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A Small Tweak To Arbitration Could Make A Big Difference

Why are Jamestown officials approving 2% raises for some of its unions while fighting an imposed 2% raise for city police officers?

The answer lies in what that 2% means to the city’s bottom line. It turns out a 2% raise for the 58 members of the city’s AFSCME union is much different than the 2% raise for the JCAA or JURA unions– and all three of those 2% raises pale in comparison to the 2% raise imposed in binding arbitration for city police officers.

The contract agreed to earlier this week comes with 2% salary increases for AFSCME members averaging out to $975 a year for each employee in 2019 and $1,282 for each employee per year per in 2020. The recently agreed upon contract with the JCAA comes with an increased cost of $1,141 per employee in 2019 and $1,327 in 2020. The smallest contract, the JURA contract, comes with an increased salary cost of $1,346 per employee in 2019 and $1,305 per employee in 2020. Compare those numbers with the same 2% raise for police officers deemed appropriate by a three-member arbitration panel last year. The yearly per-employee cost comes out to $1,993.80 in 2016, $3,700 in 2017, $2,731.90 in 2018 and $3,234.10 in 2019.

One thing worth remembering is that police work is inherently more dangerous than the work performed by other city workers, so police pay should be higher than other bargaining units — the question is how much higher, particularly in an imposed contract.

It should also be unquestioned that Jamestown will struggle for some time to continue paying more in salaries without corresponding decreases in health insurance costs for both active employees and for retirees. The negotiated contract agreements come with either new health plans for new employees that could save the city considerable money down the road or agreements to move retirees from the city’s health care plan to Medicare plans when they turn 62. The negotiated agreements also come with increases to contributions, deductibles and prescription co-pays. The imposed agreement, meanwhile, does have increases in contribution rates for police officers but states the discussion of moving retirees to Medicare plans should be negotiated later.

We’re not saying city officials should acquiesce to a contract they don’t think is fair for taxpayers simply because other negotiated contracts have been settled at a better cost to taxpayers. City officials should receive credit for sticking to their guns and trying to find a contract with police officers that is fair for officers and fair for taxpayers. We can’t keep paying more wages and benefits with the same amount of money. It’s that simple — just ask the private sector.

Our simple analysis makes clear that the 2% raises for the AFSCME, JURA, JCAA and Kendall Club PBA look a lot different through the lens of a total number or even a per-employee cost rather than the blanket 2% number used in both the public discussion of the negotiated contracts and the arbitration award imposed by arbitrators.

We give credit to Gov. Andrew Cuomo for pushing ability to pay language through the state Legislature a few years ago. That’s not easy to do in a state like New York. It’s obvious, though, that the ability to pay language needs to have more specificity. One change that might prove instructive is to put potential pay increases into a total cost format rather than a percentage, and to make the comparison both with other public safety unions and with unions inside one municipality.

Framing the arbitration discussion in real numbers, rather than percentages, could make these agreements more fair to the taxpayer while still ensuring police officers and firefighters wages reflect the fact that their professions are dangerous ones.

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