LACONIA — Negotiations between the the Belknap County Commission and the State Employees Association (SEA) over a collective bargaining agreement are at what Commissioner Hunter Taylor (R-Alton) yesterday called "an unfortunate impasse", with the two parties unable even to agree on the ground rules for conducting talks.
The SEA represents some 100 employees of the Belknap County Home, Department of Corrections and Sheriff's Department, who have been without a contract since the last collective bargaining agreement expired at the end of 2012. Twice, in 2013 and 2014, the Belknap County Convention has refused to ratify negotiated agreements, which a majority believed failed to require employees to shoulder a sufficient share of the cost of their health insurance.
Taylor, along with Dave DeVoy, chairman of the commission, Debra Shackett, the county administrator, and Roger Grey, a member of the Sanbornton Budget Committee serve on the negotiating team for the county. He said that the SEA objects to two ground rules proposed by the team. First, the SEA has rejected a proposal that negotiations be "transparent", not secret, and negotiators not be bound to keep proceedings confidential. Second, the SEA has challenged the presence of Grey, who while a resident and taxpayer, has no official relationship with the county.
Yesterday the commission sought to address the position of Grey by voting to create a position of "negotiating agent" with an annual stipend of $1 and reimbursement for mileage.
Neil Smith of the SEA, who negotiates on behalf of the employees, said that strict confidentiality is essential to successful negotiations. Collective bargaining, he said, always leads to disagreement between the parties, but confidentiality ensures that the dispute is confined to those with the authority and capacity to resolve it. Without confidentiality, he claimed, other parties and interests become engaged in the negotiations, lessening the likelihood of reaching agreement. "What is said in the room, stays in the room," he said.
The presence of Grey on the negotiating team, Smith argued, would be inconsistent with the certification of collective bargaining unit by the Public Employee Labor Relations Board, which designates the Belknap County Commission as "the employer". He said that by including a private citizen, the commission was delegating responsibilities exclusively reserved to it, which cannot be delegated to others.
At the same time, Smith said that the SEA is troubled that the commission is contemplating changing its health insurance carrier without consulting the union, as the collective bargaining agreement requires.
On September 2, the commission voted to contract with InterLocal Trust, which partners with Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare to serve local governments, beginning on January 1, 2016. HealthTrust, which has carried the county's plan, was informed of the decision.
Although the collective bargaining contract expired in 2012, the county and union are in so-called "status quo", which requires that apart from pay raises, the remaining provision of the expired contract remain in effect. One of these stipulates that before changing the health insurance plan the county and the union "must mutually agree that benefit levels are substantially similar in advance of any change."
Smith said he was aware the commission was exploring alternative health insurance plans, voted to switch to InterLocal Trust and informed Health Trust. "We expected a proposal, but there has been no proposal from the commission. They've provided no proposal for the union to review."
DeVoy acknowledged that the commission voted to switch and informed HealthTrust, then explained that it learned that InterLocal would raise its rates two percent after the first six months of the year. At the same time, HealthTrust told the commission that it would announce its rates for 2016 next months as well as indicate the amount it would refund to the county for excessive premiums paid in 2015. He said "we plan to go with InterLocal, but we're waiting to hear from HealthTrust. We 're hedging our bets."
DeVoy said that the SEA must agree to any change of health insurance carrier and noted when the commission met with Rick Stone of InterLocal yesterday he asked for a letter affirming that its plan is "substantially similar" to what Health Trust has provided.