Archive for Monday, August 8, 2011

Talks drag on

Negotiators for the city and police and fire employees need to wrap up this year’s employment agreement.

August 8, 2011


Nearly five months after negotiations began, the city’s police and fire unions and city management are still looking for an employment agreement that all parties can support. It is becoming clear that all parties need to look harder.

The city’s negotiating process with its two unions is disappointing on a number of levels. First, the public deserves to know why this process is taking so long, but currently the public has been left largely in the dark. Negotiations between the groups are held behind closed doors, which gives the public little ability to understand the issues and offer guidance to its elected officials. Perhaps a little public pressure would be useful to help break this loggerhead.

It is disappointing that a loggerhead exists in the first place. During these tough economic times, it is not difficult to find communities where reductions in the public safety forces of a community are being contemplated. That’s not the case in Lawrence. In fact, the city in 2012 is increasing property taxes slightly to fund additional police officer positions. Commissioners also are in the middle of a multi-year plan to adds millions of dollars worth of new equipment to the fire department’s fleet. Police officers and firefighters in Lawrence don’t have it all that bad.

On the other side of the equation — during these tough economic times — the city has a general fund savings account of more than $12 million. City commissioners are working with a public that apparently is more willing to accept tax increases than most — given that in recent years voters have approved three sales tax increases and now a property tax increase to build a larger library. Lawrence city commissioners also don’t have it all that bad.

Yet somehow, it takes months and months to come up with a deal to keep people employed in an economy where a job has never been more precious.

The city needs to be cognizant of the message these drawn out negotiations is sending. They send a poor message to the public and a poor message to the non-union employees at City Hall. The city’s 2012 budget already has been set. The amount of money the city will spend in 2012 has been determined. Yet, we don’t know what we’re paying the city’s police officers and firefighters. An amount will be determined, and that amount will be taken out of the already approved 2012 city budget. Apparently, non-union employees get the leftovers.

That’s not a proper message to send to those employees. While police and fire employees provide vital services to this community, so do the non-union employees. Many of their jobs are critical to community safety as well — ensuring safe drinking water on a daily basis, ensuring proper sanitation by removing our trash on a daily basis, Municipal Court employees who keep the justice system moving on a daily basis, and the list could go on.

The city’s workforce should not be a two-tiered system, and city leaders need to think hard about whether this current process is creating one.

But first, all parties of this process need to work hard to finish the current negotiations. We know all sides are capable. Police and firefighters in Lawrence are excellent public servants. City commissioners and their staff have shown fine leadership during these challenging times.

However, now is the time for all involved to buckle down and think about the bigger picture. We’re living in a time where far too many people have lost their jobs, where far too many people — especially in the private sector — have had to take wage cuts to keep their jobs, and we’re living in a community that has many issues to solve if we hope to return to our past prosperity.

It is time to end these negotiations and get on with that important work.


nativeson 6 years, 1 month ago

Funding for police and fire budgets have been significant even in tough times. The police budget has risen in the high single digits since 2007, and the fire department has received additional sales tax for capital equipment.

The fact remains that it is never enough. The memorandum of understanding (MOU) employees and their representatives have a sense of entitlement that is out of touch with current conditions. One funding topic flying below the radar screen is the requirement by the City to fund the Kansas Police and Fire (KP&F) pension in 2012 at a much higher rate than previous years. This cost alone is a rise in funding over $500,000 annually based on a defined benefit with poor investment performance.

Police and fire personnel have the ability to retire at least a decade sooner than most employees. There is certainly an argument to be made that this is merited due to stress on the job. However, it also allows them to find other employment and double dip. To police and fire this is an expectation that is expected, and they could care less about its cost and impact on the City and other employees. These pension plan designs are a primary driver creating bankruptcy in municipalities across the country.

It will take courage for City leaders to stand up to these demands and design an outcome that is sustainable. Even with a good fund balance, the budgets need to grow at a rate that matches revenue growth.

independent_rebel 6 years, 1 month ago

From the many friends I have who work for the city in non-police, non-fire department areas, the non-unionized employees have taken the hits while the unionized, aggressive parties within the LPD and LFMD have laughed their way to the bank as they receive raise after raise.

It has been years since many non-unionized employees have received a raise that even comes close to covering the increases they have seen in health care costs. Some haven't seen a raise in years because, they have been told, the city has no money.

But the city seems to find money, every year, for the LPD and LFMD. That money, I would guess, is found by not giving raises to the men and women who pick up your trash, engineer the intricate sewer systems, answer the phone when you have questions about your water, keep our water drinkable, co-ordinate and provide classes for physical recreation and art, and, especially, those who work out in the field in the street crews.

As I small business owner I try to be fair to my employees, but that doesn't mean all employees get the same raise (or even a raise at all). But it is simply a ridiculous notion to keep telling the regular employees who work in other areas that even if they get a raise, which is unlikely, it won't be nearly enough to cover the increase they'll see in health care and prescription costs. This has gone on for years, and those I know in the city are getting really ticked off that the LPD and LFMD have their hands out, smiling, because they know they'll at least getting something meaningful.

NoOneSpecial 6 years, 1 month ago

Maybe this would be a good time for non-union city employees to organize. Stop sitting around crying that you're not getting a raise and do something about it. I'm sure the Teamsters would love to come in and organize all the non-union city employees.

independent_rebel 6 years, 1 month ago

My neighbor is a fiesty one. I'm sure she would get involved. I'm not big on unions so I don't know what I would advise her or the other non-union employees to do. It doesn't seem like they are getting a fair shake downtown.

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