Health care costs dog yet another negotiation

POULSBO — The rising cost of heath care once again has the City of Poulsbo at odds with one of its bargaining units.

For the second time in as many years, a third party will be sought to straighten things out.

A petition for mediation was recently filed by the City of Poulsbo and Teamsters local 589, representing 42 public works and administration workers in the city. Negotiations began between the two during the summer but reached an impasse after several meetings, Finance Director Donna Bjorkman explained.

The petition has been accepted by the Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC) and both sides are awaiting the chance to set a date with the next available mediator.

The negotiations came to a loggerhead over the issues of union security and health care.

In the union security category, union members would like to see all 42 members of the 598 bargaining unit be required to either be dues-paying members of the union or contribute an amount equal to union dues to a charitable organization.

“The city’s position is everyone has always had the opportunity to choose whether to be union members or to contribute to a charitable organization and we want it to stay that way,” Bjorkman explained of the city’s position.

About 11 members of the current bargaining unit choose not to pay dues or contribute to charity. The numbers are not a problem for the union at the moment, however, if participation levels fell below 50 percent, the Teamsters would likely drop its representation of the unit.

The second and biggest issue deals with the amount of health care costs for which employees will be responsible.

Currently, workers contribute a monthly health care fee on a sliding scale: no cost for an employee with no dependents; $19 for one dependent; $21 for two dependents; and $23 for three dependents; and so on. The union would like to see this system stay in place.

The City of Poulsbo is offering to pay a maximum of $750 per month per employee, with the remainder the responsibility of the individual. Any of the $750 not spent in a month would be set aside in a dedicated, tax-free Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association (VEBA) account for that group member and could be used for future medical costs. Employees could choose between KPS, Group Health and Teamsters for their medical coverage.

Both shop stewards for Teamsters local 598 have chosen not to comment on the proceedings at this point. As of Herald Press time, the Teamsters negotiator was unavailable for comment.

Health care has been an issue between the City of Poulsbo and a number of its employees in recent years. A memo sent to all city employees in August 2003 explained that in the last five years Poulsbo has seen a 70 percent increase in Teamsters’ insurance, a 47 percent increase in Group Health insurance and a 30 percent increase in KPS coverage. In 1999, the City of Poulsbo paid $381,908 in insurance costs, whereas in 2003 that number jumped to $677,530.

“At the same time, departmental budgets were cut during the 2003 budget process and council wanted to look at ways to control the cost of insurance.” Bjorkman stated in the memo.

Teamsters local 589 was also the union under which the Poulsbo Police Department officers negotiated until Jan. 1. The last contract negotiations between Poulsbo and the Police union took nearly two years, ending in 2002. Though a primary issue was city’s offer of 90 percent of the Consumer Price Index for officers’ cost of living increases (COLA) as opposed to the 100 percent they had historically received, the arbitrating judge based the award of the 90 percent COLA on the relatively low cost of health insurance for officers. Shop steward Andy Pate said at the time that the officers felt the decision was a good “compromise” because they had worried about health care costs being the next issue.

However, with the officers no longer under Teamsters, a new health care plan will have to be negotiated.

Bjorkman said so far, negotiations with PPD officers are moving forward.

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