Members of the police union and the village avoided what could have been a protracted, and certainly pricey, negotiation with a multi-year deal that gives dispatchers guaranteed pay raises every six months through April 2011. According to parties on both sides of the table, the discussions were almost handed over to a federal arbiter when neither group would budge on the main sticking point – pay.

The municipality hoped to limit any annual wage increases to 2 percent, according to Mayor Anthony Calderone. But Linda Shrader, a senior union member involved in the negotiations, said the employee group deserved the same 4 percent given to police officers in a 2008 agreement. In the end, the village agreed to an initial increase of 3 percent with smaller pay raises coming in every six months through the length of the contract. The union lost its right to force federal arbitration hearings.

“I’m happy with it,” Shrader said of the final result. “I would have loved to see us get 4 percent across the board, but realistically I knew we weren’t going to get it. Ultimately, you try and do what’s best for your bargaining unit.”

Dispatchers and police officers in Forest Park are represented by the same union, however, their contracts are negotiated separately. There are seven dispatchers affected by the new contract. The deal is retroactive to May 1, 2009.

The contract was approved during a Feb. 22 council meeting by a 4-1 vote. Commissioner Marty Tellalian voiced the minority opinion and criticized the contract as one that perpetuates the village’s habit of being too generous, especially in difficult financial times. Unemployment and salary cuts are part of a harsh reality for taxpayers, said Tellalian, but public-sector employees appear insulated from such.

“The private sector and the public sector keep diverging away from each other,” Tellalian said.

Dispatchers will pay no more than 12 percent of their health insurance premiums and are granted 18 sick days, according to the contract. Up to 240 days of unused sick leave can also be rolled over and put toward retirement.

“That’s a tremendous benefit,” Tellalian said of banking sick days.

After eight years with the department, dispatchers can also earn longevity pay that starts at $1,800 per year. With 12 years, that figure jumps to $2,400.

The decision to concede another percentage point in pay, said Calderone, was made after village officials took a hard look at the possibility of going to arbitration. A federal arbiter had already been selected, and the starting price for such services is $15,000. Because the dispatcher’s union represents a relatively small group of workers, a 1 percent pay raise across the board costs the village only about $3,000 annually, said Calderone. Weighing the concession against the cost of arbitration moved the discussion forward.

“It simply becomes a matter of math, now,” Calderone said.

John Arnold, a spokesman for Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services, explained that an arbiter will consider several factors in deciding a labor dispute. Among those is how the municipality has paid its other employee groups. Industry norms calculated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics can also guide the decision. Broader economic conditions play a role as well, said Arnold, “as they relate to a local or municipal budget.”

Forest Park has fared better during the recession than many neighboring municipalities and has avoided lay-offs. However, money simply being tight isn’t the same as having no money at all. The village can’t truthfully walk into negotiations claiming it has no money for salary increases, said Calderone, when an audit reveals otherwise.

Shrader said the dispatchers can acknowledge the economy is rough, but said Forest Park and its employees are fortunate.

“A lot of towns are laying-off people and we’re not in that position,” Shrader said.

Village Administrator Tim Gillian said it was his goal to keep the dispatchers’ increase to less than 4 percent. That the union’s right to arbitration was also cut makes this a good deal for the village, he said.

But within the larger context of rising unemployment and foreclosures, Gillian conceded that taxpayers may be less sympathetic to labor groups that continue to receive pay increases. The leverage unions can bring to the table makes it difficult to hold the line, he said.

“When you’re dealing with unions, it’s just not quite the same as in the private sector,” Gillian said.¡¡

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Dispatchers’ contract

With a 3 percent salary increase effective May 1, 2009
Starting salary: $38,066
After 5 years: $55,243

With a .5 percent salary increase effective Nov. 1, 2009
Starting salary: $38,256
After 5 years: $55,519

With a 2 percent salary increase effective May 1, 2010
Starting salary: $39,021
After 5 years: $56,630

With a 2 percent salary increase effective Nov. 1, 2010
Starting salary: $39,802
After 5 years: $57,762