Perhaps Madison should take note. If the City of Rhinelander is any indicator, it is possible for public union heads and administration officials to find common ground and save money in the process.
While confrontation has seemingly dominated the headlines in Wisconsin since Gov. Scott Walker took office last year, community leaders in Rhinelander have found that cooperation and compromise is more productive-to the tune of $208,000 in savings on the City of Rhinelander’s 2012 budget.
Beginning last November, city officials came together with city workers in positive discussions that resulted in real cost savings for city taxpayers. According to Rhinelander City Administrator Blaine Oborn, the city approached the four public unions to begin negotiations to save the city much-needed funds.
“After crunching the numbers last fall, we were approaching $750,000 that needed to be cut,” said Oborn. “Taking from the city’s general fund was no longer an option. It came down to asking for concessions from the unions, or a high tax hike. The options were limited.”
Oborn negotiated with the Local 38 (Police), Local 1028 (Fire Fighters) and WPPA Local 178 (Clerical and Secretaries). To achieve the needed savings, local police officers will no longer be paid for holidays, and voluntarily agreed to contribute two percent toward their retirement pensions. In return, they received more sick leave.
The same was true for the firefighters, who also took a two percent hit toward their retirements, and will also be using revenue from the city’s ambulance service to offset salaries. The clerical union agreed to the rules put in place under Act 10 of the State of Wisconsin’s budget, which calls for public employees to pay in 5.9 percent toward their pensions. As all the unions had contracts with the city that ran until at least the end of 2012 (some through 2013), they didn’t have to agree to any concessions.
In addition, city workers who belong to AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) Local 1226 agreed to open their contract early to help the city save nearly $85,000 this year. In exchange, the city agreed to extend the terms of the current agreement, creating stability for both parties.
“Basically, the workers gave up a substantial portion of their paychecks for the next year in exchange for some security going forward,” said John Spiegelhoff, a union negotiator for the state’s AFSCME Union who worked with Oborn on the compromises. “We’ve always had a terrific working relationship with the City of Rhinelander, so when Blaine approached the union last fall looking for wiggle room, the union was happy to sit down with him.”
As Oborn explained it, the budget deficit came as the result of not only $435,000 that the city borrowed from the general fund last year in order to balance a deficit, but also $200,000 in state aid cuts to the city, and $80,000 in salary increases for contracted employees.
“In the end, we passed a budget that, while it wasn’t completely void of tax increases to the citizens, could have been much, much worse had we not found these compromises,” said Oborn. “Each union had a different approach to the discussions, but in the end, all made sacrifices that they didn’t have to make for the good of the city. It shows that, at least on our municipal scale, it is possible for unions and management to work together to solve problems.”
Oborn, who took over his role as Rhinelander’s City Administrator in early fall of last year, admitted that it took him some time to find his bearings as the city entered into the difficult budget cycle. He said he went into the budget talks knowing that some difficult decisions would have to be made, such as turning the city-run animal shelter over to a non-profit group, but also with a clear goal in mind that the numbers needed to come out balanced.
“We certainly understand that people working for the city need to make a fair wage, but cuts were inevitable,” said Oborn. “Fortunately the employees here have a high level of respect for each other. I’m very proud that this budget didn’t call for any employee terminations. In this economy, do be able to say that I think is pretty rare.”
Spiegelhoff said that, while he doesn’t expect negotiations in 2013 to be any easier, he was encouraged working with Oborn and other City of Rhinelander officials that, regardless of the obstacles, working with people who come into negotiations with open minds would ultimately lead to success.
“This could have been a very difficult situation, but it never was,” he said. “It proves that, despite all the negativity out there, cooperation is still possible.”
Editor Craig Mandli is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.