Last-minute contract agreement between Pike County, ambulance workers falters

Posted: Nov. 28, 2012 9:24 am Updated: Dec. 12, 2012 11:15 am

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

PITTSFIELD, Ill. -- Pike County and its ambulance workers will head to arbitration next week to settle a contract dispute.

The County Board initially appeared ready to move forward Tuesday night with a compromise to avoid arbitration, but when numbers submitted by Ambulance Administrator Adam Hammitt didn't match what the board expected from earlier conversations, no agreement was reached.

"I'd say take our chances with arbitration," Board Chairman Andy Borrowman said.

The arbitration session is set for 9 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 4, in the Pike County Courthouse.

The county ratified a first-ever contract with ambulance workers, represented by Operating Engineers Local 965, in April that called for a raise retroactive to Jan. 1, 2011. The county paid workers $24,000, but how the base salary is calculated moving forward has been disputed by the union.

"It's 11 words which they are interpreting one way," board member Walker Filbert said.

The contract called for 2 percent salary increases for 2012 and 2013.

The county calculated those raises will cost $414,239.08 and $422,389.86. The union calculated the cost at $507,343.70 and $526,572.26 -- a high enough cost, board members said, that it will put the ambulance service in the red every month and could force cuts.

The arbitrator will listen to both sides, then pick the numbers supplied by one.

"It's either/or and binding with no avenue of appeal," Filbert said.

In recent talks, board members said the union had agreed to split the difference to settle the dispute without arbitration.

But "pre-arbitration" numbers presented Tuesday night called for costs of $496,008.04 and $504,158,82, clearly higher than the discussed halfway point between both sides, and board members took no action.

"We're operating under the old statement that a bad settlement is always better than a good litigation," Filbert said. "That way everybody owns a little bit of it, instead of having something forced upon you."

Also Tuesday night, board members heard an update on two other union contracts.

Talks continued this week with courthouse and government building employees, represented by the Operating Engineers Local 965, but a new agreement has not been reached to replace the contract expiring this week.

The stumbling block has been the dollar amount for a pay increase. The board authorized the labor committee to offer up to 8.2 percent over three years -- or an offer of $600 per employee in the first year, $650 in the second year and $750 in the third year. The union has come down twice in its demands but stands at $1,200 per year, or 13.3 percent over the three years, Filbert said.

With talks not yet complete and a new budget year beginning Dec. 1, the board included a 7.2 percent raise over three years in its spending plan, or $500 per month per employee in the first year. Filbert said one option would be to offer $500 per month for the first year and higher increases in the second and third years, but that will be up to the newly elected board, and a new labor committee, which will be seated on Dec. 3.

Board member Michael Boren said the raises shouldn't top the proposed 8.2 percent over the contract length.

"In these economic times, I agree with Mr. Boren to not go above 8.2 percent," Borrowman said. "It's something the new board will have to vote on and look at right away."

The contract covers 20 employees in the county clerk, supervisor of assessments, state's attorney and circuit clerk offices.

The contract with the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents sheriff's department employees, also is expiring, but negotiations have not begun.

The county has contacted the FOP but has not received any meeting dates.

"Three contracts should have been done by now," said Filbert, who is going off the board. "All three are still up in the air after two years. It's very frustrating, but it is what it is."