March 23, 2005 - They are the people who patch Oro Valley's potholes, read the water meters and keep the park's lawns crisp and sports fields manicured, and some of them have decided to organize.

A number of the town's workers say they have no efficient way to communicate with the council and town management, and they want a way to have their concerns heard. So they have decided to form an association, similar to the existing Fraternal Order of Police, and elect representatives to communicate directly with the town's leadership.

According to Streets Superintendent Lory Warren, about 40 of the town's employees have gathered at a handful of meetings and already have set in motion the organization.

At the meetings that have been held to date, field workers from the parks and recreation department, water utility and public works have been represented and have expressed a wish to organize, according to Warren. So far, clerical staff has not expressed an interest in participating, Warren said.

The interested employees expect to elect officers and appoint a negotiating board by the end of March. Warren said it is important to the employees that they form before the town gets too entrenched in this year's budget process, because one of the employee concerns is that they be more involved in that process.

"Someone else makes the decisions, and we don't usually know about it until it's done," Warren said. "We want them to know they are affecting people's families when they make these decisions. We want them to be able to put a face with the line item."

Warren and Don Manspeaker, a construction manager for the town, attended the annual employee forum, held March 2, to make the group's intentions known to the council. The forum is a regular meeting held once a year during which employees have the opportunity to communicate directly with the council, and it is required under the town's personnel policies and procedures. This year, fewer then 20 employees attended, and according to Manspeaker, that is because they are frustrated with how the process has worked in the past.

At the meeting, Manspeaker read a list of employee concerns to the council and asked that a liaison be appointed to discuss salaries and benefits with the council. After finishing with his speech, he told the council that he had actually been reading directly from the minutes of last year's employee forum, and that not one of the concerns contained therein had been addressed.

He said it is that lack of results that has discouraged some employees and has fueled the proposed organization.

The town has a number of ways to facilitate communication between the council and management and the employees, according to Public Information Officer Bob Kovitz, including an intranet, on which messages are posted regarding announcements and upcoming meetings. There also is an employee focus group that meets periodically to specifically address employee issues.

According to Human Resources Director Jeff Grant, all of the employee concerns from the 2004 forum were noted and brought before the employee focus group, but the group did not come up with recommended resolutions for many of the concerns.

Town Manager Chuck Sweet said he meets with department heads after every council meeting and goes over what has happened so they can relay that to their managers, who then hold staff meetings so employees have the opportunity to hear what is happening.

"It's been effective from my perspective," Sweet said of the town's method of getting the information out. "Except for the few who indicated it was not, at the employee forum."

Sweet said that before the employee forum, he had no direct knowledge of the employees' intentions to organize, although he said that according to the town's policies, it is the right of any employee to do so.

"There are a number of ways to effectively communicate, and that potentially is one way," he said.

Once organized, the employees will need to forward a written request that they be recognized by the town as an employee group, and they will need to file another written request for a meeting with the town. Sweet said once that request is received it will be evaluated to determine if a meeting will be scheduled.

In a subsequent interview, Warren explained some specific concerns of the employees and why they believe a vessel for collective bargaining will help. She made it clear she was not the spokesperson for the group and has not been attending its meetings, but said she was asked by some employees to speak on their behalf at the recent forum because she is articulate, and also because, as a middle manager, she hears concerns of both employees and upper management.

The employees want better all-around communication among themselves and with the town's decision-makers, she said, and having a direct line, via an organization president, will help.

But they also have specific concerns about pay and benefits that they want to make sure are heard as these decisions are being made, not once they are a done deal.

For example, Warren said the state increased the employer/employee contribution to the state retirement fund from 5.2 percent to 7.75 percent this year, and the additional money will be taken out of the employees' paychecks. At the same time, Warren said employees have no idea if they will receive merit raises or cost-of-living adjustments until that is decided during the budget process, and they have no direct way of relaying their wishes.

"When you are living paycheck to paycheck, that additional 2 percent could mean the difference of you putting meat on the table every day for your children, or eating beans with meat only a few days each week," she said.

