COLUMBIA — City Council hopefuls met with local labor group representatives Wednesday afternoon. For some, it was a chance to speak. For others, a chance to learn.
"A lot of the candidates don't understand the issues facing city employees," Russ Unger, president of the Mid-Missouri Labor Club, said. "Through this process, we hope we're educating them."
For about 30 minutes apiece, members of local unions peppered each council candidate with questions about wage increases, collective bargaining for public employees and the transparency of city government. All three Second Ward candidates were in attendance; Bill Tillotson from the Sixth Ward participated, but incumbent Barbara Hoppe was out of town. The meeting was rescheduled from Feb. 13 because of snow.
Last fall, the city approved a 25-cent-per-hour raise for most of its employees, their first since 2009. Gerod Crum, a crew member for the Street Division and a Third Ward resident, said city workers need more wage increases to keep up with the cost of living.
"They have a budget of $400 million," Crum said. "How come they can't set aside $2 million?"
The candidates differed on strategies to increase wages, though they agreed tightening the city's belt on spending in other areas should be the first step. Second Ward candidate Mike Atkinson proposed holding off on the construction of new parks.
"Unless there's federal money that says you can only use that on parks, then I'm not really going to support — at a time we're in a deficit — to buy more land and put a slide on it and some swings," Atkinson said. He added that funds should be used to maintain existing parks.
Tillotson said fiscal responsibility should start with increased transparency by city government. Tillotson, an independent insurance agent, said he'd looked at the city's prescription plan and found that employees can't mail-order prescription drugs, an oversight that could save the city $300,000 annually.
"That frees up money for salaries," he said. "That frees up money for benefits."
Tillotson said other departments would likely have ways to cut spending that would be more apparent if city records were publicly available.
Crum said he appreciated Tillotson's stance on increased transparency. He said workers in the Street Division have asked the city for details about proposed pension plan adjustments, which were prompted by a city task force finding that employee retirement benefits were running at a nearly $118 million deficit. Those requests have gone unanswered, Crum said.
Labor group members were also concerned about public workers' inability to collectively bargain with the city. David Anderson, a member of United Food and Commercial Workers International Local 2, said public workers lack a contract that would require the city to adhere to the rulings of a federal arbitrator.
"As a private sector employee, I have collective bargaining," Anderson said. "The public employees — what we call that is collective begging."
Second Ward candidate Michael Trapp, who said his father was a union meat cutter, said unions were the "bulwark" of the middle class. He said he would fully support contract labor agreements between the city and public workers, though he questioned current efforts to make that happen.
"I question whether the city has been doing what we call 'good faith negotiations,'" Trapp said. "If they have no plans to ever come to a final determination and sign a contract, that does not sound like good faith negotiations to me."
Crum said the city's position on negotiation has affected morale in his division.
"The city manager's going to do what he wants to do," Crum said.
Second Ward candidate Bill Pauls used the majority of his time with the group to throw out questions of his own. He scribbled notes when labor members discussed collective bargaining procedures and said public workers should have a right to negotiate with the city, just like private workers and their employers.
"I don't know why it's set up differently," Pauls said.
James T. Turner, a member of Laborer's International Union of North America Local 773 and a carpenter at MU, said after the meeting that he was impressed by Trapp.
"He seems to be of a union background," Turner said. "He's the closest related to our issues."
Anderson, a Second Ward resident, agreed. He said he was impressed by Trapp's knowledge of labor issues and was leaning toward the candidate following the interviews.
The municipal election will be held April 3.