The new year is bringing some big changes for Spokane Valley city employees after the City Council voted unanimously in a special meeting Dec. 19 to enact a new three-year contract.
The automatic cost of living increases are gone, as are the automatic step increases. A new merit pay system is now in place. The maximum pay grade for each job description will increase by 3 percent in 2013, 2014 and 2015, but employees may or may not get a pay increase based on performance reviews. “There’s no automatic increases,” said City Manager Mike Jackson.
There are also big changes to employee health insurance. The city went to “second tier” health insurance plans that have deductibles and co-pays. “They didn’t have the deductible,” Jackson said. “The co-pay went up to the employee.”
Making the changes to the health insurance plans prevented large price increases, Jackson said. “It kept the premium cost in line for the city and for the employee,” he said. “At the same time we implemented a health reimbursement program that will help offset the cost of the co-pays for the employee.”
The changes were made both as a way to save money and as a way to offer pay increases to long-term city employees who had reached the maximum pay scale, Jackson said. “It’s a combination of factors,” he said. “It is a way to control our personnel expenses. This system allows the (pay) grade to expand. I think it’s more equitable, at least in terms of the potential for compensation increases throughout the organization.”
The merit pay system and health insurance changes will also be put into effect for nonunion employees, Jackson said.
Human Resources Director John Whitehead said negotiations with union officers went smoothly. “It wasn’t a heated debate,” he said. “I think over the years we’ve built up a good relationship with the labor union.”
Councilman Ben Wick said he was pleased with the contract and likes that it allows employees at the top of their pay grades to get raises. “I think it’s a win for the employees as well as for the city,” he said. “It does save the city some money.”
Wick said he thought the health insurance changes were fair even though City Council members get free insurance for themselves and their dependents. “We have the same choice of plans that they do,” he said. “We’re actually offering lower premiums so they’re paying less for it. It’s kind of a give and take. It depends on which side you’re looking at whether the plans are better or worse.”
Bill Schultz, president of Local 270-V of the Washington State Council of County and City Employees, said about 75 percent of employees voted in favor of the new contract. “A quarter of them were not (in favor) because of the big switches,” Schultz said. “We’ve always had a cost of living type system and going to a straight performance based system is a little scary for them. You never know what is going to happen.”
Employees didn’t want to stretch negotiations into 2013 because working without a contract would have forced employees to pay more for health insurance, including some of the portion usually paid by the city, Schultz said.
“A lot of them just felt they couldn’t afford to do that,” he said. “What we figured is we’d give them a shot for three years and then go from there.”
Many employees like the addition of health savings accounts, he said. “There’s some good things about it,” Schultz said.