She said the employees also would like to have a "more equitable" way of awarding raises in the town, similar to the step system the many police department employees operate under, in which if employees meet outlined expectations they can expect to see a defined pay increase.

On-call pay and the evaluation of exempt employees for overtime pay are also concerns the employees would like to talk about, as is the rising cost of health care benefits to families.

Warren said having a stable organization also will be helpful in creating continuity within the town, because with new council members being elected and town department heads coming and going, there are often people with no history regarding a situation who are coming into leadership positions.

"Once a year we get three minutes and we find out the council has never even heard of these issues. They didn't even get the minutes of last year's meeting," she said.

Warren said the retirement of Town Engineer Bill Jansen, "who has been a champion for all of us," also has the employees "a little nervous."

The employees want a vessel of communication about these issues, and are not looking to be "rabble rousers," Warren said.

"We would not want to pursue this without the blessing of the council and the town manager," she said. "The last thing we want is a weapon. It's a tool."

She said the employees spoke to several unions, but decided that was the wrong approach. Then they approached Oro Valley's Fraternal Order of Police association because "it's a wheel that's already been invented" and the employees felt good about all the "positive" community-oriented activities of the group.

Herb Williams, the president of the Oro Valley Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #53, said he was approached by some employees and was asked how the FOP got the ball rolling when it first organized. He said he gave the members guidance, and also invited them to form as an associate lodge under the FOP.

"I'm flattered that they came to me," Williams said. "I think the FOP has been good in the community and successful, and I think others recognize that."

He said the arrangement will help the employees by providing advice for them during the formation of an organization, but when the group starts meeting and actually approaches the town to bargain, it will do that separate from the police organization.

He said he expects the group will have a less difficult time forming than groups that came before it, because the town now recognizes such organizations. When the FOP first organized in Oro Valley, Williams said, it was difficult, because the town did not acknowledge it as a group and would not meet with it to discuss issues concerning the members.

"They're at an advantage now," he said. "All of the groundwork has been done for them."

Williams said he thought, from the reaction of the council members present at the forum, that the council will be open to working with the group.

"I think that it's great that they're forming," Williams said. "It's good for them, but it's also good for the town. People think negotiations are a piece of work. But, when the employees sit down with management and actually see the numbers and the budget, it changes their outlook. It makes them think about what they are asking for."

Mayor Paul Loomis said the town's policies are "straightforward" and there is nothing in them that prevents recognition of employee organizations.

He said if the employees intend to follow the model of the FOP, "we will certainly support them."

He also said the town is working on the compensation issues noted by both Manspeaker and Warren.

Decisions regarding cost-of-living raises are always up to the council as part of the budget discussions, according to Kovitz, and as the town gets closer to the budget workshops and hearing dates each year, the finance director and the town manager look at the total financial picture and may recommend an adjustment to the council. The council may then accept, reject or modify that recommendation. To Kovitz's knowledge, there has not been any recommendation made yet for the upcoming budget.

Grant said the procedures for evaluating raises have been in place for 12 years, and under the policies, employees have received merit raises every year, which range from 1 to 4 percent of an employee's salary. They also have received a cost of living adjustment 11 of those 12 years.

Employee raises are driven primarily by an annual performance evaluation, Grant said, so if employees meet certain standards, they are given raises that are determined by their current pay and their performance. Grant said that by being part of this system, it is possible some employees, near the top of the pay scale, will not receive raises.

Two of the council's seven members, Helen Dankwerth and Paula Abbott, were absent from the employee forum, and Vice Mayor Barry Gillaspie was not present to hear the majority of the speaker's comments.

Councilmember Terry Parish said that while he understands the employees' concerns regarding pay, the police employees have been placed on a step schedule because of the need to stay competitive with surrounding municipalities, in order to attract talented individuals. He said that right now that market is very competitive, but if that were to change and the town needed to become more competitive to keep quality street crews, for example, the council would have to consider that.

"It is not an issue of trying to favor one employee over another," he said.

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