Columbia DOPW contract turmoil

Pictured, from left, is Columbia Police Chief Jerry Paul with new CPD officers Andrew Krump and Tyler Gallaher with Mayor Kevin Hutchinson. Krump and Gallaher were officially sworn in at Monday’s Columbia City Council meeting. (Andrea Saathoff photo)

Monday’s meeting of the Columbia City Council packed the house.

Whether they were there to see the city’s newest law enforcement officers take their oaths to protect and serve, to express gratitude for what city leaders do or implore them to go farther, citizens and employees of the city exercised their right to be heard. 

Jason Chism, a negotiator with the United Steelworkers labor, which represents the city’s Department of Public Works employees, took to the podium to vent his frustrations over negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement that are rolling into a sixth month.

“It’s almost like the city is looking for a fight with the public works department,” Chism said. 

The primary points of contention revolve around the city’s desire to implement a two-tier pay and benefits structure for new employees, and an increase in health insurance costs for all DOPW employees.

“We were just looking to maintain our current benefit structure and propose modest wage increases,” Chism said. “We’re looking for basically the status quo.”

Instead, Chism said, city negotiators have brought a “long list of demands,” many of which he doesn’t feel are fair or in line with compensation for other union and non-union staff.

“The continued demands from the city for healthcare to current employees, the changes to that, plus the two-tier pay and benefit structure for new hires, along with changes to our premium pay, are not fair or equitable to our members,” he said.

Columbia public works employee and union representative Cole Dreher said he doesn’t feel there is enough back-and-forth in the current negotiations.

“The last couple contracts, all we’ve been doing is giving back things that… gentlemen who have been here some 30, 35 years, things that they negotiated back in the day,” Dreher said. “They may not have gotten a raise back in the day. They may have gotten an extra couple sick days or something like that. Or maybe they did get a raise one year and they gave up something else. With the group today there’s no negotiating. It’s just, ‘Here it is, take it or leave it.’”

Gesturing to the public works employees sitting behind him, Dreher had some pointed words for the council.

“This is the thanks we get?” he asked the council. “I’ll tell you right now, we’re not happy. We don’t feel like we deserve to be treated like this. All we want is to be treated fairly like the rest of the city is.”

With rising healthcare and pension costs, the city emphasized the need to control expenses now to protect future employees. One way to do this is to curtail “fringe benefits.”

“When you’re looking at a total compensation package of, ‘I get $30 an hour on my check or in my total benefits package.’ You might see $20 dollars an hour on your paycheck, but there’s actually $30 dollars an hour or $35 dollars an hour that’s being paid. That’s the part that we’re trying to get a handle on,” explained alderman Mark Roessler.

It began several years ago with the implementation of a “Cadillac tax” on what are considered by the state to be luxury health insurance plans. Had the city kept those plans, there would have been excise taxes and penalties, either paid from city coffers or passed onto employees.

“It wasn’t that we wanted to start chopping,” Roessler said. “The (plans) had to be changed.”

Mayor Kevin Hutchinson tried to assure the employees present that their opinions are being taken seriously.

“Nothing you say falls on deaf ears,” he said. “(City Administrator) Jimmy (Morani) is very good about coming back and talking to the council, letting us know what was discussed, how it was discussed, and bringing everything back to us.”

Negotiations continue.

Following an executive session, the council voted not to approve a variance request to William Wilson of Laurie Homes for a home at 2359 Lakeshore Drive.

Due to what Wilson described as errors by both his company and the city, the home was built about four feet too close to the street. All Columbia homes must be built with a minimum 40-foot setback. 

“We submitted a site plan to the city and the site plan was incorrect,” Wilson said after the meeting. “In doing that one of our new guys went out and staked it out according to the site plan. The building inspector went out and inspected it, inspected the footings…”

Everything proceeded, with Laurie Homes digging the foundation.

“Then a builder we are in conflict with went out and measured it and submitted it to the city,” Wilson said.

What he thought would be a simple process of getting a variance to construction, there was a major roadblock — a unanimous “no” vote by the zoning board.

Wilson then met with Morani, Hutchinson and building inspector Justin Osterhage.

“They don’t think they’ve done anything wrong,” he said he realized at that meeting. “They are accusing me of everything you can think of. (Saying) maybe we did it dishonestly to force the city to approve the setback… It’s just a frustrating process.”

The best case scenario, Wilson said, would have been approval of the variance. But that didn’t happen. He believes now there is only one thing to do. Litigate.

“I just feel like if we walk away from it, this board is going to feel empowered to do whatever they want to do,” Wilson said. 

“We plan to file suit,” he added. “We’re going to ask for them to approve the foundation and (for) some sort of damages for attorneys fees, lost time of construction, and anything we can get that will possibly make municipalities think twice before they treat people like this.”

Wilson and his wife, Laurie, have lived in Columbia for 12 years. He has owned Laurie Homes for three years with Matt Lanter. 

The Wilsons were previously president and vice president, respectively, of ASAP Contracting and Roofing in Columbia. That company had its license suspended indefinitely in May, according to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.

Columbia resident Chris Bauer spoke to the council about noise from Sunset Overlook that she and her family can hear while in their home.

“It’s not that they’re blaring music,” she explained.

Rather, the acoustics provided by the bluffs funnel the sound straight up into their home.

“We have listened to the concerns of some of the affected residents up there,” Morani said. “We have been discussing these concerns with our attorney. At some point in the future we expect to talk about this topic at a Committee of the Whole meeting.”

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