SHERIDAN — The city of Sheridan is engaged in an arbitration hearing with the International Association of Firefighters Local 276 to negotiate the terms of their contract, a collective bargaining agreement, for a one-year period that began July 1. The arbitration is a result of unproductive negotiations between union representatives and city counselors John Heath and Alex Lee.
The two parties have enlisted the help of impartial mediator and attorney Amy Jenkins. She was joined at the mediation table by Tom Kinnison, representing the city’s interest, and Jeff Hamilton, representing the firefighters’ union. Legal representation for the city consists of Attorney Greg Weiss, Laramie, and Sheridan native Greg Von Krosigk. The union brought with them Attorney Tom Buescher of Denver.
City personnel present included Mayor Dave Kinskey, city Clerk Scott Badley, and city Human Resources Specialist Heather Doke.
Union President George Neeson and Vice President Jon Syring attended the hearings on behalf of Local 276.
The process of arbitration is conducted similarly to a trial, where evidence supporting each side’s perspective is presented to the mediator, who then helps the two parties voluntarily come to a solution in hopes of avoiding formal litigation.
Opening arguments Monday morning outlined the major proposed changes to the current CBA for both parties.
Local 276 introduced its proposal first. The union is hoping for a 2 percent across-the-board pay raise and an increase in the city’s contribution to the members’ health savings accounts. Buescher said the cost of the 2 percent pay increase is approximately $20,000, and the additional HSA contributions would cost between $5,000 and $7,000, depending on how many members enroll in the plan.
The last pay and benefit increase for the firefighters was in the summer of 2008, when the union secured a three percent across-the-board raise. Buescher said after that, economic conditions stagnated, and the union understood.
“By the time we get to the summer of 2009, we were into the teeth of the Great Recession,” Buescher told the panel. “There were negotiations each year, and the parties agreed — including the firefighters — they would take no increases in benefits or pay during those years.
“During negotiations, the city has always said when things get better, they would give increases. Things are better now,” Buescher said.
Buescher then pointed out the city of Sheridan had an unallocated fund balance of $4.8 million during its most recent audit. In addition, $650,000 were rolled over from the previous year’s funds. Buescher said another rainy day fund held $1.5 million, and sales and use taxes are up more than 15 percent from the same time period last year.
“The city can clearly afford to pay the firefighters $25,000 more during this contract year. That’s all they’re asking for,” Buescher said, adding that since the worker’s last raise, the cost of living in northeast Wyoming has gone up 7 percent, according to state figures.
Weiss countered the Local’s assertion that the city’s finances are healthy enough for pay and benefit increases, and instead is asking the firefighters to contribute more of their own funds into their pension plan.
“Things are not even close to fine,” he said. “There are a number of concerns that simply prevent the city from offering the firefighters, or any other member of the city of Sheridan staff a 2 percent across-the-board pay raise.”
Weiss said the city’s priority is to restore positions lost during layoffs conducted as a means to survive the recession.
“The cost of that alone is well over $1 million,” Weiss said, adding that the city has financial obligations coming down the pipeline that paint a not-so-rosy picture for the city’s financial standing.
“The reserves are far below where they need to be,” he said. “If they were where they needed to be, the city may have been able to avoid the layoffs.”
Weiss also explained the city currently contributes more than required by Wyoming statute toward a pension plan because they had been afforded a break in dues to cover pensions owed to firefighters who served the city before 1981.
“The Wyoming Legislature, over the last few years, has determined that fire plan is significantly underfunded again,” he said, adding the city will possibly have to contribute $1.5 million lump sum to the state retirement fund to correct the problem.
Weiss also revealed the city was overpaid approximately $800,000 in mineral royalties that should have gone to Converse County in 2012. As a result, the city had to return those funds unexpectedly. He said another audit, in progress, is expected to yield another result that sales tax revenue paid to the city must be returned.
“The city has no ability to be involved in determining of those payments,” Weiss explained. “It also has no say in how to deal with the issue, rather than to send the money back.”
Weiss said this year’s 15 percent increase in collected sales and use taxes are bec use of the workload created by the severe hail storm this spring, which resulted in thousands of re-roofing projects, which generated revenue via permits and building supplies.
“I disagree the city has $4.8 million available,” Weiss concluded.
In addition to continuing the pay freeze implemented on all city employees since 2008, Weiss said the city wants firefighters to contribute an additional six percent toward their pension plans, which would result in a reduction to a firefighter’s take-home pay.
The city also wants to clarify contractual language about step increase pay raises that have been the source of contention between the two entities, even after the Wyoming Supreme Court issued a ruling on the matter.
“In regard to what the city is proposing, (it’s) a proposal to rewrite article 10 of the CBA to clarify some issues. Unfortunately these parties have been parties to litigation over the past two years,” Weiss said, referring to the present situation where the city denied step increase pay raises to the firefighters, even though the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled they should be granted for a similar situation in 2010.
“Unfortunately, the parties continue to dispute how that particular issues should be addressed. They have differing interpretations both in the language of CBA and the supreme court decision,” Weiss said.
“Obviously, the supreme court decision did not solve the question concerning the step issues, and the city would like to settle, once and for all, how the step increases should be handled.”
Weiss said the city wants to make the language “crystal clear” to avoid further confusion and litigation.
The city is also asking the firefighters to allow the city to have the same leeway it does with other city employees in determining how much it will contribute to HSA accounts.
“I would agree with the idea with that the city has told the firefighters that when things get better, they would like to give them a raise. The same is true with all city of Sheridan employees,” Weiss said, concluding that now is not that time.
When introductory remarks concluded, each side was invited to provide witness testimony supporting their position. The hearing lasted through the day Monday, and as of print time, was expected to conclude by this afternoon.
Jenkins will process the information presented via lawyer briefs. The next news of the present arbitration process will likely be available shortly after the New Year.