BARRE — A newly ratified contract with unionized members of the city’s police department reflects a massive change to their salary schedule and a first-time requirement they pay a portion of their health insurance premiums.
Unanimously ratified by city councilors following a closed-door briefing Tuesday night, the two-year contract replaces the stop-gap one-year agreement that was reached 11 months into the contract year that ended last June.
Unionized police officers and emergency dispatchers have been working under the terms of that “strategic settlement” for the last six months. City Manager Steve Mackenzie announced a tentative settlement three months ago, and the final version of the labor agreement was presented to the council for ratification Tuesday night.
The latest round of negotiations focused almost exclusively on two issues — wages and health insurance benefits — that prevented the two sides from reaching a longer term settlement last year.
The new contract reflects what councilors were told is “a complete overhaul of the wage system,” including the elimination of “longevity payments” that under the old agreement could add as much as $50 a week — $2,600 a year — to employees’ paychecks.
The weekly benefit was available to employees with at least three years of service to the city. Following the last contractual adjustment, employees were paid $1.85 a week for each year they had been on the job, provided that figure didn’t exceed $50.
A police officer who had worked for the city for 10 years received an extra $18.50 a week, or $962 a year, under the program, while a 20-year veteran was paid an extra $37 a week, or $1,924 a year.
The new contract creates a 25-step salary schedule to replace the 11-step version that had been used for years.
Both salary schedules contemplate a newly hired officer with no previous experience receiving three separate pay raises in their first two years of employment. However, the new schedule reflects annual “step increases” for those who have worked for the city for up to 23 years, while those “step increases” stopped after eight years under the old contract.
Briefing materials supplied to councilors suggested that was flagged as a problem the new salary schedule is designed to resolve.
“… The manner in which wages were allocated was confusing, failed to recognize the contributions of long-term officers, and was not helpful in recruiting new officers to the department,” the city’s labor attorney wrote in a memo drafted at Mackenzie’s request.
According to the memo, officers and emergency dispatchers with more than eight years experience with the department received a negotiated cost of living adjustment and a longevity payment, while they’re less seasoned counterparts received the cost of living adjustment, an annual step increase and, if they were eligible, a longevity payment.
Mackenzie said Police Chief Tim Bombardier had long lobbied for an expanded salary schedule as a recruitment tool and the one that was agreed to reflects a compromise.
Shifting to the new salary schedule for the contract year that started last July will involve a “one-time expense,” two retroactive cost of living adjustments and an annual step increase for all employees this fiscal year. The total first-year cost of the wage settlement reflects an increase of 3.5 percent, that includes a cost of living adjustment of 1.35 percent that will be paid retroactively to July 1, 2018, and an additional .65 percent cost of living adjustment that was triggered on Jan. 1.
Councilors were told the 3.5 percent figure compares favorably to the 3.66 percent increase that would have been incurred under the old system assuming a 2 percent cost of living adjustment.
The wage-related increase is more modest in the second and final year of the contract, which starts July 1. The contract contemplates a 2 percent cost of living adjustment to the new salary schedule and “step increases” that would pad that figure by roughly .8 percent.
That brings the combined increase associated with the negotiated wage adjustments to 6.3 percent, though councilors were told it is actually closer to 4 percent “new money”— roughly 2 percent a year — when you consider cost that will no longer be incurred for longevity payments.
The new contract will require employees to pay a portion of health insurance premiums — most if not all of them for the first time.
Under the old agreement, the city paid 100 percent of the premiums for the Gold CDHP plan offered on the state-run exchange and offered to pay 90 percent of the premiums for employees who chose to enroll in the Platinum plan.
Starting this month, the city will pay 97.5 percent of the premiums for the Gold CDHP plan and 87.5 percent of the premiums for the Platinum plan. Employees, including 16 police officers, six emergency dispatchers and a community service officer, will be responsible for the balance.
Starting on Jan. 1, 2020, the city will pay 95 percent of the premiums for a Gold CDHP plan and 85 percent of the premiums for a Platinum plan from that point through the expiration of the contract on June 30, 2020.
The city will continue to make annual contributions to Health Savings Accounts (HSA) established for employees. Those enrolled in single, two-person and parent-child plans will have $1,800 a year deposited in their HSAs, while those enrolled in family plans will receive annual contributions of $2,250.
Those numbers are unchanged from the last contract. However, maximum out-of-pocket expenses have increased for employees. Those enrolled in single plans will see their out-of-pocket exposure increase from $2,750 to $3,000 a year, while those enrolled in family and multi-person plans could pay as much as $6,000 out of pocket — a $500 increase.
Ratification of the contract clears the deck for looming negotiations with the city’s three other labor unions.
Unionized firefighters and clerical and custodial staff are working under separate contracts that will both expire June 30, while members of the Public Works Department are under contract through Dec. 31.