Union contract for Wyoming Valley Levee workers slated for approval Tuesday

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - jandes@timesleader.com
Belleman -

A new union contract with seven unionized Wyoming Valley Levee maintenance technicians is scheduled for adoption at Tuesday’s Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority meeting, according to authority Executive Director Christopher Belleman.

This is the first union contract negotiated by the authority because the employees previously worked under a county collective bargaining agreement.

Instead of reimbursing the county for its expenses, the authority started becoming a standalone entity in 2015, moving from a county-owned building to a Plains Township site and handling its own staffing.

Authority employees exited the county’s pension system Dec. 31 and are now covered through the Pennsylvania Municipal Retirement System, Belleman said.

All authority expenses are covered by revenue from a fee on 14,153 levee-protected properties.

The proposed five-year union contract will remain with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, known as AFSCME.

According to Belleman:

The starting salary would increase from $24,000 to $26,000 in 2018. An annual $250 increase will bring the starting salary to $27,000 in 2022, the final year of the contract.

“We found it very difficult to attract applicants at that pay,” he said of the $24,000. “We felt we needed to make it higher to attract better applicants.”

Current workers would receive $2,250 increases in 2018 as compensation for the boost for new employees, he said. The subsequent raises will be $750 annually through 2022.

In addition to cutting grass, the levee technicians must remove trees, refurbish equipment and perform other maintenance and flood response work along the 16-mile Susquehanna River system, he said.

“It’s not just turf cutting,” he said. “We have a very important mission, and we ask a lot of these workers.”

The proposed contract also eliminates a $150 annual clothing allowance in exchange for uniforms furnished through Dempsey Uniform and Linen Supply, which will cost the authority approximately $3,000 annually.

Uniforms will “project a professional and consistent image,” he said, noting the cost includes cleaning and replacement of damaged clothing.

If adopted, the new contract will allow the authority to better control expenses over the next five years, he said.

The levee fee increased last year because authority officials said the $1.2 million it had been generating annually was not keeping pace with the $1.89 million needed each year to maintain the system and keep it primed for the next flood.

While the authority operation is no longer intermingled with county government, Belleman said county resources will be needed if there is a flood threatening the Wyoming Valley.

The authority and county Emergency Management Agency have been working on updating a comprehensive flood response plan with shared responsibilities, he said.

“Even though we’re independent, we can’t do it alone,” Belleman said.

County officials created the authority in 1996 as part of the levee-raising because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wanted a single entity to operate and take care of the flood control system, ending inconsistent maintenance when the county and several municipalities were in charge of different stretches.

County council appoints the five authority board members.

At a council meeting last week, Richard Adams was appointed to an expiring seat currently held by Vince Cotrone. Adams will be sworn in Tuesday, Belleman said.


By Jennifer Learn-Andes


If you go

The Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority will meet at 1 p.m. Tuesday in the authority administrative offices, 300 Laird St., Suite A-1, in Plains Township.

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

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