2011-01-06 / News

Council embraces new contract for public works’ employees

By Phil Zahodiakin

The Jamestown Town Council adopted a landmark labor contract with the harbormaster and 17 employees of the highway, water, and wastewater divisions. Town Administrator Bruce Keiser touted the agreement, which is projected to save the town $81,070 over its three-year term, as “a model for other Rhode Island communities” facing difficult contract negotiations.

The Council was unanimous in its Jan. 3 vote to approve the contract. It was also unanimous in its praise for the town bargaining group, which included Keiser, Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero, and Town Finance Director Tina Collins.

Keiser praised the National Association of Government Employees Local 69 for acknowledging the “economic and fiscal climate” confronting the town. Nevertheless, it took seven months of negotiations to hammer out the agreement, which is retroactive to July 1, 2010.

“We expect to have across-theboard participation in a health savings account,” Keiser said, “which is the principle difference in the health care plan we’re offering versus the standard plan we’ve traditionally relied on.”

“It’s an experiment,” Keiser said. “I can’t deny that. I assume that most of our employees will participate in the [health savings account], which is a much more consumer-oriented plan because it gives the employees a stake in our health care costs while helping us restrain those costs.”

Under the agreement, wages remain frozen through the end of this fiscal year; they will go up 2.5 percent at the start of fiscal year 2011- 12, and an additional 2.5 percent at the start of fiscal year 2012-13. Eight “top-step” employees hired before 1996 will receive a greater increase in their annual longevity adjustments – 7.5 percent instead of the previous 6.5 percent – on top of the two, 2.5 percent-increases in their wages.

Keiser said that the increase in longevity adjustments “partially offsets [prescription drug] co-pay costs for employees who have never had to pay those costs. We have eliminated our co-pay plan for generic and brand name drugs, so the employees will now pay for prescription costs in accordance with whichever health care plan they select.”

Under the health savings account, employees will pay 100 percent of their prescription costs until they reach their deductible ($2,000 or $4,000) for qualified medical expenses. Under the Blue Cross Healthmate plan, which is their second choice, employees will pay a 20-percent co-pay of their prescription costs. “So, the increase in longevity pay,” Keiser said, “will soften the impact on those who will have co-pay’s for the first time, given that they didn’t have any wage increase this year.”

Some other terms of the agreement were a reduction from seven to five in the number of sick days that employees may sell back to the town at the end of the fiscal year and a provision allowing the town to scale back the harbormaster’s work year from seven to five months with a pro-rated reduction in wages and benefits.

In other business, the Council adopted revisions to the Jamestown Tree Ordinance. Under the first change, the town will be responsible for pruning and removing trees on town property only if “the tree warden determines [a tree] to be a hazard tree or a diseased tree. For all other trees, the requester shall pay for pruning, cutting and removal. If the work [on healthy or non-hazard tree] is completed by the town, the requester shall be billed for the cost.”

Under the second change, the tree warden will be required to attach a notice of pending removal to trees five days before their scheduled removal.

Keiser told the Council that the changes “were inspired by the requests of residents for the removal of trees that may have been inconveniences but weren’t hazards.” Now, however, the ordinance specifies the responsibility of the tree warden to determine if a tree is an inconvenience or a hazard before approving a removal. Besides adopting the ordinance revisions, the Council unanimously re-appointed Tree Warden Steven Saracino.

In his updates to the councilors, Keiser said that he will issue a request for proposals relating to town plans for live video streaming of Council meetings this week. Although there have been four responses to an earlier request for proposal for the software piece of the plan, Keiser decided that it wouldn’t make sense to award a software contract before the entire cost of the project is known. Consequently, he has written a second request for proposal for the hardware piece, although respondents will have the option of combining hardware as well as software quotes in their responses. In the hardware request, the town will be looking for quotes on both hard-wired and wireless video equipment.

Keiser also advised the Council that he expects the Recycling Committee to vote on a recommendation to increase the town’s household recycling rate this week. Once the panel decides on a recommendation, it will proceed to a Council workshop, which will probably be held towards the end of this month. Once the workshop is held, the recommendation will advance to the Council for deliberations.

The Council also plans to consider a recommendation from the LNG Working Group for all Rhode Island municipalities to divest their pension plans of any stock in Hess Corp., which is seeking to build a liquefied natural gas terminal in Mount Hope Bay. Councilor Ellen Winsor asked the Council to formally support the requested divestiture, but some other councilors initially pushed back, arguing that the town’s LNG Threat Committee should first review the working group recommendation.

Winsor replied that the working group letter urging municipal divestitures had already been sent to the committee, and, Winsor said, “They’ve done nothing for 12 weeks.”

In response, the Council agreed to discuss the letter at some point in the future.

Earlier in the meeting, the Council heard a presentation from R.I. Hope outreach specialist Stephanie Costa, who informed the councilors that her group stands ready to assist Rhode Island residents affected by the 2010 floods with benefits information and other support. Her group can be reached at 877-854- 6202.

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