City workers upset over possible cuts

All 32 Grand Forks municipal workers were on hand for the meeting holding up signs asking for "a workplace built on respect."

Grand Forks city council chambers were packed on Monday for the regular meeting with municipal workers holding signs calling for respect in the work place. The signs refer to the announcement that three full-time positions at the city may be cut.

Respect. That was the bolded wording on the signs held up by about 15 people at a packed council meeting on Monday at City Hall. The protesters were upset that the city is cutting three full-time union positions.

The city released a press release on Sept. 10 saying, “The City of Grand Forks recognized the organization was facing very real financial challenges and has since made a commitment to asset management that will help put the city in a sustainable financial position.”

The release announced eight steps towards achieving financial sustainability including: 1. Reducation in some levels of service; 2. Reduction of FTE’s (full-time equivalent positions/jobs); 3. Increase in revenues i.e. moderate tax increase; and increases (moderate) in electrical, water and sewer rates.

The FTEs have turned out to be three full-time CUPE positions in the city possibly including the local union (CUPE 4728) president Sukie Lawrence according to a press release sent out yesterday (Tuesday) by CUPE.

All 32 Grand Forks municipal workers were on hand for the meeting holding up signs which read “Grand Forks city workers want a workplace built on RESPECT…not on recriminations and revenge — A message from CUPE 4728.”

Council did not bring up the staffing or cutbacks during the meeting. This reporter asked during question period but was told that questions had to be about items on the agenda.

In the union’s press release, Lawrence said, “Eliminating the positions without layoff and recall rights contravenes the collective agreement between the city and its unionized workers. We believe the cuts may have more to do with the poisoned workplace at the City of Grand Forks than with financial considerations.”

Lawrence had spoken directly to the Gazette after the meeting and said the union members received a letter on Friday stating that three positions would be cut, although no names were mentioned.

“We’re dealing with more than one issue here,” said Lawrence. “We have numerous grievances that we’ve been working on for going on six months. The reason we’re here tonight (Monday) is for an action our CAO (Doug Allin) informed of us last week, which is they are removing three full-time positions from the outside works which is in direct contravention of the collective agreement between the city and the CUPE local.”

Lawrence said the three positions outlined in the letter were: parks maintenance 3, water and sewer operator 2, and one that is currently vacant but the union is grieving.

Lawrence himself is a water and sewer operator 2 and believes his job could be cut. The vacant position is for public works foreman, which was left vacant after David Reid moved up to management (manager of operations).

“There’s only one other and he has 10 years seniority on me,” said Lawrence. ‘I’m not sure how it could be him.”

Lawrence said the union didn’t want to have to protest but the city forced their hand.

“We didn’t want to go this route,” he said. “We tried through the grievance process to fix these issues first. We were called in on Sept. 10 and went through a 48-minute PowerPoint presentation on asset management. Within that, it was explained that council had mandated our CAO to come up with a balanced and fair plan and part of that balanced and fair plan was reducing full-time positions by three.”

“We thought we should show solidarity by being at the (regular council) meeting tonight,” he said. “That this is wrong.”

Lawrence said the union is currently reviewing their options before proceeding.

“We all love our jobs. We want to perform our duties and respect our positions; however, we perceive this as eating away at the union and we’re all union members,” he said. “The reason we’re here tonight is for support. We see this as a possible opening of a door or a precedent setting thing if we don’t stand up to it.”

The press release from the city stated that an asset management investment plan was developed that identified the significant financial gaps that exist within the organization, while recognizing ways in which the financial sustainability could be significantly improved without over burdening taxpayers.

“The asset management plan is the most fiscally responsible strategy for the city that has been discussed by council to date,” said Mayor Frank Konrad in the release. “I think that it is a very balanced approach to achieving the financial sustainability of the organization without hitting taxpayers where it hurts, keeping the city affordable for residents and businesses.”

The press release went on to state that there are cash flow challenges over the next 20 years to fund the previously planned improvements, meaning that those plans are not financially sustainable. They city currently faces an annual deficit of $3.85 million and has an infrastructure backlog of $32 million.

On Tuesday, Konrad said in a statement that council will have to approve of any job cuts, tax and rate increases, and all the other recommendations.

He said the plan has been in the works for a number of years and is not something they just came up with on a whim.

“In 2011, the council at the time started looking at getting their business in order to ensure they could fund the replacement of assets,” said Konrad. “The city looked at borrowing and is now considering using savings to replace assets, alleviating some of the burden on the taxpayers.”

Konrad said the council then really focused on asset management because they recognized that the city has an infrastructure problem due to the age of the city.

In 2012, there was a referendum in the city to borrow money for multiple infrastructure projects.

Only one (68th Avenue) ended up being done and that was only surface work to add a few more years to the life of the road.

Sarah Winton, deputy corporate officer/communcations, told the Gazette Tuesday that if the city borrowed money for projects such as infrastructure it would mean a significant tax increase for taxpayers.

“With this asset management financial plan, council is looking at a more balanced approach,” she said. “Rather than borrowing money and only being able to fix some of the infrastructure and still not have enough money for future repairs or replacement—this plan looks at how can we put the money away so we can actually repair and replace on an as-needed basis. As well as have money in reserve for future needs.”

Winton said the information on the asset management plan will be discussed at the Committee of the Whole meeting on Oct. 13.

Council must decide on all issues before the final outcomes are in the 2016 financial plan.

“The positions identified in the plan will be reviewed by council,” said Winton. “Changes occur in local government regularly.”

Winton said there was a meeting on Thursday for everyone in the organization and that there would be a balanced approach as directed by council and in accordance with the asset management plan to cost save and to also look at different ways of generating revenue for the organization.

As for the potential job losses, the city would not confirm anything.

“The city is evaluating all positions within the organization in order to better balance the services and levels of service that are provided to an affordable rate,” said Winton. “The idea is to avoid downloading the financial burden onto the taxpayers and to future generations of taxpayers.”

Winton said staff will begin to implement the options when they are directed to by council.

Winton said there could be alternatives to the job losses brought to the table. “The administrative staff has extended an invitation to the union to sit down and have a conversation about alternatives,” she said.

Winton said the plan has come forward at this time so council and staff have time to discuss all the issues before the budget process begins.

“In the fall we always head into the budget process and we start having these conversations with council,” she said. “The budgeting process is a long one. It takes at least a half a year to get it all firmed.”