The Haines Borough Assembly on Tuesday approved raises and benefits for employees that will cost, on average, at least an additional $165,000 annually during the next three years.
The assembly unanimously approved the contract negotiated by workers’ union Local 71 and a negotiating team of borough leaders.
The borough’s negotiating team included chief fiscal officer Jila Stuart, mayor Stephanie Scott, manager Mark Earnest, public facilities director Carlos Jimenez, clerk Julie Cozzi and assembly member Joanne Waterman.
The union team included Local 71 representative Tom Brice, Cathy Keller, Scott Bradford, Jane Clark, Phil Benner and Jason Rettinger.
Leaders met in committee before the regular assembly meeting to decide how to pay for increases. Unexpected additional revenue from a contract with the state for community jail services totaling about $31,000 means only $120,000 will come from declining reserves in the current fiscal year.
Assembly members voiced concerns about using fund balances to pay for ongoing costs like raises and health benefits. But their main concern was not knowing about the increase during the budget process.
“My only concern about the extra $151,000 (for this fiscal year) is I sure would like to know about it prior to adopting the budget, because I’m tired of taking out of the fund balances,” said member Dave Berry.
“There should be some revision written into the code or into the bylaws or something that this negotiation should take place prior to the budget, rather than afterwards,” assembly member Norm Smith said.
“You know now that it’s going to cost us $151,000 that we didn’t know about a month ago... That should be part of the budget process for fiscal year 2015 or 2016. It should be included rather than after-the-fact, like it is now, because I don’t like this after-the-fact stuff,” Smith said.
Earnest said he would contact union representative Tom Brice immediately to negotiate a new start date, though he pointed out the current agreement states negotiations can’t begin before Feb. 1.
The borough’s negotiating team first met Feb. 8, but negotiations between both parties didn’t start until March.
The assembly also directed Earnest to use any money that comes in from Secure Rural Schools, a federal program, to pay for the raises. Chief fiscal officer Jila Stuart said the borough is expecting to receive about $205,000 from the program, but whether Haines will receive any money is still unknown.
Under the new agreement, the borough’s monthly share of the health insurance premiums will increase $203, from $1,097 to $1,300. That change will put the borough’s yearly contribution to employee health insurance at $675,500 for this fiscal year, or $82,480 more than last year.
Wage changes increase the borough’s budget by about $69,000.
Negotiating team member Waterman said though there were increases, they came down from higher demands, though she would not elaborate on those.
“We worked really hard with the union to come to an agreement between the two bodies. You have to realize that some of the requests far exceeded what was in the contract. I can only say that we worked hard to keep this in what we felt was a manageable realm,” Waterman said.
Berry said he didn’t have problems with the raises because Haines has historically had a “terrible time” keeping up with wage increases in other communities, particularly in Southeast.
For example, the starting hourly wage for a water/sewer supervisor in Haines is $24.00 under the new agreement (last year, it was $23.37). In Juneau, it’s $40.39; in Petersburg, $27.19; in Wrangell, $24.69; in Skagway, $31.20.
Assembly member Debra Schnabel said the borough would like to remain competitive with other communities, but when making comparisons in wages, people should keep in mind that all communities aren’t economically identical and can’t support the same burdens.
“We all need the service and we all need the best service we can possibly get, but can we afford to pay for the service like other communities that have more robust manufacturing or retail or tourism or resource extraction economies?” Schnabel asked.
Assembly member Jerry Lapp expressed astonishment that the borough pays $1,300 monthly for health insurance benefits per employee. “I don’t think a municipality like ours without some kind of economic development here can sustain those kinds of payments. That really sank in when I read that.”
During negotiations, which spanned more than four months, Mayor Stephanie Scott said she repeatedly told the union team that the contract guarantees a wage, not a job. Earnest echoed this point, telling the assembly they might have to make some decisions about whether to cut staff to mitigate the increasing costs.
“The decision has to be what level of staffing is required, and those are the next decisions: do we make changes?... Do we reduce the number of employees?” Earnest said.