(Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

Most borough employees in Petersburg will likely be getting a two percent wage increase in July and have their contract extended through the end of the calendar year. That’s to give more time for face-to-face negotiations to start for a new collective bargaining agreement for municipal workers.

Talks over a new contract with the Petersburg Municipal Employees Association were set to start in April but were postponed with the pandemic. The bargaining agreement for those workers expires at the end of June.

“Extending our contract will help maintain a good working relationship between the borough management and its employees and a two percent wage increase will go a long way in showing the borough management’s appreciation and support for all of our PMEA employees who are working on the front lines daily, who show up no matter what the current situation is,” said Blake Buotte, a borough water operator and PMEA vice president.

PMEA represents workers in most borough departments, except for electrical workers or supervisors. It includes local police officers. Police chief Jim Kerr also supported the increase and thinks it will help retain police officers who are trained here.

“The Petersburg borough should want to hold onto these employees and reward their employees with longevity pay increases,” Kerr told the assembly. “These pay increases would be offset by not having to invest into new employees’ training due to turnover. This budget year alone the Petersburg Police Department has $27,500 toward training of new employees through the police academy and the corrections academy.”

The borough did not extend the workers contract the during extended negotiations the last time around. Those talks even prompted a labor complaint from employees. But employees told the assembly that a contract extension this year and the wage increase would be a show of good faith between labor and management.

Assembly member Jeff Meucci sought to extend the contract until June of 2021 to give more time for talks. He cited uncertainty with state finances and the pandemic impact on the local economy.

“I just want to take it really slow,” Meucci said. “I mean I have the utmost respect for the PMEA members but you know I honestly, it’s hard for me to vote, if we end up going on a three year contract here, it’s going to be real difficult for me to support that.”

That longer extension failed with only Meucci, Taylor Norhiem and Chelsea Tremblay voting yes. Assembly member Brandi Marohl explained her no vote on the wage hike.

“As much as I would like to give everyone a raise, I just think that in this time, when there’s businesses that are struggling to keep open, I just have a hard time putting out any more money especially when payroll is already our biggest expense. And that goes further than this negotiation, it goes into department heads. So I can’t support this,” Marohl said.

The votes were there to approve the two percent raise and it passed on a 5-2 vote with Marohl and mayor Mark Jensen voting no. Assembly member Jeigh Stanton Gregor explained his support.

“Contract negotiations the longer they go, they get more and more contentious. These employees are our friends and neighbors and we want to, it’s better business to get these things done efficiently. One of the primary talking points that our previous negotiator John Hoag always talked about was, if you’re going to get into this, get into this in good faith. That’s the only way to bargain is in good faith.”

This vote comes on the heels of preliminary findings from a consultant hired by the borough to compare wages and benefits for employees and supervisors. That study found many salaries lagged behind those of similar jobs in other communities, especially at the higher end of the wage scale.

Borough manager Steve Giesbrecht is hopeful that online or teleconference negotiations can start soon on some of the less controversial contract language. Pay and benefit changes will need face-to-face talks when those are allowed under health guidelines.

The annual cost to the borough from that wage increase is estimated at $100,165. Adding a two percent wage hike for borough department heads brings that amount to $124,557. Those increases are included in the proposed budget that has passed two of three readings of the borough assembly. PMEA employees still need to vote on whether to ratify the contract extension. PMEA president Justin Haley expects voting will be completed in the next week or two.

(Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to show Buotte’s correct job with the water department.)