After about six months of meetings and negotiations, the city of White Salmon has finally nailed down a contract with its 20 union employees.
Both sides say they are happy with the three-year deal, which takes effect immediately and will be valid through Dec. 31, 2008.
Although employees will get a cost of living increase to their paychecks, the key change in the new contract is that members of the American Federation of State, County, & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union will -- as of May 1 -- have to kick in a portion of their paychecks to help cover health insurance costs.
Tom Smith, field operations foreman for White Salmon's Department of Public Works and president of AFSCME Local No. 1533, said insurance coverage was the only significant issue the two sides needed to find a solution to.
"We don't have an out of pocket cost, but $40 per month will come out of our paycheck for a nest egg for future costs," Smith explained. "That will offset any further increases in the system."
"There will be a change of carriers and we're moving from a deductible system to a co-pay system," said Mayor Roger Holen. "This is less expensive than the previous system would have been."
Those involved in the contract negotiations were Smith, Holen, City Council members Francis Gaddis and Timi Keene, and Tom Barrington, a union representative from Yakima.
Smith said the union's employees were realistic about insurance costs during the negotiations.
"It's the way of the world. Everybody with insurance is paying a percentage," Smith said. "I feel fortunate that for 22 years I haven't had to pay money out of pocket for insurance."
"What I feel is significant is, the employees were able to easily realize that the incredible increase in health care costs was such that they needed to participate," Holen said. "It was a great acknowledgment that, yes, the taxpayers of White Salmon can only bear so much of the burden of health care for the city's employees."
With prices for health insurance coverage rising sharply in recent years, Smith said the employees knew this agreement was fair.
"We're all pretty happy. And we got a cost of living increase also," he said.
For 2006, employees will receive a 2.4 percent boost in pay by way of a cost of living adjustment (COLA).
"The COLA changes are retroactive to Jan. 1," said Holen.
Although the union contract negotiations started in late October and did not wrap up until April, Holen said the negotiations were not contentious.
"The reason it took so long was more procedural than because of tough negotiations," Holen explained. "The negotiations were not tough, it went very smoothly. Everybody gets a lot of credit for negotiating in good faith -- not to `win,' but rather to do the right thing by way of the taxpayers of White Salmon. Rather than muddy the waters with a bunch of issues, we focused on health care."
Holen praised the city's union workers.
"These are hard-working, conscientious employees who have huge pride in their work and in contributing to the city of White Salmon," he said. "I'm happy with the contract. Most of all, I'm happy with the city, the City Council, and the employees who worked together to the mutual benefit of the taxpayers. That was my goal from the get-go."
Holen added that changes in health care costs make figuring out the city's annual budget difficult.
"We can't do the budget until we know what the cost of medical insurance is going to be," he said.
Keene, who serves on the City Council's personnel/union negotiations committee, expressed support for the new contract.
"I'm pleased the contract has been approved," Keene said. "There were concessions made by both sides, ultimately making for a better agreement."
The White Salmon City Council endorsed the new pact with a 4-1 vote on April 5.
The previous union contract expired on Dec. 31.