HONESDALE, PA — After a lengthy and unsuccessful negotiation process, the Borough of Honesdale and its police turned to an independent arbitrator to settle some details of the police …
HONESDALE, PA — After a lengthy and unsuccessful negotiation process, the Borough of Honesdale and its police turned to an independent arbitrator to settle some details of the police department’s new contract. The arbitrator recently “made his final award.”
According to a letter from the borough’s legal representation at the firm Eckert Seamans, the two parties failed to come to an agreement at the bargaining table, with the Honesdale Police Officers Association (HPOA) declaring an impasse last September. Attorney Michael McAuliffe Miller wrote to borough councilors on August 12 that the arbitration panel’s decisions will save the borough money in the long run.
The HPOA had requested a five percent annual wage increase over a five-year contract, plus a $1,000 per year increase for the police chief and lieutenant, and a $500 increase for sergeants and first-class patrol officers. Instead, the arbitrator chose a four-year contract, with a 3.25 percent wage increase over 2021 and 2022, followed by a 3.5 percent increase the next two years. The arbitrator also sided with the borough and implemented a separate pay scale for new hires, meaning that over the first five years of employment, new police officers will no longer be eligible for the general wage increases that longer-serving officers receive.
Under the new contract, police officers will pay more for health coverage and get less in return. Although the union requested that officers continue paying 1.5 percent of their wages into healthcare, the arbitrator raised those contributions to 2.5 percent, an increase of more than $3,000 annually. Officers with spouses on the borough’s medical insurance will also have to pay a new annual surcharge of $650. Miller said that the borough also scored an “unqualified success,” when the arbitrator ruled that newly hired officers will not be eligible for any insurance coverage upon retirement, or TASC benefits while employed.
In exchange for the higher healthcare costs, officers will receive “slightly better” vision insurance.
Denying HPOA’s request that the next chief of police be chosen from within the department, the arbitrator decided that the borough has sole discretion in making all appointments. Per the arbitrator, there is no longer a minimum number of officers the department is required to have, and it is no longer the case that at least two officers must be on duty to fill out a shift. The now-defunct two-officers-per-shift rule was in place to ensure that police were not getting called into potentially unsafe situations without a partner.
“Elimination of these provisions will ensure that hiring, promotion and staffing are done at the discretion of the borough and not as directed under the terms of the contract,” Miller wrote.
Chief of Police Richard Southerton said that the department had already moved away from requiring two officers per shift before the arbitrator weighed in. Doing so allowed the short-staffed department to spend more time on duty and also avoided what Southerton described as a “ridiculous” situation in which a single officer was technically “on duty” but not allowed to respond to any calls.
“We’ve been [allowing one officer per shift] for quite a while now… we were doing it before the contract got settled,” he said. “We are covering a lot of shifts we weren’t covering before.”
“Of course, it would be more advantageous for the borough to be able to get an agreement at the bargaining table rather than spend its resources defending itself at arbitration,” Miller wrote in his final thoughts to the borough council. “Ultimately, the success of arbitration can be measured in the costs that are avoided and the savings that are achieved… the borough received salary savings that exceeded what it could have gotten at the [bargaining] table.”
Southerton said that it’s still too early to comment on his reaction to the new contract. He noted that while the arbitrator’s final award has been made, it’s not clear that anything is set in stone.
Councilor Robert Jennings, who has long been critical of the borough’s legal representation in general, highlighted this quote from Miller at the September 20 borough council meeting. Jennings said that the negotiation and arbitration process had cost the borough more than $100,000 in total and that, in the future, contract negotiations should be handled differently.
“It’s just unreasonable and unbelievable,” Jennings told the River Reporter. “And it shouldn’t have happened.”