Bethlehem mayor thanks police, criticizes fire on contracts

Bethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez on Monday thanked the city’s police union for agreeing to a “fair” contract and criticized the fire union for not approving a nearly identical deal.

The police contract includes 3 percent annual raises for three years and requires officers to pay health care deductibles for the first time, Donchez said. Bethlehem’s fire union last week turned down a nearly identical contract, he said.

“I’m disappointed the firefighters have twice voted down a nearly identical and, in my opinion, a very fair contract,” Donchez said.

Both the current and former police union presidents joined in Donchez’s news conference and thanked the city for the new contract.

Wade Haubert, who was the police union president when contract negotiations started 10 months ago, said the union spent almost $20,000 on an audit to better understand city finances. He said the new contract respects both union members and taxpayers.

“Frequently, we as police officers are often reminded that someone else pays our salary,” Haubert said. “That was not lost on us in this contract negotiation.”

Fire union President David Saltzer did not immediately respond to a call for comment Monday.

Bethlehem is scheduled to enter arbitration with the fire union May 18, Bethlehem Business Administrator David Brong said. The fire union last week rejected the city’s latest contract offer by a 56-14 vote, Brong said.

The police union approved its contract with an 88-14 vote, Donchez said.

In addition to three years of 3 percent raises – which will be retroactive to January – the new police contract also requires health care deductibles for the first time. Police officers will pay $250 individual and $500 family deductibles in the first two years of the contract and $500 and $1,000 deductibles in the last year, Brong said. Bethlehem nonunion employees currently pay the $500/$1,000 deductibles, Brong said.

The police officers’ health care premiums – which are $55 a month for individual and $61 a month for family – also will now be increased when the city’s COBRA estimates increase, Brong said.

“Health care is one of the largest cost drivers in the city,” Donchez said. “We feel this is a very fair contract for both sides.”

Bethlehem’s fire union was offered a very similar deal, Brong said.

“We took the same approach with both public safety unions,” he said.

The health insurance changes should help the city in avoiding so-called Cadillac taxes for too-generous health care plans under the Affordable Care Act, Brong said.

The 3 percent raises also fit within Bethlehem’s five-year financial plan, Brong said. Bethlehem was facing a $40 million revenue shortfall between 2015 and 2019, but the city last year took some significant steps to reduce the projected deficit.

Bethlehem’s most recent police contract included no raises for 2011 and 2012, followed by a 3 percent raise in 2013 and a 4 percent raise in 2014. The most recent fire contract, which was settled by arbitration, included no raises for 2011 and 2012 followed by 3 percent raises in both 2013 and 2014.

Lynn Olanoff can be reached at lolanoff@express-times.com. Follow her on Twitter @LynnOlanoff. Find Bethlehem news on Facebook.

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