City of Ashland officials are asking all employees to forego a cost of living adjustment raise for the coming fiscal year that starts July 1.

City of Ashland officials are asking all employees to forgo a cost of living adjustment raise for the coming fiscal year that starts July 1.

Employees who aren't represented by unions, such as department heads and secretaries, have already agreed not to take a COLA, according to Ashland Finance Director Lee Tuneberg.

If the city had given those workers a COLA raise of 3.5 percent, it would have cost the city $226,000, he said.

City officials are in the midst of negotiating contracts with three unions that represent firefighters, police officers and clerical/technical workers.

If those union members received COLA raises of 3.5 percent, it would cost the city $214,500, Tuneberg said.

City officials have not included money to give those workers a COLA raise in the proposed city budget for the coming fiscal year, he said.

"We looked at what was realistic for what we could offer," Tuneberg said.

COLA increases are meant to help workers' wages keep up with inflation, as reflected by consumer price indexes.

One typical consumer price index shows that prices are actually down slightly this year by seven-tenths of 1 percent, Tuneberg said.

Because the unions could accuse city officials of unfair labor practices, Tuneberg said he could not reveal what has been going on in the negotiations with the unions.

However, David Shepherd, president of the Ashland Firefighters Association, was willing to reveal some details.

He said firefighters are willing to forgo any cost of living increase due to the current economic situation.

"We're aware of the hard economic times going on locally and nationally," Shepherd said, adding, "Everyone's having a hard time. We need to help out as much as we can."

The firefighters association has also tentatively agreed to move to a preferred provider network for health insurance, he said.

Last year, the city achieved $322,566 in cost savings by moving most employees to a preferred provider network health insurance plan in which employees must go to providers who are part of the network. However, the firefighters association did not agree to take that step at that time.

Shepherd said a sticking point in negotiations this year has been an increase in the health insurance deductible.

City officials are trying to move more employees from a $100 per family member deductible to a $200 deductible.

In addition to talking with members of the three unions that have contracts up for negotiation this year, city officials are also asking employees from two other unions to forgo COLA increases. Those contracts are not up for negotiation this year and 3.5 percent COLA increases are in the contracts, Tuneberg said.

The two unions represent workers like electrical linemen and utility workers.

If those two unions agree to give up their 3.5 percent COLA for the coming fiscal year, it would save the city $126,180, Tuneberg said.

City officials did include money for COLA raises for workers in those two unions in the proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, he said.

'Step increase' raises

City officials are not asking employees to forgo another type of raise — "step increases."

"Step increases are not on the table at this time," said city of Ashland Human Resources Director Tina Gray.

Usually when an employee is hired and performs well for six months, he or she will get a raise. There is a series of four to six raises, depending on the type of worker, that usually end after three and a half years. By then, the city believes the worker has mastered the job, Gray said.

Each step increase usually brings a 3 to 5 percent raise, she said.

Gray said those step increases can't be changed in most cases because they are stipulated in workers' contracts. Usually two to three employees each month become eligible for an increase.

Eliminating the increases could spell legal trouble for the city if one person was earning a different amount for doing the same job but had the same level of expertise as another worker, Gray said.

She said the city is having a compensation study done that will look at all aspects of employee compensation. It should be finished in September.

Until they have the results of the compensation study, Gray said city officials won't be making changes to most aspects of compensation. Those include step increases and the amount of money employees contribute toward their health insurance.

City employees pay 5 percent of the cost of their health insurance premiums, Gray said.

Public hearing planned

The Ashland City Council will hold a public hearing about a proposed $82.62 million city budget for the coming fiscal year.

The hearing is scheduled during a regular City Council meeting that starts at 7 p.m. on Tuesday in the Ashland Civic Center, 1175 E. Main St.

The Ashland Citizens' Budget Committee has recommended a property tax increase of 11.8 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value to save the jobs of two firefighter/paramedics and the Community Emergency Response Team coordinator. A full-time police records clerk would also be kept from being cut to part-time.

The owner of a home assessed at $225,000 would pay another $26.55 per year in property taxes to cover the costs of those jobs. Assessed values are significantly below market values because of property tax limitations approved by state voters.

Shepherd, the president of the Ashland Firefighters Association, said, "The association is happy the Budget Committee made the recommendation for additional taxes for the two firefighter positions. We're very happy to see that happen."

The Budget Committee has also recommended that property taxes rise by another 6 cents per $1,000 in assessed value — or $13.50 more per year for the owner of a typical home — to supplement hours and services at the Ashland Public Library. Ashland voters previously approved a levy to augment limited Jackson County library funding.

Despite the proposed property tax rate increases, some city workers will still lose their jobs, including a water department worker, a sewer department worker and a parks maintenance worker.

The city cut jobs during last year's budget cycle, including a fire inspector, and also announced more lay-offs in December 2008 to deal with the economic recession.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.