The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

August 1, 2013

Conneaut police, city headed to arbitration

Star Beacon

CONNEAUT — A fact-finding report recently rejected by Conneaut City Council means stalled contract talks are most likely heading to arbitration, City Manager Tim Eggleston said Wednesday.

Members of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 51 approved the report, but council turned thumbs-down on the document last week. Negotiations have bogged down on a handful of issues, prompting the city and union to turn to a fact-finder — under the auspices of the State Employment Relations Board — for an objective third opinion.

The fact-finder found in favor of both sides on some issues, but did recommend pay raises for police officers, although at a level less than what the union is seeking.

According to the report, officers want a 4.5 percent increase this year, 4 percent in 2014 and 3.5 percent in 2015. The fact-finder recommended raises of 4, 3.5 and 3 percent over the same span, along with a 10 percent rank differential. Officers also are seeking stipends for officers with special duties, including Special Weapons and Tactics team members, evidence and methamphetamine lab technicians and detectives; K-9 officers and for performing jail and dispatch duties.

The city wanted a pay freeze over the next three years, citing a poor financial outlook.

A big clue that talks were bogged down came last month, when council approved the hiring of a consultant, Labor Relations Management Inc., to provide some expertise. The consultant won’t be paid more than $10,000 for the assistance.

Administrators say the city budget is being hit hard by cuts in state aid and tax revenue.

Eggleston said the city is “disappointed” by the sluggish contract talks. The city has settled contracts with its dispatchers and firefighters, but are still bargaining with police and service department employees.

“The dispatchers and (firefighters) understood our financial situation and how some things have impacted us,” he said. “We’ve taken a hit from the state.”

Firefighters agreed to a wage freeze this year in exchange for contract reopeners in 2014 and 2015. Dispatchers accepted a 15-cent hourly pay hike this year and a five-cent hourly increase in 2014, but surrendered city-provided medical insurance.

The city is ready to reward its workers — once the budget is in better shape, Eggleston said.

“We haven’t seen a huge increase in revenue,” he said. “If things change, we’re more than willing to give people their due.”

Police Sgt. Steve Gerics, FOP Lodge 51 president, could not be immediately reached for comment Wednesday. The city has built its general fund carry-over budget to $871,000, about a 20 percent carry-over, in 2012, an increase of $100,000 compared to 2011, according to the report. Much of that increase was built by not replacing workers when they leave and by cutting expenses, Eggleston said.

Administrators are hoping for a more favorable reaction to its arguments at the next level.

“We’ll get through it,” Eggleston said. “We’ll go to arbitration.”