2012-11-29 / Front Page

County faces grievance

Sheriff’s employees dispute imposed retirement increase

MANISTIQUE – The Schoolcraft County Deputy’s Association has given notice of a potential grievance against the county, following a dispute about increased retirement cost. The grievance will be filed with the help of POAM (Police Officer’s Association of Michigan) and was revealed during a recent meeting of the Schoolcraft County Board of Commissioners.

According to SCDA’s President, Deputy Angie Pierce, the grievance will be official if the county deducts retirement cost increases from the paychecks of sheriff’s department employees.

Right now, the approximately 2 percent increase is set to be deducted from the paychecks employees receive on Dec. 7.

The dispute over the increase stems from Public Act 54 of 2011. This act, which served as an amendment to Public Employment Relations Act 336 of 1947, declared, “After the expiration date of a collective bargaining agreement and until a successor collective bargaining agreement is in place, a public employer shall pay and provide wages and benefits at levels and amounts that are no greater than those in effect on the expiration date of the collective bargaining agreement.”

The agreement goes on to say, “Employees who receive health, dental, vision, prescription, or other insurance benefits under a collective bargaining agreement shall bear any increased cost of maintaining those benefits that occurs after the expiration date.”

In Schoolcraft County, the debate centers on whether “other insurance benefits” include retirement. For Pierce, the SCDA and POAM, it does not, and the county is not allowed to pass the retirement increase that occurred after the employees’ contract expired on Sept. 30.

Pierce explained retirement is a “fringe”, not insurance, benefit.

“POAM represents many departments and has never had this be an issue, and after their attorneys have looked this over, they highly recommend that the commissioners consider dropping this issue before it becomes a highly costly matter when it does not need to be, for the county,” explained Pierce. “It (the act) does not say anything about pension – strictly insurance and wage increase.”

The county, however, following the advice of their labor relations attorney Bonnie Toskey, disagrees.

“She’s pretty explicit,” Commissioner Dan LaFoille said. “Yes, it (retirement) is a benefit that the county can not pay a higher amount than in place on the date of expiration.”

County Clerk Dan McKinney pointed out that he asked multiple times if the act includes retirement benefits and Toskey assured him that it does.

“This law does not specifically say retirement – it says benefits,” McKinney said. “She (Toskey) responded back on Nov. 8 and said yes, it is a benefit that the county cannot pay a higher amount than that in place on the date of expiration. Employees have been notified, and, pretty much, the board’s hands are tied, because this is law.”

Commissioner Jerry Zellar pointed out that Toskey’s email stated that there was no question in her mind about the inclusion of retirement benefits.

“It’s not something we choose to do, it’s just something the law says we have to,” said Commissioner Craig Reiter.

Commissioner George Ecclesine, following his reading of the act, also noted that he disagrees with the employees’ and associations’ interpretation.

According to LaFoille, the county is in a “Catch 22”, because, while they realize some may not be happy with the decision, the county must follow state law.

“Our choice is to follow what our attorney says or just do what we want,” he said. “That’s not an easy choice.”

In deciding what to do with the potential grievance, LaFoille explained the county should investigate whether this portion of the act has been previously interpreted by another entity. He noted that if it has not been addressed, the county may have to set the precedent.

“I don’t know why Schoolcraft County has to lead the way all the time on these things,” he said.

McKinney stated it would not be the first time an unclear law has been written, with Zellar adding, “It’s clear as mud.”

Zellar also asked if the issue would be solved by the county and sheriff’s department employees negotiating and ratifying a contract. Reiter answered the county would be meeting with employees on Saturday to continue negotiations.

On Monday, Pierce explained the Saturday meeting between the county and the employees had been canceled. She also noted that the sheriff’s department employees’ have been working since early summer to get negotiations rolling, but that actual negotiations didn’t begin between the two until October.

The board agreed during the meeting to again address the matter in the Nov. 29 meeting.

“The only thing this board can do is follow the advice of the attorney, we can’t chose to do whatever we want, when it’s regarding state law and it’s our attorney that we’re paying to tell us what the state law is in their interpretation,” LaFoille said.

Pierce answered that she would let the POAM know they should be expecting an answer following the Nov. 29 meeting.

“Just please remember that Bonnie Toskey loves our county dollars,” she added.

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