Workers have been paid at the higher rate since May.
By BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Union employees at the Mahoning County Engineer's office received pay raises last year, even though county commissioners hadn't approved a new contract with them.
Commissioners -- who still haven't voted on the pact -- can't understand how that happened.
"A contract isn't a contract until it's signed by both parties," said Commissioner Ed Reese. "I don't understand why they already started paying those raises."
Engineer Richard Marsico said he was only doing what he believed commissioners had given their blessing to do. "Once it was negotiated and signed off, we initiated it," Marsico said.
At issue is a proposed contract between the county and Teamsters Local 377, which represents 79 laborers, truck drivers, mechanics and heavy equipment operators at the engineer's office.
The contract expired April 31, 2002, but was extended by mutual agreement while contract talks continued toward a new three-year deal. The average wage under the old contract ranged from $16.26 an hour for laborers to $17.59 for heavy-equipment operators.
Marsico said all monetary issues -- including raises of $1 an hour for the first year and 65 cents an hour in each of the second two years -- were resolved in April 2002. The commissioners' human resources director, Connie Pierce, participated in those talks, he said.
Final approval of the contract was held up because of a dispute over the posting and filling of five vacant positions within the department. That issue was not ultimately resolved until January.
In the meantime, Marsico sent paperwork to the county auditor's office authorizing the negotiated pay increases to take effect beginning May 1, 2002. The workers have been paid at the higher rate ever since. Marsico said he did so because he had a tentative wage agreement with the Teamsters, signed by Pierce, who represented commissioners in the negotiations.
Facing a deadline
Even though commissioners don't provide operating revenue for the engineer's office, they are required by law to either accept or reject labor agreements. Saturday is their deadline to act on the proposed pact. They were expected to vote on it today.
Commissioners have said in the past that they will not approve any labor agreements that don't include a 10-percent employee copayment toward the cost of health insurance premiums. The proposed engineer's contract contains no copayment.
"I have deep concerns about this," said Commissioner David Ludt. "I'm not sure what's the right thing to do."
He said the raises were negotiated and approved in April 2002, long before commissioners announced their plans to enforce copayment on all departments. He questioned whether commissioners have a moral obligation to approve the contract, even though it contains huge raises and no copayment, since the union negotiated those issues in good faith long before insurance became an issue.
Commissioner Vicki Allen Sherlock said the raises should not have been made effective without commissioners' approval. "Otherwise, what's the sense in us even having to vote on Thursday?" she said.
Sherlock, Reese and Ludt said they didn't know until last week that the raises had gone into effect, but Marsico said that's not true. He said he told commissioners of his intention before he took the action.
"Nobody questioned it when we informed them about it at the time," Marsico said, noting that he assumed the contract would be approved, which is why he gave the go-ahead to start the raises.
Even though the contract doesn't include a copayment, Marsico said his employees accepted a substantial increase in the amounts they pay toward such services as doctor visits, medical care and prescriptions.