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Contract is binding
As a member of the La Grande City Council, there were certain aspects of the 2010-2011 budget that I felt could raise some legitimate questions. Consequently, when I saw the caption for your editorial of July 29, my first thought was, “Fair enough, let’s see what they have to say.” Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that the content of the editorial didn’t address any of those potential issues, but took the council to task for not “...insist(ing) that cutbacks be made and shared by city staff...”
My first and current reaction is that your editorial staff just does not fully understand contract and labor law requirements.
There is no question that staffing costs are the single biggest factor for nearly all budgets, public or private. That said, as is the case with many communities, the City of La Grande employs staff on a contract basis negotiated with their respective unions. Any binding contract between two parties carries legal and ethical obligations to observe the terms of the contract unless both parties agree to a change. This is true whether it’s my neighbor and I, The Observer and an advertiser or the city and its represented employees.
This is why the city council directed the city manager to approach the unions with proposed cuts that would help the city address the difficult financial situation that the city and taxpayers are in. The police and fire employees were agreeable, for which we have been very grateful. Administrative/nonrepresented staff also agreed. There was a small percentage of staff (20 percent or less) that were not in agreement with the proposal.
Much as The Observer and others may be disappointed with this, that was their prerogative. Neither the city council nor city administrators can unilaterally “insist” that employees alter the terms of the contract to our favor, as you seem to believe.
This did put the council between the proverbial rock and a hard place, as public input at numerous town hall meetings and other presentations seemed to indicate that citizens do not want to see significant changes in services that the city traditionally provides, whether it be police, library, fire, swimming pool, etc. Consequently, the best compromise seemed to be crafting a very modest local option levy, directed to emergency services, that would allow us to both meet our obligations as well as public expectations for service.
Don’t forget that the council is made up of private citizens who draw paychecks, own a business or who make do within the limits of their retirement accounts. None of us are wealthy. We are not professional politicians, and we have all experienced financial pain along with nearly every other citizen. That was firmly in mind as a very responsible and prudent option levy was created for public consideration.
With the retirement of the swimming pool bond, this levy would result in a very reasonable net increase of 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation, far lower than other levies that have been proposed to the community. This will help maintain emergency services that are essential if we are to realistically pursue businesses that will aid the economic viability of our town.
I would encourage The Observer and community to get behind this proposal while a citizens’ committee looks at longer-term approaches to solving these financial challenges.
Gary Lillard serves on the La Grande City Council.