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Proposed benefit changes draw throngs of city union workers to City Council meeting

Wednesday, May 15, 2013 - 12:01 am

Tuesday night's City Council meeting was packed to overflowing. Most people in the audience were city employees represented by one of nine unions. None of the union workers spoke publicly, but their collective presence spoke volumes.

They were there as several bills were introduced that, if passed, will affect their employee benefits. The city administration has said the changes will better align with benefits offered in the private sector. The administration also predicts the changes would save the city a little more than $4 million annually. The changes to benefits are part of a plan to make up for lost revenues as a result of property tax caps. The city faces a $6.5 million structural deficit this year. The city's proposals for addressing the lost revenue also include a .5 percent increase in the Local Option Income Tax.

Jeremy Bush is president of the Fort Wayne Professional Firefighters Local 124 and also the unofficial spokesman for a coalition of the city's nine unions. He said, "The big problem is we want open lines of communication between the city of Fort Wayne and the unions."

He noted that no union members were on the Fiscal Policy Group that came up with many of the recommendations to deal with the city's fiscal problems. Bush said union employees can find cost savings that would preclude cutting benefits. "We know that we have to do our part," he said.

Bush also noted that if these ordinances pass, city employees would be hit financially twice, once by the proposed income tax increase and secondly by the benefit cuts.

Some of the proposed benefit changes union employees are concerned about include:

*Carving group health insurance out of collective bargaining.

*Eliminating compensatory time for firefighters and police officers. This is of particular concern to police officers, said Sofia Rosales-Scatena, a FWPD patrol officer and president of the police union, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association. As she explained it, police officers often are called out to a homicide, fatal accident or drug bust in the middle of the night, when crimes often happen. If they're scheduled to work the day shift, they could work almost a double shift. Rosales-Scatena said now officers often use comp time rather than working a double shift and earning overtime. She said they need time to rest and recharge, particularly after working a homicide or fatal wreck.

Under the proposed change, officers who want or need that time off would have to use vacation. She said that poses a real problem, and added there are things the administration and council members "need to understand fro a policing perspective."

*Eliminating free retiree health insurance for new employees hired effective Jan. 1, 2014.

*Changing the way sick time is accrued. Under the current ordinance sick time can be accrued year after year. The ordinance introduced Tuesday night would give employees five sick days a year and establish short-term disability, which would pay 60 percent of an employee's salary for 90 days. Employees can roll up to 176 hours of sick time into the short term disability bank.

*Prohibiting seasonal employees from being in a union so they wouldn't be eligible for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

*Requiring employees' spouses who have health insurance through their own employer to take it, rather than being covered by the employee's plan. The employee's insurance could still be used as secondary insurance for the spouse.

A courtesy public hearing on these ordinances will be held next Tuesday in City Council chambers in the basement of Citizens Square.