Union leaders respond to proposed city pay raises

Water and Light employees still in negotiations
Tuesday, August 16, 2011 | 7:26 p.m. CDT; updated 10:15 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 16, 2011

COLUMBIA — One group of municipal employees is still negotiating with city officials over wages and benefits, despite a proposed budget from City Manager Mike Matthes that recommends a 25-cent-per-hour raise for most city employees in fiscal 2012.

In May, all recognized labor organizations representing Columbia employees had a chance to attend meet-and-confer sessions with city administrators to discuss wages and benefits. Each group made varying requests. Now, they have differing reactions to the proposed raise.

Employees in three divisions of Columbia's Water and Light Department have been negotiating with the city since May 20, said attorney Christopher Hexter of St. Louis law firm Schuchat, Cook and Werner. Hexter has represented Local 2 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in the negotiations.

"We made our proposal directly to the city manager and the people he delegated this to," Hexter said. He said the union and the city have agreed to keep their discussions secret until they reach a resolution.

The last time city employees received a raise was in 2009, Matthes noted at Monday's council meeting.

“It’s been two years since staff received a raise, and the year that they did receive a raise it was also equal to an increase in cost for health care," Matthes said. "So, many staff feel like it’s been three years without a raise, and quite honestly I felt like another year was too much to ask, so we did put a very modest raise in there.”

The spending plan proposed by Matthes said the raises will cost $925,000.

Finance Director John Blattel said that a 1-cent-per-hour raise costs the city general fund about $20,000 and that the city was able to devote nearly a half-million dollars from the general fund for raises. The result was the 25-cent raise for most employees.

“We knew how much money we could afford to put in the budget for raises,” Blattel said, adding that the rest of the money for salary increases will come from enterprise and internal service funds.

Ashley Cuttle, executive director of the Columbia Police Officers Association, said the raise is "better than nothing." She said the group asked for a 3 percent cost-of-living increase and larger raises for police sergeants.

“I wouldn’t say that we’re satisfied or dissatisfied at this point," Cuttle said. "I will say that is is a small step in the right direction for us."

While most employees would see a 25-cent raise under the proposed budget, firefighters would receive a 17.8-cent-an-hour raise. Columbia Professional Firefighters President Brad Fraizer said that's because firefighters work 56-hour weeks.

Employees who work 40-hour weeks would get an extra $520 per year, while firefighters would get an extra $518.34.

Matthes said the across-the-board raise is "progressive" and "puts the benefit of the raise where it does the most good.”

Cuttle agreed the raise will help lower-paid employees most. 

Originally, the Laborers' union asked for a 37-cent increase, said Regina Guevara, a field representative with the Local 773. This union represents employees of the Parks and Recreation and Public Works departments and of the Municipal Power Plant. Guevara said the union is satisfied with the 25-cent increase.

“We know the budget is tight, and it’s very difficult sometime to balance that. But we want to do what’s good for the worker and the community,” Guevara said.

The Columbia City Council will hold two more public hearings on the proposed budget, one at each of it regular meetings next month. Those meetings are scheduled for 7 p.m. Sept. 6 and Sept. 19 at city hall, 701 E. Broadway.

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