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Published: Tuesday, 5/4/2010

Mayor Mike Bell: Let's give voters say in cost of pensions

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Mayor Mike Bell wants Toledo voters in November to decide whether the city should in the future pay pension premiums for municipal union employees.

The referendum, if it makes the November ballot and is approved, would end any possibility of that compensation for city employees in their future contracts. The "pension pickups" have been a source of increasing controversy since the city's general fund budget started nose-diving in 2007.

It would not affect any current contracts, the mayor said.

"It is obvious to me over the last four months that people care enough in the city to have a say in government and possible structural changes," Mr. Bell said yesterday.

The change would save the city millions every year, but Mr. Bell acknowledged that the unions would argue for higher salaries or other compensation to replace the pension pickups that have for years been included in their contracts.

"Their focus is to get the best deal for their members, and our focus is to be the leanest for taxpayers," Mr. Bell said.

The city has for many of its union employees paid the 10 percent of the employees' share of their pension plan payments. That is on top of the employer's required contribution of 19.5 percent.

At Mr. Bell's request, council declared exigent circumstances on March 30 and empowered the administration to require employees to pay the full 10 percent employee share of the pension contribution and also to pay more for medical insurance.

The unilateral cuts were imposed on the city's exempt employees as well as members of the Toledo Police Patrolman's Association, the Toledo Police Command Officers Association, Toledo Fire Chiefs Association, AFSCME Local 7, and AFSCME 2058.

Since then, all but two unions affected - the patrolmen's union and the command officer's union - have worked out deals in which they would pay a much smaller percentage and only through Dec. 31, when they will go back to the full 10 percent.

AFSCME 2058 union members were paying 2.25 percent before the exigent circumstances declaration. It will go back to that amount for those employees on Dec. 31.

Dan Wagner, TPPA president, could not be reached for comment.

Don Czerniak, president of the AFSCME Local 7, wasn't pleased about Mr. Bell's strategy.

"It wouldn't shock me, but I don't foresee the unions giving into anything like that," Mr. Czerniak said. "Who is coming up with all these brainstorms? There has to be someone there that has it in for the unions."

Ultimately, seven members of council would have to agree by Aug. 19 to place the measure on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Nearly all councilmen were unaware yesterday of the mayor's idea.

"Really? I don't think it's feasible," Council President Wilma Brown said when told of the potential referendum. "I have to wait to comment until I talk to them about this."

Councilmen Mike Craig, Joe McNamara, George Sarantou, and Lindsay Webb withheld their comments.

"I had heard a rumbling … and I didn't know if that was rumor or conjecture," Councilman Rob Ludeman said. "I haven't had time to think about it or analyze it. It gives voters the opportunity to - like any ballot initiative - to make some financial decision for the city."

Ms. Webb said she is generally a proponent of letting voters decide matters but said it was too early to decide regarding this issue.

Councilman Adam Martinez said he was leaning of favor of Mr. Bell's idea.

"This is news to me, but for me, it would seem that the reason we are in the way we are now is because of the pension pickup, so I would be very supportive of putting this on the ballot," Mr. Martinez said. "What I don't know is how this hinders our ability to negotiate contracts in the future."

He said it is likely to be approved by voters.

"I think right now if it was on the ballot - absolutely," Mr. Martinez said. "There is a lot of frustration with the TPPA and the TPCOA, and in the private sector, people are very frustrated and annoyed."

Councilman D. Michael Collins, a former TPPA president, said he would vote against putting the question on the ballot.

"The only reason I agreed to the current collective bargaining agreements [is] within five years, we will shed 90 percent of our current pension pickups," Mr. Collins said. "So I believe any additional legislation to that in that regard would serve limited, if any, [purpose]."

Under the three-year safety-forces contracts negotiated by then-Mayor Carty Finkbeiner and approved by council, any newly hired employees have to pay the entire 10 percent of the employees' share of their pension plan payments.

Councilman Michael Ashford said he was unsure if the referendum is a good idea.

"I still think the employer has maybe a minimum contribution for some kind of pension pickup - 1 percent, 2 percent, or 3 percent," Mr. Ashford said.

"This will take a lot of community support and I don't think [the mayor] should forge ahead with this."

Councilmen Tom Waniewski, Steven Steel, and Phillip Copeland could not be reached for comment.

Contact Ignazio Messina at:

imessina@theblade.com

or 419-724-6171.



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