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City rejects contract with police union

Arbitration language change at issue; sides are confident agreement close

YOUNGSTOWN — A change in how the city handles grievances and arbitrations was the reason city council rejected a fact-finder’s report on settling a new contract with the ranking police officers union.

Officials with the city and the union say it’s not an overwhelming obstacle and are both optimistic that a deal can be ironed out before the sides go to binding arbitration.

“We’re willing to make it work,” Detective Sgt. Michael Cox, head of the 42-member union, said. “I believe we can come up with a mutual agreement and avoid binding arbitration.”

Law Director Jeff Limbian said: “We are concerned about (the) arbitration (provision), but we hope and believe binding arbitration won’t be necessary” to get a contract.

The union’s last contract expired Dec. 31, 2019.

City council rejected the report of Robert G. Stein, a fact-finder, by a 7-0 vote. The union voted 9-3 in favor of the contract — a day after council rejected it — with 30 members not voting. But those 30 votes are considered supporting the contract, Cox said.

Under state law, at least 60 percent of a union’s membership must vote to reject a fact-finder’s recommendation.

Three years ago, 25 members voted on the contract — six in favor and 19 opposed, but it was approved because 17 members didn’t vote. That contract froze salaries for the first two years with a 1 percent increase in 2019.

PAY INCREASES

Regarding pay increases in the current contract, Stein recommended they be similar to other unions in the city: a 1.5 percent increase this year and a 1 percent increase in 2021. He didn’t address a wage increase in 2022.

The union wanted the same wage increases as other unions this year and in 2021, and asked that in 2022, detective sergeants get paid 16.5 percent more than senior patrol officers compared to the 15 percent differential they currently receive.

The salaries of the ranking officers union are currently set by what the patrol union members are paid. Detective sergeants get 15 percent more than senior patrol officers, lieutenants are paid 15 percent more than detective sergeants and captains get 15 percent more than lieutenants.

The city was willing to give the 1.5 percent raise this year and asked for a wage freeze for the final two years of the contract.

The 16.5 percent is still below the differential for many other police departments, Cox said.

“We’re trying to be reasonable with our request,” he said. “This is reasonable. We weren’t happy with the decision, but given the time we’re in we understood.”

Stein recommended keeping the “status quo” on the differential because “with so much unknown at this point regarding the breadth, depth and length of the pandemic that neither the city’s argument that it is likely to remain in a deeper hole than what it has survived in the past and therefore must absolutely freeze wage increases at the 2020 level for the remainder of the agreement, or the union’s position that things are not as bad as reported and will soon improve supporting a substantial third-year change in the pay structure and other forms of pay, can be recommended.”

ARBITRATION ISSUE

The issue that ultimately led to council’s rejection of the contract, done at the recommendation of the administration, was Stein’s proposed change to how arbitration and grievances are handled.

Currently, if there is an issue that needs arbitration, each side gets a list of nine candidates from the state and can eliminate as many names as they choose. If an arbitrator cannot be chosen, the two sides go to a second list and can do the same. There is no limit as to how many lists and how many times this can be done.

The city was satisfied with the existing process, Jeffrey Moliterno, senior assistant law director, said. The union wanted some changes as the current process “drags out our grievances,” Cox said. “But it wasn’t worth holding (the contract) up.”

Stein’s recommendation was to allow the existing process to remain for the first list. But for a second list, each side would take turns striking a name until one person was left and would be selected as the arbitrator.

“The arbitration issue was a bridge too far” for the city, Moliterno said. “The city was uncomfortable with the new language because you’re mutually agreeing to get an arbitrator you don’t hate.”

It might have set a precedent that the city’s other employee unions could seek to change, he said.

“Potentially, we’d have to change to this process with all of our unions,” Moliterno said.

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