City Council votes to appeal labor contract

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FAIRBANKS — The Fairbanks City Council unanimously agreed to appeal a disputed labor contract to Alaska Superior Court and approved a $36 million city budget for 2016 at its Monday night meeting, which crossed into Tuesday morning.

Fairbanks officially appealed the Alaska Labor Relations Agency decision last week, but City Attorney Paul Ewers requested council approval or denial.

The city can expect a decision from the courts on its appeal in about six months, Ewers said.

The labor board ruled 2-1 in November that Fairbanks engaged in unfair labor practices during a months-long dispute in 2014, when the council approved a contract, voted to suspend their rules, voted to reconsider the contract and finally rejected the agreement.

The majority of discussion regarding the contract dispute with Public Safety Employees Association occurred earlier Monday night when the council voted 5-1 not to amend 2015’s budget to fund the collective bargaining agreement.

The city alleges the state labor board is wrong about multiple findings.

Ewers said the labor board erred in finding that the council had ratified the tentative collective bargaining agreement, failed to prove PSEA had met its burden in proving unfair labor practices and exceeded its authority in attempting to nullify legal, valid actions taken by the council.

Ewers also said Alaska law clearly requires “an appropriation by this legislative body to fund the contract. They (the labor board) are negating that authority.”

PSEA President Ron Dupee disagrees with the city’s position, and said the labor board got the decision right.

“Mr. Ewers is just citing the descent, which is essentially the odd man out. … We’re ready to go forward with the appeal,” Dupee said.

The roughly 70 police and dispatch personnel from PSEA who work in the Fairbanks area are termed “Tier 1” and are not allowed to strike.

The disputed contract would provide a 10 percent pay increase while reducing weekly work hours from 40 to 36, and provide a $1,750 per person retroactive payment.

City health care contributions would rise 24 percent, from $1,040 per month to $1,290, and employees of more than 10 years would see leave increase from 240 to 300 hours per year.

Ewers said the appeal will be done in-house, and unless Fairbanks loses, it will not cost the city any additional money. He also said the potential cost of losing the appeal is “a small number” compared to funding the contract.

During budget discussions late Monday night the council took action to allocate funds in case the city loses its appeal.

The city budget, which maintains almost $1 million in surplus after amendments, funds a new cold case investigator at the Fairbanks Police Department, and gives the mayor’s department a $15,000 budget for travel and training.

The council unanimously approved the funding for one cold case investigator for 2016, with the caveat the officer can be pulled for other duties when absolutely necessary.

Councilman Jerry Cleworth described the funding as an “experiment” and a “partnership with the police department.”

Cleworth introduced budget amendments to increase revenue for traffic violations by $20,000 and vehicle forfeitures by $25,000, enough to cover roughly half of the investigator’s salary.

Revenues are all estimates, and if those expectations are not realized, “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. Hoping for the best,” Cleworth said.

Councilman David Pruhs introduced five budget amendments Monday, affecting travel and training for the mayor’s office, equipment replacement for the police department, outside contracts in information technology and two line items for public works: temporary wages and benefits and equipment replacement.

Pruhs’ amendments split the council down the middle: He and Council members Bernard Gatewood and Joy Huntington voted in favor of all the amendments, and Cleworth and Council members Jim Matherly and Perry Walley voted against.

Mayor John Eberhart broke the ties with a “yes” vote.

Eberhart had originally requested $24,530 for travel and training in his department. Cleworth made a motion to lower that amount to $10,000 before Pruhs made a motion to bring it back up to $15,000.

Pruhs’ amendment was adopted when Eberhart cast the tie-breaking vote.

“If we have tight budgets, the first thing that goes at a state level or local level is travel. It’s a luxury,” Cleworth said.

Walley agreed, and referenced cuts “in the hundreds of thousands of dollars” to other departments.

“We pay lobbyists to lobby for us,” Walley said.

Pruhs said $15,000 is a fair amount and told the mayor, “A travel budget may mine incredible gems for you.”

Gatewood took a middle-of-the-road approach, saying he could support $15,000, but if all the council appropriated was $5,000, the mayor would have to make do.

“There can’t be any sacred cows in this budget,” Gatewood said. “Everybody’s getting it.”

Pruhs introduced amendments cutting line items to bolster savings in case the city loses its Superior Court appeal, explaining money can be put into capital expenses if needed at a later date, but not removed.

Not everybody favored the cuts, especially in regards to public works: The amendments cut $124,000 from temporary wages and benefits and cut $75,000 from equipment replacement.

“Trust me, you will need it. When the roads are failing you will need that money,” Cleworth said, to which Walley agreed.

Pruhs’ amendments also cut the police department’s equipment replacement from $240,000 to $180,000 — still enough to purchase three new patrol cars — and the city’s Information Technology department’s outside contracts budget was cut by $235,000.

On Tuesday afternoon Fairbanks’ Chief Financial Officer Carmen Randall said the impact of Monday’s budget amendments on final figures were still being “double and triple checked.”