Mayor vetoes non-union bonusesPublished 12:00am Sunday, December 23, 2012
Ironton city employee benefits have been a hot topic in recent months and the discussion culminated last week with a veto by the mayor that has left some employees blue this holiday season.
Mayor Rich Blankenship vetoed a resolution awarding a one-time payment to non-union workers, which council unanimously passed at its last meeting Dec. 13.
Blankenship wrote a letter to The Tribune explaining why he could not support the $750 payment to 19 employees who saw their retirement pickup increase from nothing to 7.5 percent in 2012.
“The veto is not because I do not think the employees deserve the award; it is simply not the right time to make the award,” Blankenship wrote. “The current financial state of the city is not in a position to justify the award. We currently have employees in lay-off status, union contracts unsettled, potential health insurance premium increases, chemical, gas, electric, materials, etc. are all unknown at this time.”
Why an honorarium?
In November, the city’s finance department presented city council and the finance committee with a chart outlining what they deemed a “disparity between union and non-union” workers.
The chart shows the benefit structure for the International Association of Firefighters Local 532, Fraternal Order of Police Local 75, American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Local (AFSCME) 771, non-union employees and municipal court employees. The data presented was from Jan. 1 through Sept. 30, 2012.
According to the chart, the average additional benefit per person represents the amount the city must pay to provide that employee’s benefit package.
For firefighters, that number is more than $22,000 per person and includes a clothing allowance for uniforms, meal tickets, overtime and call-out pay. Police gets an average additional benefit of $21,545 and AFSCME employees get $10,310
For non-union employees, the average additional benefit is $5,678 and court employees get about $7,862.
The presentation came after non-union workers were required to begin paying 7.5 percent of their retirement pickup, after previously paying nothing towards the fund.
Finance director Kristen Martin was one of those employees impacted by the 7.5 percent increase.
“I’ll be the first to say I advocated employees should pay a share of their retirement,” Martin said. “The difference was, when you are in a situation where you have paid nothing and jump to 7.5 percent, that cut comes off your net take-home pay. It’s an additional deduction and that was what created the hardship on the 19 individuals.”
City council had intended the increase to be across the board, but AFSCME and the FOP unions are still in negotiations and the city continues to pay the full 10 percent pickup on top of the 14 percent employer share. The police and AFSCME unions cut their total budgets by 7.5 percent by laying off employees and the city has continued to pay the retirement pickup for employees.
The police department laid off three officers this spring. One chose to take a voluntary layoff to save the job of a younger officer. One of the two other officers was later recalled. That agency also laid off its three dispatchers.
The public works union laid off six employees, two from the sanitation department and one each from water administration, water distribution, income tax and wastewater.
The fire department laid off two firefighters and a third employee chose to take a job elsewhere. The two firefighters were brought back to the job after the firefighters union agreed to begin paying 3 percent of their pension pickup and take cuts to food and uniform allowances.
At the time of the presentation, finance committee member Kevin Waldo said, “The idea of the cuts and pickups were supposed to be spread throughout the entire city, but it didn’t work out that way.”
Martin said one of the main points of the presentation was to show that the cuts proposed were not universal and creates an imbalance between union and non-union employees.
“We are not saying, ‘Hey, give me sick incentive and clothing and food,’” Martin said. “I obviously don’t have a job that that’s applicable to. But, in this situation, I do have a retirement plan that could be a little more balanced. That was the point of the presentation. There seems to be no change, no leeway, because the contacts are still open.”
In response to the presentation, the finance committee this month sponsored a resolution that would award all 19 non-union employees with $750, a total of $14,250. Those employees included the chief of police, fire chief, two solicitors, finance director, assistant finance director, payroll clerk, deputy auditor, economic development director, benefits specialist, public utilities assistant, code enforcement officer, mayoral secretary, street superintendent, recreation director, water superintendent, health commissioner, sanitarian and registrar.
“People think that’s absurd, but if you look at what people are being benefited on a monthly basis, by not having to pay this retirement plan, a one-time payment is so minute compared to the thousands and thousands of dollars the city is paying on a monthly basis,” Martin said.
Passed but vetoed
At the Dec. 13 council meeting, all five members agreed on the honorarium and passed the resolution. The mayor was at the meeting but didn’t publicly voice any opposition to the plan.
Blankenship vetoed the resolution Wednesday, asking council to reconsider the payment until a future date when it would be more justified.
“I do not think it is in the best interest of the city or the right thing to do at this time to turn around and give an award while only eight months earlier, I had to lay off employees and we still have these unsettled issues,” the letter stated.
Several employees, who want to remain anonymous due to fear of losing their jobs, expressed their anger over the fact that the mayor waited a week before announcing the veto. Many said they were counting on that money for Christmas.
Councilman Aaron Bollinger voted for the one-time bonus but has changed his perspective after the mayor’s veto.
“I was concerned that it would interfere with contract negotiations with the unions. However, I voted to approve the resolution. My reason had to do with the Christmas season being upon us and that these employees deserve the gratitude for their hard work and the sacrifices that they made by paying into their own retirement for 2012,” he said in a written response to questions. “After receiving notification that Mayor Blankenship vetoed the resolution, I must say that I agree with his decision. Yes, the non-union personnel have been paying a portion of their own retirement, which has decreased their take home pay. However we asked that all city employees take the concession.
Unfortunately, the FOP and AFSCME unions have refused to take the concession and instead chose to lay off employees.
“I feel that all city employees deserve a monetary gratitude for their hard work and service to the City of Ironton. I cannot vote for the pension honorarium to override the mayor’s veto. I cannot conscionably support it at this time. I believe it negatively affects our contract negotiations, which are unsettled at this time. (And) we have employees laid off, which has affected their families and the services to the citizens.”
Council has until next Thursday to review it. The city charter states once a resolution is vetoed, council has until the next regularly scheduled meeting to reconsider it.
If council overrides the veto, that decision is final. If council fails to take action, the veto is final.
The next city council meeting is 6 p.m. Dec. 27 following a finance committee meeting at 5:30 p.m.
It is not without a heavy heart that I write this article in explanation of the recent resolution that I vetoed and was passed by City Council awarding a one-time pension honorarium to certain employees of the City of Ironton.
The veto is not because I do not think the employees deserve the award; it is simply not the right time to make the award.
The current financial state of the city is not in a position to justify the award. We currently have employees in lay-off status, union contracts unsettled, potential health insurance premium increases, chemical, gas, electric, materials, etc. are all unknown at this time.
One of the most difficult situations that I have faced has been the moment I told employees that they were going to be laid off. This was certainly not easy then, nor is it now. I see some of these individuals on a daily basis, and it breaks my heart. I know it was what had to be done at the time due to the financial situation of the city and my duty as the Mayor to carry out that difficult task, but it was still difficult.
I realize this veto will upset some, but I believe we should do what is right for the entire city, not just a few. I do not think it is in the best interest of the city or the right thing to do at this time to turn around and give an award while only eight months earlier, I had to lay off employees and we still have these unsettled issues.
Although the intent of the city council is well taken and I believe these employees provide a quality service to the city, I do not believe that this is the appropriate time to make the award. I met with the majority of my department heads on Dec. 18, 2012 and explained to them my position on this issue and asked them to consider the same. As a result, the majority agreed to support me with the decision to veto this resolution.
I am requesting that the Ironton City Council reconsider this action at this time and review at a later date when the award can be justified. By vetoing Resolution 12-85, I will be following the intent of the mayor’s responsibilities as defined by charter and upholding the obligations sworn upon me as the mayor of Ironton, Ohio.
— Rich Blankenship, Mayor