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Assembly OKs staff contracts; Scenic byway approval put on hold

Posted: Thursday, July 08, 2004

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on Tuesday unanimously approved a new contract between the borough and the union representing 243 of its 275 employees.

Members of the Kenai Borough Employees Association approved the collective bargaining agreement by a vote of 147 to 32, after a rejected earlier version had sent negotiators back to the table over wage and health care issues.

The new contract, which runs from July 1, 2004, through June 30, 2007, increases wages by 3.1 percent, or about $268,000, beginning July 1. Wages will increase each year after, based on the Anchorage Consumer Price Index.

In a memo to the assembly, General Services Director Richard Campbell said borough department heads will be directed to do their best to absorb the increases within the recently approved budget for fiscal year 2005.

Terms of the employee health care package were completely rewritten and are expected to result in savings, but the exact amount can't be known because it depends on usage and family demographics, Campbell said.

Changes included upping the deductible levels for medical services from $100 per person and $300 per family to $150 and $450, respectively. The employee out-of-pocket annual limit will jump from $500 to $750 per person and from $1,500 to $2,250 per family.

In addition, employees whose families are covered will now pay a small premium amounting to $20 per month for a spouse and $10 per month per child. The maximum monthly premium will be $50 per month.

Another change concerns workers' injury compensation. Under the new pact, injury leave will no longer be paid leave by the borough. Sick leave or annual leave time may no longer be used by employees on workers' compensation.

That issue led some workers to vote against the contract. The assembly had the power only to approve or reject the entire package and could not change specific clauses. Nevertheless, Jeff Smardo, a Nikiski firefighter and an alternate member of the negotiating team, did present the issue in a prepared statement to the assembly Tuesday.

"The prior language of our last contract protects the borough worker if injured on the job," he said. "New language takes away protection provided by the borough and allows no sick leave option, putting employees in a compromising position."

Smardo said he believes the administration sought the change over frustrations it had with some employees supposedly taking advantage of the system, noting further that management's negotiating team had said the change was not due to a substantial increase in costs.

Following rejection of the first version of the contract, Smardo said, issues regarding changes to the workers' compensation clauses were raised with the negotiators. However, those issues were not addressed in subsequent negotiations, he said. Workers were warned that if the new contract was rejected, a deal would be struck through arbitration, Smardo said.

The second version was overwhelmingly approved by union members.

Assembly members noted it was clear from the vote that despite changes to the worker compensation rules the new pact delivered much of what union negotiators wanted and was acceptable to the majority of union workers.

The assembly unanimously approved the new pact.

In other business, the assembly approved spending measures accepting and reappropriating state homeland security grant funds totaling around $840,000, which will be used to purchase communications equipment, to train community emergency response teams and to cover costs of the borough's Local Emergency Planning Committee.

The assembly voted to postpone until Aug. 3 further action on Resolution 2004-051, a measure that would lend assembly backing to an application being submitted to the state to designate a section of the Sterling Highway from Skilak Lake to Anchor Point a state Scenic Byway.

During discussion, however, Grace Merkes of Sterling and Paul Fischer of Kasilof proposed amendments to exclude all the highway territory outside the city limits of Soldotna, saying community members had told them they were not interested in having their parts of they highway given the state designation.

The state designation is a precursor to applying for recognition as a National Scenic Byway, a designation that supporters said could open access to federal grants for improvements, such as pull-outs, scenic area parking lots, access to recreational opportunities and more.

At lightly attended community meetings in Sterling, Kasilof and Ninilchik last month, some residents raised concerns that designation eventually could lead to zoning laws that would restrict land use.

According to Nancy Casey, a consultant preparing the state application (to be submitted next week without the assembly approval), the state designation includes no impediments to land use whatsoever, and the only proviso in the national designation is adherence to a ban on off-premises billboards, a rule already in existence under Alaska law. She said a byway corridor planning group that must be formed for the national designation would have no power to create land-use regulations, though the body could recommend such rules to the assembly.

The assembly also introduced Ordinance 2004-21, which, if approved, would place a proposition on the fall municipal ballot asking voters whether they wanted to change to a manager form of government, as opposed to the current mayor-led government. While a majority voted to bring the matter up for public hearing Aug. 3, there appeared to be little support for the idea among assembly members. The idea arose when a group of residents launched a petition drive to put the question to voters. That petition was not approved for technical reasons, but the petition backers chose not to revamp the petition to meet borough requirements.

Assembly member Betty Glick of Kenai brought the ordinance to the assembly, but several members expressed the feeling that a ballot measure proposing such a dramatic change in government style should be driven by an initiative, not the assembly.

Supporters said they likely would bring the matter back by petition next year if the issue did not reach the ballot this fall. That would put the question before voters at the same time they'd be electing a new mayor.

Under a manager-style government, the mayor would no longer be the chief executive. A manager would be hired and would work at the will of the assembly.

Elsewhere on Tuesday's agenda, the assembly approved Resolution 2004-067, authorizing expenditure of $90,300 from the Road Service Area Capital Improvement Project Fund to the Keystone Drive Road Improvement Project. The money is the borough's local match for the project. The borough expenditure will ensure some $2.5 million in federal funds earmarked for the project.



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