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City of Mitchell, union locked in wage war

The union representing at least 75 city employees has filed unfair labor practice charges with the South Dakota Department of Labor and Regulation against the city of Mitchell for failing to bargain in good faith.Mary Leary, attorney for the Amer...

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The union representing at least 75 city employees has filed unfair labor practice charges with the South Dakota Department of Labor and Regulation against the city of Mitchell for failing to bargain in good faith.
Mary Leary, attorney for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 2922, claims the city unilaterally implemented its most recent offer of a 2 percent cost-of-living increase during reopened negotiations of the 2014 to 2016 collective bargaining agreement without conciliation, which is the action of mediating a dispute between two groups.
The charges are pending before the Hughes County Circuit Court.
AFSCME Local 2922 is comprised of some of Mitchell’s city employees, consisting of many responsible for maintaining the city’s streets, sewers and parks.
On Dec. 21, the city approved a resolution establishing the 2 percent cost-of-living increase, which came before Wednesday’s conciliation session. But Leary said that shows the city already had its mind made up before entering another round of talks with AFSCME. The city wholeheartedly disagrees with this allegation.
The Daily Republic has issued a correction, found here , to its story printed in Thursday's edition, which stated 170 to 180 employees are impacted.
Mitchell City Administrator Stephanie Ellwein responded to the charges on behalf of the city in a statement saying “the union jumped the gun on this.”
The city claims the 2 percent increase never went into effect because, “We initially wanted to present the AFSCME represented employees the same 2 percent cost of living increase that we gave all other Mitchell employees, including employees represented by two other unions.”
But, the city says the AFSCME Local 2922 then filed the unfair labor practice, which “protested our attempt to put the 2 percent in effect for AFSCME represented employees.”
“So, as a matter of good judgment, and to avoid legal fees involved in defending the unfair labor practice, as much as possible, we redid the payroll so no employees represented by AFSCME will get cost of living increases at this point,” said Ellwein on behalf of the city.
The city and AFSCME also differ on the cost of meeting in the middle to bring cost-of-living raises to 3 percent. Leary said a 1 percent increase in the raise on top of the 2 percent for approximately 170 to 180 members of the union would cost the city $75,000 for 2016. She said the increase would reach $120,000 in cost to the city, as the city claims, if the police and firefighters unions also received the same increase. The police and firefighters each have their own union.
However, the city said the 2 percent increase would be higher than the 1.5 percent adjustment included in the 2016 budget, forcing the city to allocate $60,000 from its 2016 contingency.
But Leary said the union is seeking a 4 percent cost-of-living increase for its members, and claims a lack of long-term budgeting or poor planning for a wage increase is hitting lower paid city employees hardest.
Leary also referenced recent city renovation projects and expansion plans as another potential source of misdirected priorities.
“While the city remodels buildings with extensive work order overruns and plans expansions of city facilities, it does so without regard to the long-term implication on its ability to attract and retain talented workers in a shrinking labor market,” Leary said in a statement to The Daily Republic on Wednesday.
When asked if it would have been possible for the city to have allocated money used on the $4.7 million Corn Palace renovation or the recently approved indoor aquatic facility project in an effort to raise wages, the city said “absolutely not.”
“We have explained to the union several times, and again (Wednesday), that those funds were allocated to specific projects when the community bonds were approved by the taxpayers and could not be used for a larger wage increase,” said Ellwein on behalf of the city.
Despite Wednesday’s private discussion between the city and AFSCME, Leary said the city’s cost-of-living increases still fall below the adjustments in comparative cities.
According to Leary, Mitchell has one of the lowest cost-of-living adjustment for city employees for the fiscal year 2016 compared to Yankton, Watertown and Huron. Leary said Mitchell’s 2 percent increase would fall 1 percent below Yankton and Huron and 2 percent behind Watertown.
AFSCME is also concerned with potential elimination of retiree health benefits and their hope to have an additional 1 percent wage increase included in case a recently approved wage study necessitates employee reclassification leading to higher wages. Leary also said the city is attempting to restrict out-of-classification pay, which increases wages when an employee is assigned to duties above their pay range.

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