BUZZ Blog: Union leader, conservative councilors clash at Chamber forum
Peter Passi and Brandon Stahl cover issues related to the city of Duluth. Follow BUZZ on Twitter.
The lions' den
I realize the friendly leadership folks of AFSCME 66 don't like me much (and they are in a large, not-at-all exclusive club, that at times includes family and household pets), but allow me to take a moment to pay AFSCME negotating team member and city utility operator Nick Economos a compliment. He did something not many of us would have the guts to do: he was one of the panelists this morning at a Chamber of Commerce Forum focused on overtime and city spending, and did an admirable job of defending the union, the city's work rules and explaining why our dilapidated infrastructure leads to so much spending on overtime each year.
Sitting with Economos were city councilors and overtime/city contract critics Todd Fedora and Jim Stauber, who were dressed in suits/ties. While Economos said he was just coming from a work assignment fixing a water main and was going to back after the forum was over, so he was appropriately dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. It was fun little dichotomy of politicians suiting up against the working man sans lunch pail.
Ultimately, though, I feel AFSCME did a disservice to Economos. Stauber and Fedora are used to the spotlight and talking in public; Economos was clearly not. When asked for detail and explanation, the councilors had their talking points at the ready; Economos clearly did not. He brought his work experience with him -- but when it came time to explain in more detail why AFSCME has asked for the provisions it has, some of his responses led to more questions than answers. I don't think he was trying to be evasive; I chalk it up to what would happen if your everyday person got put in front of a hostile audience -- you probably wouldn't be too concise, either.
The audience at the Chamber was already mostly disposed to be against AFSCME -- and while Economos' courage to get up in front of them was admirable, the union would have been better served to have someone up there who was better at talking in public.
Actually, that person was sitting in the audience -- Jim Dreier, another AFSCME negotiator who was also one of the lead contacts with the press during the contract negotiotions. Dreier had an exchange with Fedora that I thought was the most interesting moment of the Forum. By that point Fedora had harped on standby pay and city sick time in the contract, among other things, and Dreier wanted to know why Fedora would approve other city contracts that have similar language, but would reject AFSCME's.
Dreier: Do you understand what the reason is for standby in every department?
Fedora: Sure do.
Dreier: Do you realize that these people that are on standby are expected under Minnesota pipeline regulatory board as requirements to be available to respond to gas and emergencies. That's their primary reason that they're on standby.
Dreier: So what is your solution then?
Fedora: And do you realize that in the city of Minneapolis they pay $30 per day for standby pay and when that contract language [note: I assume he meant the Duluth AFSCME contract] was run by the H.R. person in the city of Minneapolis they could not believe that language was in the contract. Do you realize that?
Dreier: I'm not talking about Minneapolis, I'm talking about [inaudible].
Fedora: I know fully what the concept of that standby pay is, and it's my opinion that it's egregious.
Economos jumped in and said that according to the League of Minnesota cities Duluth is average when it comes to standby pay in the state. "We're neither high nor low," he said. I did a very, very quick search through the site and didn't see that data -- if an AFSCME member is reading this and wants to link to the research in the comments section, please feel free.
Then firefighter Pete Johnson asked a question of Fedora, wondering what would be reasonable for standby pay.
"Some movement in a different direction," Fedora said. "I'm not saying $30 a day. Frankly, councilor Stauber and I aren't on the negotiating team. So these questions about negotiating a contract, you can ask them, but we have no control over it. But I believe there needs to be some compromise from our partners."
And then the discussion quickly veered into the details and mundane. There was one other interesting moment during the Forum, when commercial realtor Dave Holappa brought up Mayor Don Ness, saying "at one point in time I believe our mayor came to us with rate increases and pitched it saying for every dollar of increase that I propose I will save $2. I think we as business folks and at the chamber of commerce need to call him on that and say can you show us that, and if not when will you show us that."
"Call him out," Stauber replied.
"Yeah," Holappa said. "I think we should" as Andy Peterson was nodding his head in agreement.
I wrote the mayor about the comment and asked if he wanted to comment. His response:
"In my first year we faced a $6 million dollar general fund deficit and I made the statement that we would make $2 of cuts and cost savings for every dollar of new revenue. In the end, it was at least to 8 to 1. I assume that is the statement that Dave mentioned and we far exceeded that goal."
I followed up and asked for detail as to how the city was able to reach the 8 to 1 ratio. His response:
"Keep in mind, this is only looking at 2008 when I made that statement early in the year.
We faced a $6.5 million deficit that year.
The new sources of revenue were:
$276k street lighting
$225k parking revenue budgeted (due to a delay in implementation, I think our actual collections were around $100k) $30-40k Fee/fine increases
$541k appx revenue increases to address that budget deficit. It was about a 12 to 1 ratio."