The town’s general employees want to unionize, which would freeze their benefits and pensions and force town staff to negotiate with them before their pension plans could be turned into 401(a) accounts.
Town Manager Dave Bullock received a letter from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Sept. 21, notifying him “that the majority of your (general) employees have exercised their right to form a union for the purposes of negotiating their working conditions.”
Enclosed with the letter was a certification petition filed with the Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC), which will make the determination in the near future on the new union.
The petition shows that 16 out of 42 eligible general employees have signed union interest statements for a proposed union. Only 30% of the eligible employees are needed to seek a union.
The eligible batch of full-time employees for the proposed general employees union includes: the deputy town clerk; chief accountant 3 position; accountant 2 position; accountant 1 position; finance specialist; systems and net administrator; computer operations specialist; administrative assistant; police service technician; dispatcher; emergency-services specialist; code-enforcement officer; permit technician; building inspector 1 and 2; plans examiner; licensing/permit specialist; electrical/mechanical inspector-plans reviewer; building official; administrative aide; planners; utility service workers 1 through 4; equipment operators 1 through 2; crew leader; plumbing inspector; service workers 1 through 2; receptionists 1 through 2; and HARV/electrical inspector.
The news of possible unionization comes after the General Employees Pension Board of Trustees expressed concern at its August meeting that Bullock announced his intention to freeze their pension plans by Jan. 1 and transition them to 401(a) plans.
Trustees agreed to ask the Longboat Key Town Commission to hold off on imposing changes to the plan until they had more information.
The board voted 4-0 in August to authorize General Employees Pension Board of Trustees Chair Donna Spencer to draft a letter asking Bullock for cost comparisons between the plan he proposed to freeze the pension plan and switch employees to 401(a) accounts versus a pension plan that would be closed to new hires while allowing current employees to continue accruing pension benefits.
Spencer told the Longboat Observer Friday that no such letter has been sent, because the board is still seeking both information about Bullock’s intentions and legal advice from its pension attorney.
“Our pension attorney hasn’t responded to some of our questions yet,” Spencer said. “We have also not been kept in the loop with decisions being made in regard to our benefits.”
But on Monday, the commission received a letter from Spencer, requesting the pension board be given “an opportunity to meet with the Town Commission to discuss any contemplated changes to the retirement system at an upcoming workshop.
“It is further requested that no changes be made to the general employees’ retirement system prior to changes, if any, to other town pension plans and prior to the requested meeting,” the letter states.
Maureen Monahan, emergency-services specialist for Longboat Key Fire Rescue, said the general employees “have no other recourse.”
“The police and fire have representation and we don’t,” Monahan said. “We’re trying to freeze our benefits.”
Not all the eligible general employees, though, are confident a union is needed.
“A very limited number of people are eligible,” Spencer said. “I understand people want to be protected, but this just seems like another part of our paychecks that will be lost.”
The Jan. 1 date is on employees’ minds because Bullock said in May that he would ideally freeze the town’s pension plans by the end of the calendar year.
But, because collective bargaining units represent police officers and firefighters, all changes to their pension plans must take place through union negotiations.
The police contract doesn’t expire until September 2013, so the town won’t begin discussing changes to that plan until the spring. Firefighter contract negotiations are ongoing but are likely to be drawn out. Firefighter union representatives have said they’re willing to go to impasse with the town if necessary over proposed changes to their plan.
Employee trustee Steve Schield has pointed out that freezing the plan would cost more in the short term. The plan would lose the current 6% that employees contribute from their salaries, and amortization rates would likely have to go down.
Employee trustees also discussed figures that suggest their plan is in better shape than the other plans, with an average unfunded liability of $77,000 per member compared to the firefighters’ $343,000 per member.
Bullock told the Longboat Observer he intends to work through negotiations with the fire union before he makes changes to the general employee plans.
“Jan. 1 is a bit optimistic now, but we will see where we are at,” said Bullock, who said he doesn’t have a problem with his general employees forming a union. “In Florida, the laws are very clear employees can organize.”
It could take 90 days for PERC to make a decision on the union. If approved, Bullock would transition from having control over general employee decisions to a collective bargaining style that would put the Town Commission in control of decisions.
Commissioner Lynn Larson and others, meanwhile, were surprised to learn that the general employees want to unionize.
“I think the town has treated its employees well over the years,” Larson said. “I don’t believe this to be necessary.”