for union agreements in sight

Mike Thomas doesn’t like to use the word negotiation when talking about the contract his local firefighters’ union has with the city of DeKalb.

But it’s recently been a hard word to avoid.

On Thursday, city officials announced that they would begin laying off six employees if agreements aren’t reached with both the International Association of Fire Fighters and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees to institute a wage freeze.

When the budget process began last month, the city counted on the agreement of four employee groups – police, fire, AFSCME and management – to freeze salaries, saving $580,000 to help balance the budget.

Fiscal Year 2010 begins July 1, and if wage concessions are not met by that date, three firefighters and three AFSCME employees will be laid off to keep a balanced budget, City Manager Mark Biernacki announced Thursday.

The 34-member management group has already agreed to the wage freeze, and the Fraternal Order of Police appears to be clear from layoffs due to recent negotiations.

“We’re hopeful for the agreement to avoid any police layoffs,” Police Chief Bill Feithen said, adding that the contract still needs approval from the city council.

The police union’s contract expired Dec. 31, 2008, and was already being re-negotiated when the budget process began. A six-hour meeting Wednesday night with an arbitrator selected by the city and the union proved fruitful, Biernacki said, and he suspects a new contract that includes a wage freeze will be passed soon.

Contracts with IAFF and AFSCME, however, are not open for negotiation. AFSCME’s contract expires Dec. 31, 2010, and IAFF’s contract does not expire until June 30, 2011.

That’s the most frustrating part for AFSCME Local 813 President Mike Taylor, as the last collective bargaining agreement was signed just nine months ago. One of the major changes was how health insurance is funded, and Taylor said costs may rise more than 50 percent for members.

Now, “the city’s coming back and asking for more,” he said.

“A contract is a contract, and we believe that is something that is sacred,” Thomas added.

The firefighters’ union did, however, offer an alternative proposal that included roughly $220,000 in “givebacks” – economic components of the contract that workers would not collect for the upcoming fiscal year.

“We’re not renegotiating the contract, but we’re willing to forgo certain things for certain period of time,” said Thomas, president of IAFF Local 1236.

And Taylor said that AFSCME representatives looked at the city’s budget and offered suggestions for cost-savings elsewhere that wouldn’t touch personnel.

One of the city’s long-term goals, for instance, is to build up the reserve fund.

Assuming the wage freezes are approved, a $273,000 surplus is expected for Fiscal Year 2010. City managers were unsure as of Thursday how much savings the layoffs would bring.

This amount, along with an $800,000 surplus anticipated for the current fiscal year ending June 30, will make up a $1 million deficit seen in fiscal years 2007 and 2008

“We’re not against building the reserve fund, but in lean times, we’re questioning how quickly that’s being built,” Taylor said. “We’re laying off city services to build the reserve fund.”

Working with less

Sixteen staff positions were not filled this year to keep the 2009 fiscal year budget balanced.

The 71-member AFSCME unit lost seven members over the last year and a half, Taylor said, with four taking a voluntary early retirement when the city faced another possible shortfall for 2009. AFSCME covers workers in public works, telecommunications, finance, engineering, and information and technology, he said.

The hiring freeze left both an assistant fire chief and a firefighter position vacant.

One of the proposals not accepted by IAFF, Mayor Kris Povlsen said, called for hiring four firefighters if they took a two-year freeze in salaries.

Union leaders fear that if the city’s workforce is reduced even more, services will be greatly impacted.

“We have read the city will have a surplus this year of $800,000, and so the message that’s being sent, in our opinion, is that the reserve has taken priority over personnel,” Thomas said. “We believe that is not healthy.”

Povlsen’s focus is on the long-term health of the city.

Without any layoffs or a wage freeze in 2010, the city would be nearly $160,000 in the hole, according to projections. That hole could grow to $1.35 million by the end of Fiscal Year 2011.

Under a wage freeze, the general fund has a projected deficit of $900,000 for Fiscal Year 2011 – still not desirable, Povlsen acknowledged, but less damage nonetheless.

“These concessions are a one-year stop gap,” he said. “If we don’t make some changes and concessions, we end up literally bankrupt.”

Not budging

Both unions and city officials said they have no plans to meet again before Monday, when the DeKalb City Council is expected to direct Biernacki to begin the layoffs.

The three newest firefighters would be without a job, but it’s unclear what AFSCME positions would be cut, as each department will have to be evaluated, Biernacki said.

Fire Chief Bruce Harrison said that the goal is to have an agreement in hand.

“I’m hoping we’re not done. My fear is we’re running out of time,” he said.

It’s been at least a week since city officials met with either union.

“I let them know that we’re not in contract negotiations, so we would expect you to honor our contract and we’re informing you that we will enforce our contract,” Thomas said. “That’s where it shut down then.”

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