Frozen four — years: Officers’ pay to stay the same after decision

LINCOLN PARK — Patrol officers here became among the latest round of public employees to feel the brunt of hard economic times as a result of a recent arbitration decision in favor of the city.

The arbitration award, which was announced Tuesday, was arrived at after a process under state Act 312, which requires compulsory arbitration in the event of contract disputes between municipalities and public safety employees. The award freezes the pay of the city’s patrol officers for the current year as well as for the next contract year, which runs from June 30, 2010, to June 30, 2011.

It also keeps pay levels for the last two years the same; officers had been seeking a 2 percent increase.

The previous contract had expired in 2006 and officers were working under an extended agreement until arbitration began about nine months ago.

City officials in a statement said the process has been long and difficult for both parties, but that they are pleased with the result. Patrol officers’ union representatives have said while they are unhappy with the award, they understand the situation that has led to it and are hopeful that they can regain some of what they’ve lost when the state’s economy improves.

Mayor Frank Vaslo said the arbitrator “understood the difficult financial straits of the city.”

“This award is good for our citizens and our future,” he said. “I also want to thank our patrol officers for the professional way that they handled themselves during the time that this was pending.”

Among other things, the award also supported the city’s position by:
• Reducing the number of paid holidays.

• Significantly reducing overtime payments.

• Eliminating retiree health care for new hires.

• Put in place a reduced and more cost efficient pension system for new hires.

• Eliminating unlimited sick time and put in place a new reasonable system of sick time.

• Putting in place a health care system where employees will shell out higher co-pays for their care, “become consumers” and experience cost increases firsthand, city officials said.

• Bringing retirees’ health and drug care costs in line with that of active employees. Retiree benefits previously had been significantly higher than active employees.

“All of this greatly assists the city moving forward,” the release says, “These are just some of the changes that are in this award. This is a dramatic change in the way that we do business.”

City Manager Steve Duchane joined Vaslo in thanking the arbitrator, saying, “This is all about our survival. The arbitrator got it. He knew that absent these changes, the city was facing a financial disaster.”

Officials expect to save about $250,000 in the first year as a result of the award.

“While more changes are required, this is a good first step,” Duchane said. “I, too, want to thank our patrol officers for the professionalism they demonstrated during this process. It’s time for all of us to move on and perform the services which our citizens require.”

Officials now will turn their attention to settling contracts as quickly as possible with city firefighters and command officers to deal with the financial crisis they say all communities are facing. Talks with both groups have appeared headed toward arbitration.

City and command officers representatives discussions are ongoing; a meeting with firefighters is set for later this month.

“Just as our residents are facing difficult times, we as a city are facing this too,” Duchane said. “This award demonstrates that our police officers will share in some of the sacrifices our residents are making every day.”

The release further reads:

“Our residents are hurting. Our city is hurting, and this award acknowledges the financial reality that we are facing. The city is fighting for its economic survival.

“We want to continue essential services. Even with this award, the challenges facing the city will be great, and continued downsizing will be necessary.”

City officials say the award’s importance has implications beyond the city limits, saying, “It is an acknowledgment that local government cannot continue to give raises and pay benefits at a time when revenues are being slashed 25 percent to 30 percent or more.

“Concessions by employees is not only appropriate, it is required. This award accepted the new reality in the public sector.”