Luzerne County Council approves three new labor agreements granting raises

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | September 13th, 2016 11:11 pm

Supervisors in three Luzerne County human service agencies will receive their first pay increases in years under new union contracts a county council majority approved Tuesday night.

The pacts cover around 50 workers in Aging, Children and Youth and Mental Health and Developmental Services who are represented by Teamsters Local Union 401.

Their last contracts expired the end of 2013, and the new agreements run through 2019.

According to county officials and the adopted contracts:

The 18 Children and Youth supervisors will receive 9-percent increases over four years — 2.5 percent in 2016 and 2017 and 2 percent in 2018 and 2019.

The 10 Mental Health and 18 Aging department supervisors will receive 10-percent raises over four years — 3 percent in 2016 and 2018 and 2 percent in 2017 and 2019.

The starting salary will be bumped up to $45,000 for Children and Youth caseworker supervisors and to between $35,665 and $39,665 for Aging supervisors, depending on their classification. The average salaries weren’t immediately available for the three groups Tuesday.

All the supervisors will contribute 10 percent toward their health insurance, but a condition was added requiring employees hired after Jan. 1, 2017, to pay 15 percent.

State funding covers most or all of the cost of these departments. For example, the raises for all three departments will cost a combined $87,400 in 2017, and around $6,300 will be covered by the county’s general fund operating budget.

Mental Health Supervisor Mary Ann Benick urged the council to approve the contract, saying she and her colleagues help the disabled and have worked without a contract for more than two years.

“It’s been an extremely frustrating situation,” Benick said.

County Manager C. David Pedri recommended approval, describing the contracts as “fair.” Recruiting and retaining workers for these “front-line” supervisor positions has been “very difficult” due to the compensation, he said.

Council members Edward Brominski, Kathy Dobash and Stephen A. Urban were the lone votes against the contract.

Dobash said the state’s coverage of most of the cost is not valid justification because the “well is running dry” at both the state and county level. She also questioned the sense of locking in an agreement for four more years.

Brominski said details about the proposals should have been publicly discussed in advance. Pedri said the county could face an unfair labor claim if it released specifics and then had to return to the bargaining table due to council’s rejection.

Urban criticized the administration’s failure to seek council input before the contract was negotiated and said he believes the raises are excessive compared to those granted to most working taxpayers or senior citizens on Social Security.

Councilman Tim McGinley said the county has struggled with vacancies in human service supervisor positions because these managers made less than the workers they oversaw.

County Human Services Division Head Michael Donahue concurred with the challenge keeping the positions filled and said the raises will only partially compensate supervisors for their lack of raises for six years.

Councilman Harry Haas said he wants to “maintain quality leadership” and also noted most of the Aging budget is covered by lottery proceeds.

In other business, the council:

• Appointed county Planning Commission member George Prehatin to the county’s new Blighted Property Review Committee.

• Expressed positive feedback for Wilkes-Barre businessman Jim Casey’s proposal to purchase the county’s vacant juvenile detention center off North River Street in Wilkes-Barre for $20,000, with plans to renovate the structure for a residential program for women recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. The purchase would put the property on the tax rolls and save the county an estimated $400,000 to demolish the unneeded structure.

The council agreed to vote at its next meeting on accepting Casey’s proposal and authorizing the administration to negotiate a sale agreement.

• Grilled Brent Miles, of Missouri-based NorthPoint Development, about the company’s request for an additional property tax break on the 172-acre vacant tract it recently purchased in the Hanover Industrial Estates.

A prior owner had secured a Keystone Opportunity Zone extension forgiving real estate taxes and most state taxes on tenants through 2024.

Miles said an additional Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance Act, or LERTA, break forgiving real estate taxes on new construction from 2025 through 2027 would aid its plans to attract employers at four buildings it plans to construct at the site, creating 1,000 to 2,000 new jobs.

The council plans to further discuss the request at another work session before voting due to the number of questions and concerns raised by council members.

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.