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City Council grapples with looming budget shortfall, union concerns

Wednesday, June 12, 2013 - 7:01 am

Fort Wayne City Council on Tuesday decided to hold for another week an ordinance that, if passed as currently written, would strip the ability of unions to collectively bargain aspects of health insurance coverage with the city.

Discussion of that ordinance, along with ongoing dialogue about the city's budget - complete with dueling visions of how to meet a budget shortfall for 2014 that all involved acknowledge exists - dominated the majority of the lengthy session of council, with a packed house attending the proceedings at Citizens Square.

The proposed ordinance that troubles union employees of the city, G-13-05-15-A, can be found on the city's website at www.cityoffortwayne.org, as can all other pending matters before council. It is complex in the regard that while one significant aspect has essentially been agreed to by all involved - a "carve-out" of spousal benefits from health insurance plans if the spouse can obtain health insurance through their primary employer; that is expected to save the city $2 million - if the ordinance passes as written, the ability to collectively bargain coverage would be eliminated.

Geoff Paddock, D-5th, offered an amendment that would have struck an entire paragraph from the ordinance that addresses collective bargaining, but his amendment failed to pass due the lack of a majority after the vote was deadlocked at 4-4, with John Shoaff not present at the meeting. However, that same lack of a majority prevented the ordinance from passing out of committee, resulting in it being held for a week -- ostensibly giving union representatives and the city time to address the language in the provision.

Also passed were changes to sick-time policy for all employees and compensatory time policies for police officers.

Jeremy Bush, president of the Fort Wayne Professional Firefighters Association, was pleased that the ordinance was held yet still frustrated about how attempts to negotiate with the city appear to be dismissed.

"Some of these decisions have to be made. We get that. We see where this is going (that insurance coverage is being aligned with the private sector)," Bush said.

"You don't have to include collective bargaining in that (ordinance). This result would mean that the employer sets work rules without having to negotiate, without having to bargain," Bush continued. "But government and the private sector are not the same, because we don't make money. You can't operate the same way. We all serve the city, the public."

Bruce Getts, the business manager of the union that represents Parks and Recreation employees, was even more frustrated.

"We are continually told about budget concerns and are expected to make concessions, but the question becomes have they cut all the costs possible?" Getts said. "The mayor makes more than the mayor of Indianapolis and the mayor of South Bend. Indianapolis is larger than Fort Wayne. South Bend is about the same size. We were told that was because council, years ago, believed that the mayor of Indianapolis was underpaid. What? Do we really need a deputy mayor? If you're asking for more from the employees, those luxuries have to be the first things cut."

"Corporate America has come to local government," Getts said. "You see that in the private sector, where instead of looking at management and operational structure, they immediately come to the workers."

Also discussed Tuesday in public hearings were various mechanisms to address what John Crawford, R-at large, estimated to be a $10 million budget shortfall for 2014.

Local option income taxes (LOIT), as well as a plan from councilmembers Russ Jehl, R-2nd, and Mitch Harper, R-4th, that would use a combination of an increase in the levy on property taxes by $3 million, annexation, usage of principal and interest from the City Light Legacy Fund, and $3 million through structural reforms, were all discussed at some level of detail, with council expected to take up more substantive negotiations at next week's meeting.

Crawford said that a final vote about the budget is expected in early July.

After the meeting, Harper was asked about the sentiment that the city views raising taxes and eliminating benefits as sustainable business practice -- during the public comment period, one person who identified herself as a city employee said, "Every time we turn around, we lose something else...I don't see any morals and integrity on the part of our leadership" -- and said that in his surveys of constituents, not one person has been in favor of a tax increase.

"You have to look at from the perspective of everyone, including some with more modest means," Harper said. "Money is fungible to people who are struggling to make ends meet."