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Independence council wrestles with employee pay

Mike Genet
mike.genet@examiner.net

Independence’s labor agreement with city electrical workers hit another delay this week.

The proposed two-year agreement with International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 53, which included 1 percent raises annually, failed to gain enough City Council support to pass. The agreement would have been retroactive to November 2019 and lasted through October 2021. The council had already voted Jan. 29 and June 1 to extend the current contract while negotiations continued.

Earlier Monday, the council unanimously approved extending the current agreement with the police union for a year. City Manager Zach Walker said the members of Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge No. 1, came to city management offering to postpone negotiations, including a possible 1 percent raise, given the city’s precarious finances amid the pandemic.

A 4-3 council majority approved the IBEW agreement, which covers 123 positions in Independence Power & Light. But it needed a two-thirds majority – five yes votes – since it was an emergency ordinance, that is, the first and second readings done consecutively instead of at separate meetings.

Council Members Curt Dougherty, John Perkins and Mike Huff and Mayor Eileen Weir approved the agreement, while Karen DeLuccie, Scott Roberson and Tom Van Camp voted no.

For Dougherty, Roberson and Van Camp, Monday marked their last full meeting on the council. Roberson did not run for re-election, Van Camp lost in the February primary and Dougherty lost in Tuesday’s general election. New council members Mike Steinmeyer, Dan Hobart and Brice Stewart will be sworn in June 15.

“Historically we’ve put work agreements on as an emergency so it takes effect immediately,” City Manager Zach Walker said, explaining that it allows human resources to do the necessary accounting more quickly, especially if an agreement is retroactive. Extending current agreements typically is done by resolution. For now, the current agreement simply continues.

Roberson said a raise for IBEW would reflect poorly given the timing.

“Here we’ve just seen the FOP delay negotiations and delay a raise,” he said. “This can be renegotiated. I would be embarrassed if I was a member of the IBEW. This is not a good time to be negotiating any contract with an increase in pay.”

DeLuccie said she didn’t want to single out a group of employees for a raise at this time

“I wish we could give all city employees 1 percent, but we can’t,” she said. “We realized that in early March, and May pretty much sealed the deal. We’re not doing a whole bunch of stuff we want to be able to do.”

Non-represented city employees in Independence will not receive a raise in the proposed budget for the next fiscal year, which starts in July. Some other unionized employees, such as maintenance or clerical workers represented under the IBEW, will receive a raise under existing agreements negotiated before the pandemic.

Walker said the city had started negotiations with FOP before the pandemic, and union president Steve Cook and FOP members came forward with the offer to extend the current deal and postpone negotiations until next January.

“They just realized the economic uncertainty was going to make it difficult to have any discussion about base salary, step system and all that,” Walker said.

As for the IBEW contract, Walker said he doesn’t know yet if it will be completely renegotiated or get minor adjustments, especially with a significant council changeover. City officials are also looking at whether future work agreements need to be approved by an ordinance with two readings or if they could be done by resolution.

Even before the pandemic, the IBEW contract had been out of the ordinary because the city had decided long before to shut down the Blue Valley power plant this month, meaning several positions got cut. The pandemic then hampered the final negotiations and union approval.

“It’s been one of the more complicated ones we’ve worked on,” he said. “There's a lot of important things to talk with the union about.”