The City of Grand Forks has announced that they have given layoff notice to three employees in order to save money. The announcement was made in a press release issued Thursday.
In the release, Sarah Winton, deputy corporate officer/communications, said, “In an effort to ensure a strong financial position for the future, the city has given layoff notice to three employees effective March 2016. These layoffs create a savings to the city of approximately $300,000 annually, allowing for substantial infrastructure projects to be completed without the need to borrow funds or over burden taxpayers.”
The press release went on to say that the job cuts are part of an asset management plan that addresses infrastructure replacement through a combination of operation changes that will gradually build reserve funds, allowing the city to generate revenue and prepare for a financially sustainable future.
In the release, Mayor Frank Konrad is quoted as saying, “The asset management plan is the most fiscally responsible strategy for the city that has been discussed by council to date. This approach isn’t necessarily the easiest approach and the decision was not made lightly.”
Konrad went on to say although he was not directly involved with the plan, it was addressed in various ways and included discussions with CUPE on how the plan could work with the least amount of impact to the community. “The removal of three positions was deemed necessary as part of the plan so as to achieve a balanced solution,” he said.
City workers have been packing City Hall during regular council meetings since the city initially announced that cuts would likely be made in a press release issued Sept. 10. The cuts were among eight steps the city was looking at for achieving financial stability and also included potentially increasing revenues such as moderate tax increases as well as moderate increases in electrical, water and sewer rates.
The city workers’ union (CUPE) put out their own press release on Dec. 14 responding to the announcement by saying that staff layoffs could be avoided.
“City workers are calling on the Grand Forks mayor and council to start 2016 by taking another look at ways to deal with the community’s financial woes and working towards a better releationship with its staff in the wake of the city’s recent announcement about layoffs,” the release from CUPE said.
The release stated that the city twice rejected union proposals to mitigate layoffs and large-scale disruption. The union also released an open letter on Thursday, Dec. 10 to mayor and council outlining the situation, including, CUPE says, assurances from the city that it would take measures to avoid layoff of active employees.
“We proposed solutions that would see the longest-serving workers retire and allow younger workers with families and financial responsibilities to continue working for the residents of Grand Forks,” said Harry Nott, CUPE national representative, in the release. “In rejecting our proposal and continuing on with a plan that will result in layoffs, costly litigation and ongoing internal strife, our employer seems like the ‘Grand Forks Grinch’ as we head into the Christmas season.”
The letter to the mayor and council said that CUPE understood that the city would make changes through attrition, not layoffs. “Now it appears the city has backtracked on the commitment to protect employees, and despite union proposals that would see no layoffs, the city has gone ahead with a plan that will put loyal and competent staff who want to keep working for the residents of Grand Forks out on the street,” said Louise Oetting, CUPE national representative, in the letter. “We believe that it is important for our community to understand what has happened here and why we are asking our mayor and council to step back from the current approach.”
Winton said that the city has met with the union several times to discuss alternatives to the layoffs. “The city has consistently asked the union to meet to discuss the situation,” she said. “The city has not turned down any meetings requested by the union.”
Winton said the CUPE suggestion of attrition through retirement and other proposals also included concessions such as a five-year commitment to no layoffs.
The letter from CUPE stated that the city could and still can do better. “We are a small community and there will be many impacts on the individual workers, their families, the city workforce as a whole and, quite possibly, on services to residents,” said Oetting. “When you add in the unreasonable demands that (asks) the union (to) offer up members for retirement and layoff with no commitments from the city, as well as dropping all grievances, all notion of balance goes out the window.”
The letter stated that the approach taken by the city will be the subject of further legal proceedings and that council should be aware that it is “highly likely the city saving will be eaten up by costly litigation.”
“Council has seen CUPE members at meetings with signs calling for respect,” said Oetting. “We have a very high level of solidarity and support within our union to pursue a better resolution to the city’s financial concerns and to get back to fair and respectful treatment of workers.”
The union also said they would continue to pursue alternatives with the city and will support affected members throughout the layoff process should that be necessary.
“The city stands by its postion that a sound business decision was made,” said Winton. “This was not done lightly and at least twice the city put forth options that avoided layoffs and both times the union declined to agree.”
As for any potential legal costs, Winton responded, “Naturally the city has concerns about costs, but we’ve also sought legal advice and are following the legal process.”
At the regular council meeting on Dec. 14, Nott was in attendance and addressed council during question period. “What I’m here today to do is to plead with you to not lay off your citizens—your employees,” he said. “Do not do this. This is not necessary.”
Nott said he had attended discussions and had left very optimistic that there would be a deal. “I was almost blindsided when I heard what happened,” said Nott. “Your employees, the citizens of this town want to support you to find a $300,000 savings. We want to negotiate. We want to sit down and talk. Like the day we did this. We have some excellent ideas.”
Mayor Frank Konrad told the Gazette after the meeting that council is not involved directly with any of the discussions because they are part of the collective agreement. “We don’t get directly involved,” he said. “If we start stepping into these it’s like them getting involved in our politics. It doesn’t work that way.”
Konrad reiterated that the job cuts are part of a balanced approach to asset management. “We’re hoping that everyone cooperates including the union and the workers,” he said. “We are trying to find different ways to make this work.”
Konrad said that the services provided to the residents by the city won’t be affected by the job cuts. “The services that are being provided to the citzens will not and should not be affected at this point,” he said. “Every community finds a way of cutting back services to a degree but never so it impacts services.”
Winton told the Gazette that council was advised of the decision to proceed with the layoff notices but did not need to approve. “Council has been involved in the process throughout discussions regarding the Asset Management Financial Plan,” she said.
She also said that the community can expect to see further discussion at council about other cuts such as moderate tax increases as the upcoming budget process moves forward.
Winton reiterated that Grand Forks residents can expect the same level of service as before despite the impending job cuts. “Levels of service will remain status quo,” she said in an email. “The cuts should not have any impact.”