Employees, city agree on contract

Scott Swanson

The City Council, in a special meeting Monday night, June 29, approved a four-year contract with city employees to end nearly a year of negotiations.

The 40-page document includes a number of changes from previous contracts that both City Manager Ray Towry and Tim Riley, who headed the local American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees team of negotiators, said would benefit the city and employees in the long run.

Employees voted to ratify the contract earlier in the day.

The council voted 5-2, with Mayor Greg Mahler and councilors Susan Coleman, Lisa Gourley, Cortney Nash and Dave Trask in favor of the contract. Diane Gerson and James Goble voted no.

“I believe it’s a fair contract,” Towry told the council. “I believe it’s a good contract for both the city and staff.”

The new contract provides that salary schedules will be adjusted in accordance with compensation at comparable cities, within 95 percent of the average wage per comparable position in a group of six similarly sized municipalities in Oregon.

Riley said that provision will ensure that Sweet Home will keep more experienced, quality employees.

“That was a big step for us,” he said. “What we’ve really gained and the city has gained is getting people to come work here. They are far closer to retaining quality employees than they were two weeks ago.”

He noted that a couple of Public Works employees were late to the union vote Monday to ratify the proposed contract when they left to fix a burst water pipe on Pine Street.

“They got it fixed in about 15 minutes,” Riley said. “You don’t get that from new employees. This contract will keep those type of employees.”

The new contract also gives employees annual cost-of-living increases based on that year’s Consumer Price Index. The cost-of-living range to which the two sides agreed is 1.25 to 3.25 percent.

Riley acknowledged that, due to the coronavirus fallout, “this year the CPI is really low, because things have hit the skids, as we all know,” but he said it will be a formula which will solidify employees’ expectations.

“We accepted that the city’s cost-of-living increase would be tied to the CPI,” he said.

All city employees, full- and part-time, will get a $1,000 bonus, per the contract, which rankled some City Council members.

Riley said the bonus is intended to “make up for the fact that we’ve been sitting around for a year, waiting to get this thing done. The fact is, if this contract had been ratified and signed last year, wages would have far exceeded what it cost the city to give us that bonus,” which, he added, will be taxable money.

Mahler, Trask and Goble all complained about the $1,000 going to employees who weren’t full-time. They said the bonus should be graduated, based on how many hours an employee worked.

Mahler and Goble also said they weren’t comfortable with the upper-end 3.25 CPI range.

“I think we’re setting precedent here,” Mahler said, adding that he was willing to “move this forward, though I’m not in agreement with it.”

Other changes in the contract include provisions for flex scheduling and new rules for overtime required to stage city-sponsored or -supported community and civic events.

Riley said employees have been “patient,” particularly through some recent standoffs.

“I keep hearing that we’ve been dragging our heels,” he said. “That’s just not true. We had nothing to gain by it. We were ready to go last year. We thought we had a nice, easy negotiation. We worked through that, came out with an equitable thing. That just turned into a big nightmare.”

In the end, though, he said employees are “pretty pleased” with the contract.

Towry said both sides had to compromise to reach an agreement.

“This is a contract in which neither side is real happy with the outcome, which means both sides had to give. The good news about it is I think it has led us to develop a system that in the future we can use to avoid a lot of conflict moving forward.”