By EDWARD HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
PITTSFIELD, Ill. -- The Pike County Board and Pike County Ambulance Service employees have averted going to arbitration over a contract dispute.
At an emergency meeting Friday afternoon, the County Board voted 7-0 to halt a session with an arbitrator scheduled for Tuesday and will reopen negotiations with the union representing ambulance workers.
"We will sit down and try to negotiate in the next couple of weeks and come to a final agreement," County Board Chairman Andy Borrowman said in an interview Friday evening. "We have averted arbitration, which would have been costly for both of us."
The arbitration session had been looming for several weeks. At its regular monthly meeting Tuesday night, the board appeared ready to move forward with a compromise to avoid arbitration, but the compromise came to a standstill after some conflicting numbers on estimated contract costs were presented.
As a result, board members indicated they were ready to proceed with arbitration to settle the contract dispute once and for all.
Borrowing said some "late-hour negotiations" between representatives of the union and the County Board were conducted later in the week, and "some favorable movement" took place over the disputed costs.
Encouraged by that progress, the board scheduled Friday's emergency meeting to discuss the situation further. That's when the board agreed to halt the arbitration session and go back to the bargaining table.
Borrowman said no date has been set for the next bargaining session. The first order of business will be to get newly elected members of the County Board seated at a meeting Monday at the Pike County Courthouse.
"Once we get settled a little bit with the new board, we will try to get some dates set with the union to finalize the negotiations," he said.
The dispute involved the county's first-ever contract with ambulance workers, who are represented by Operating Engineers Local 965.
The contract, ratified last April, provided raises for ambulance workers retroactive to Jan. 1, 2011. Since then, 2 percent annual raises were slated for both 2012 and 2013, but the union and the County Board haven't seen eye-to-eye on how much those raises should cost the county.
The county calculated the cost of the raises at $414,239.08 in 2012 and $422,389.86 in 2013, while the union calculated it at $507,343.70 and $526,572.26.
Both sides were prepared to have an impartial arbitrator decide which cost figures should be used. But in the end, Borrowman said, the two sides agreed they would prefer to work it out themselves -- and perhaps save some money in the process.
"There is a pretty good expense" in going to arbitration, Borrowman said, noting that both sides would have to pay the arbitrator a fee and faced attorney costs.
Borrowman said the board and union generally have had a good working relationship.
"We haven't been at each other's throat," he said. "Our discussions have been very good. Part of the problem has been understanding each side. Interpretation has been a problem."
During the "late-hour negotiations" that took place this week, Borrowman said, it was learned that the big gap in estimated costs by both sides was partly due to the different way overtime costs were being forecast by the county and the union.
Borrowman said much of the difference resulted because "some of the employees did not work any overtime -- and did not want to work any overtime -- while some of the other employees did."
He said it now appears both sides are "going in the right direction," and he is hopeful a final agreement can be reached relatively soon.