Largo Ready to Renege on Contracts With PBA, CWA; Big Trouble Looms
by Leo Coughlin
Largo - There will be no increase in taxes for Largo taxpayers but the City Commission heard Thursday night that the city administration has created a pitfall that could turn into a disaster.
Because the city will go to the rolled back rate, 4.3113, that means the same amount of money generated in revenue in 2009 will be generated in the upcoming year.
So taxpayers don't pay out any more money, but some regard the 4.3113 rate as an increase.
But the bombshell last Thursday came in a wage discussion presented by Henry Schubert, an assistant city manager.
He laid out a plan by the city to breach a contract with two unions that will almost surely result in legal action.
Under the predication of if you can't renege on your obligation one way find another way to do it, Schubert cited a state law that even he himself admitted was ambiguous and not tested as the theory underlying the city's plan to break contracts with the CWA and the PBA.
Times are tough. No doubt about it. The city administration has decreed that there will be no wage increases for the non-represented employees and now it is trying to extend that to those who are covered by union contracts.
Other than being plain dishonorable, the city, drifting and leaderless under an inexperienced city manager, in its desperation to avoid its obligations is willing, apparently, to act unlawfully.
One of the main fundamental ideas of our government, contained in the U.S. Constitution, is the rule against impairing the obligation of contracts.
Contracts in this country are inviolable, a notion apparently that is unknown to Schubert and Mac Craig, the city manager. You just cannot, willy-nilly, decide you are going to abrogate your responsibility under a contract.
What is surprising to many who were either at the Thursday meeting or heard about it is that no member of the commission emphasized in no uncertain terms to Schubert that his plan was wrong and would not fly. As usual, the bobblehead syndrome was in full play.
Testing the contract waters with the unions will likely result in the city paying an inordinately high price. But high prices are always the penalty for not having experienced, top hands in charge of an administration. Sooner or later, the chickens come home to roost.
What the city proposes to do, according to Schubert, is to grant on paper the 4 percent increases to the police officers and other city employees under CWA jurisdiction and then take the reality of those increases away by furloughing employees and/or reducing the work hours.
Of course, the very idea of a pay increase is that the recipient anticipates actually getting more money, so to take the actual raise away by the kind of artifice Schubert was talking about is so blatantly unfair and illegal as to not admit to argument.
Schubert said there was a state law that allows a municipality to declare a financial emergency and not comply with a labor agreement.
He said that it was rarely if ever invoked (no instance of it having been employed has been found) and that legal experts were not in agreement in what the so-called law meant because the language is so ambiguous.
The contract with the Communications Workers of America was agreed upon last September with the economic crisis looming and fully known about. Nevertheless, the city unwisely agreed to 4 percent increases each year for three years.
Now the city is stuck with its obligations under the contract agreement.
Ditto with the Police Benevolent Association which bargains for officers - due for a 4 percent increase November 1 - and sergeants - due for a 3 percent raise October 1.
The firemen's contract ends September 30 and the city must negotiate with the International Association of Fire Fighters.
To do so under the cloud of reneging or even contemplating reneging on contracts with the other unions puts the city in a position that would make a rock and hard place feel like one of grandma's feather mattresses.
Schubert said that the city had asked the unions to voluntarily forgo the increases and offered the furloughs and working hour cutbacks. All were rejected.
Those close to the scene believe the unions will sue (and probably win) to have their contracts upheld. Whatever the city might have paid in raises by following the contract could be dwarfed by litigation costs.
And if the city loses it rides a double-edged sword - the legal costs of going to court plus paying what it originally bargained for.
Thus the price for inexperience.
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