Senate pushes for vote before Christmas
Union County towns may soon have an answer regarding potential changes in the way they contract for police and emergency services.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pushed forward Wednesday, Dec. 1, with a final reading of S3991, titled the “Firefighters and Police Officers Collective Bargaining Bill,” placing it on track for a vote before Christmas.
Reid’s bill would require states and localities to engage in collective bargaining with their police, fire and EMS personnel, and language added to the bill would insure emergency services workers in all 50 states have a union. The Federal Labor Relations Authority, which oversees labor-management relations for federal employees, would decide which states are complying with the law and develop regulations for states not complying.
If states choose not to grant the minimum collective-bargaining rights outlined in the bill, the Federal Labor Relations Authority would step in and implement collective-bargaining rights for police and emergency services workers.
That means overriding N.C. law, which prohibits unions for groups such as the sheriff’s office, police departments and firefighters. Earlier versions of the bill had made such changes optional.
The 11th-hour push to get a vote on the bill came even after the Republican Conference in the Senate sent Reid a letter saying Republicans will not vote on any issue until Congress has reached an agreement on extending tax cuts and funding the federal government into 2011.
“With little time left in this Congressional session,” the letter says, “legislative scheduling should be focused on these critical priorities. While there are other items that might ultimately be worthy of the Senate’s attention, we cannot agree to prioritize any matters above the critical issues of funding the government and preventing a job-killing tax hike.”
Richard Burr, one of North Carolina’s two U.S. senators, signed the letter. Through spokesman David Ward, Burr said the issue should be left up to the individual towns to decide.
“Every community is different, and Senator Burr supports letting the communities make decisions of this nature in order to best address their needs and circumstances,” Ward said.
North Carolina’s other U.S. senator, Kay Hagan, is still considering both sides of the issue, according to her staff members.
Bill could make towns examine plans
Most western Union County towns have some form of change in their public safety services on the table, and the collective bargaining law would affect each.
Indian Trail residents are debating starting their own department versus staying with the sheriff’s office. Wesley Chapel officials are considering contracting with the sheriff’s office to assign the town a deputy, and Weddington is weighing the future of the Providence Volunteer Fire Department, which serves 20 percent of its residents. Stallings operates its own police department, which already comprises slightly less than 40 percent of the town’s budget.
Historically, when faced with collective bargaining options, many counties and towns turn to taxpayers to handle the contract, John Locke Foundation economic analyst Joseph Coletti said, either raising taxes or cutting services to pay for benefits negotiated by unions. That doesn’t mean such events are automatic, but it opens a door that North Carolina municipalities haven’t faced before.
“Nobody’s going to stage a strike, not with emergency services, but that doesn’t mean a union won’t stage a slowdown if there’s a contract dispute,” Coletti said.
If a Union County town agrees to a five-year contract for services, with a manpower increase guaranteed each year, the town and taxpayers will be bound by the agreement regardless of the town’s financial situation, said Chris Hayes, senior legislative analyst for Civitas Institute, a right-wing advocacy group.
“So what happens if property taxes come in lower than expected, and the town is facing a budget hole?” Hayes asked. “They’ll have to raise taxes because your other options just went out the door.”
With most towns in Union and across North Carolina struggling to avoid raising taxes in a recession, Hayes said collective bargaining puts them on a slippery slope.
“Towns like Indian Trail, Wesley Chapel, they don’t currently have lawyers certified in labor negotiations on retainer,” Hayes said. “Now you’ve just added to their budget costs, with extra lawyers on retainer. Say you can’t make the 5 percent pay raise promised? Well, then you have to give up something else to keep the union happy.”
He pointed to the current situation in California, using the popular example of Vallejo, a city that had to declare bankruptcy two years ago. The city, which almost matches the entire population of Union County with 121, 000 people, had planned for growth tied to a promised housing boom, Hayes said. Instead, the city amassed a mountain of debt, with benefits to the police and fire departments consuming 74 percent of the annual budget.
Currently, the city is working its way out of Chapter 9 bankruptcy and provides a cautionary tale about collective bargaining, Hayes said.
Senate officials say they expect the body to vote on the bill before Christmas.