December 20, 2014

Elyria
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Police union, city say audit results positive

ELYRIA — The state-issued performance audit gives the city administration an added tool to use when it returns to the bargaining table to face off against collective bargaining units.

The audit, released Thursday, calls for more than $6.7 million in cost-savings recommendations, but more than $1.1 million of those savings would only materialize if changes are made to existing employment contracts — namely those dealing with police officers and firefighters.

The timing of the audit comes just as the contracts between the Elyria Police Patrolmen’s Association and International Association of Firefighters local chapter are set to expire. Both unions hope to start negotiating a new contract soon with city officials.

Mayor Holly Brinda said the audit will definitely be used in the context of negotiations, but achieving a full overhaul of the agreements the first time out is unlikely.

“We are excited because the audit gives us some good information. We are compared to peer cities and put up against national standards, which is something I wanted,” she said.

But changing a contract is typically a process that can take years. Every provision union employees have today was not given to them overnight and removing or altering them will not happen as quickly, she said.

Still, there is one benefit Brinda said lasted way too long — longevity pay. Longevity pay is a pay rarely seen in the private sector and when it is used in the public sector, it usually is not as lucrative as Elyria’s structure that gives employees a 1 percent bump to their base salary per year up to 20 years and 20 percent.

The audit suggested removing it from most collective bargaining contracts. Brinda agrees.

“I’ve said this all along and even when I was campaigning that the city’s employees need to be paid equally and fairly,” she said. “Years ago longevity was used to recalibrate base salary to make us more competitive, but it’s more costly for the city to do it that way.”

Staggered salary charts, alternative pay structures for new employees and compensation changes are just some of the ways the city could get out of the program, Brinda said.

Elyria Police Patrolmen’s Association President Tom Baracskai said the audit has some very good information that will be helpful in negotiations.

“Basically, if you look at the peer cities they compared us to we take more calls, cover more area and make less money on average,” he said. “I’m encouraged by that, and I have no problem with the findings on this.”

So what exactly do the auditors think the city should try to achieve with the police patrolmen’s contract? In essence, the contract has some generous provisions that could be reined in, but the officers also should see their base pay bumped up to comparative levels.

What the audit says

The City should negotiate to eliminate four defined holidays. Doing so would eliminate the need for overtime, holiday pay, compensatory time and bring the city in line with peers. The city should also negotiate to reduce longevity payments and additional compensation to a level more consistent with the peers. Additionally, when acting-officer pay is necessary, the city should increase the employee’s base rate of pay by a dollar amount comparable to the peers. The city also should implement policies and place limits on sick leave and tuition reimbursement in order to reduce current and future liabilities related to these provisions.

The Police Department should consider hiring part-time officers to cover half the overtime hours in the Police Department when the department is short staffed.

The Police Department should continuously monitor sick leave use and establish policies to ensure that leave is not being abused. Further, reducing the department’s overtime usage will help to ensure that it is not a factor contributing to the high use of sick leave.

“When I look at these recommendations, I say anything is up for negotiation,” Baracskai said. “If we can come up with a win-win situation, I’m open to creative agreements.”

Baracskai, who points out the union has not presented the city with any sort of proposal for the new contract, said he can live with getting rid of some holidays or longevity pay for a jump in base pay.

“I’m all about parity and sitting down to find ways to work with each other,” he said.

In the last round of negotiations, which spanned more than 21⁄2 years before a new contract was signed, Barackai said an offer was made by the union to eliminate longevity pay in favor of higher salaries. It was rejected by the city.

However, the auditors believe that concept should be revisited again. Removing longevity and some forms of additional pay in favor of higher base salaries would not push the city out of line with the pay of officers in comparable cities.

The patrol officer’s position has a maximum compensation of $65,771 compared to the peer average of $65,063 for a difference of $708, according to the audit.

The recommendations for the firefighters’ collective bargaining contract similarly call for changes. The recommendations include:

Overtime costs are driven by language contained in the collective bargaining agreement regarding the process and circumstances by which employees are eligible for overtime, and the city should work to modify these provisions in order to limit the cost of overtime.

The city should have formal policies that communicate specific sick leave expectations to employees, define patterns of abuse, and communicate potential disciplinary actions in order to reduce sick leave usage to an amount more consistent with the Department of Administrative Services statewide average.

The city should attempt to negotiate a 53-hour work week, or 2,756 hours per year. Doing so would eliminate the need for Kelly days and floating holiday time. Kelly days — a common term used in fire houses across the country — are days off awarded to bring down hours to avoid overtime compensation.

The city also should negotiate to reduce longevity payments to a level more comparable to the peers.

Likewise, the city should negotiate to reduce or eliminate additional pay incentives for employees and reduce the dollar amount for uniform allowances to a level more comparable to the peers.

The city also should not pay overtime for acting officer duty, but rather increase employee’s base rate by a dollar amount comparable to the peers. Also, the city should reduce minimum call-in from four hours to three hours, an amount that is more consistent with the peers.

The city should review the language pertaining to education and decide if that is in the best interest of the city.

Dean Marks, president of the local firefighters’ union, did not return calls Friday.

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.