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City offers unions grim alternatives

Tue., June 2, 2009

City and union leaders talk a lot about cooperation and communication these days.

But as time inches closer to deciding how to cut $7 million from Spokane’s 2010 budget, employee unions are being presented with a harsh choice already familiar to those in the private sector: Cut pay or face layoffs.

Last week, the City Council unanimously signed off on Mayor Mary Verner’s strategy to deal with the shortfall, which must be resolved by year’s end. It includes use of “revenue enhancements” – which could include increases in business license fees – plus use of a city reserve fund, cuts not related to layoffs and concessions from unions.

At a council meeting Thursday, Chief Financial Officer Gavin Cooley showed an outline of how the $7 million would be saved. Half would come from concessions from employees. To do that, unions must give up pay or benefits they won in recent contract negotiations. City officials warn that if the unions don’t agree to some concessions, layoffs are likely, if not imminent.

Human Resources Director Dave Chandler told council members that talks with some unions indicate it could be tough to reduce or eliminate pay increases scheduled for next year or cut benefits.

Public safety bargaining units have told officials that they believe “there won’t be the political stamina to cut positions,” Chandler said.

But Council President Joe Shogan said employees should realize the city’s options are limited: “It could be you’re facing (the loss of) money or people,” Shogan said.

Greg Borg, president of Local 29, the Spokane Firefighters Union, said he takes the city at its word that layoffs are possible. Even so, he said, the union plans to stand by its contract. Instead of contract concessions, Borg said the union will offer ideas that could save the city more than $1 million. Those include changes in firefighters’ medical insurance.

The firefighters’ union lost 51 of its 326 members during budget cuts five years ago, Borg said. Recent hires have brought membership back to 301.

Verner has argued that all employees – members of unions or not – participate in cuts. She said by starting serious budgeting work and negotiations months in advance of crafting a final budget in December, she’s hopeful that job cuts can be avoided.

For a bargaining unit to not negotiate or to reject concessions “would mean that that unit would be abandoning our commitment to continue providing the same level of service to our citizens,” Verner said.

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