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Tentative five-year union pact reached

With the bills mounting and little in the budget to pay them, Amherst officials announced Friday they had reached -- after 17 months of negotiations -- a tentative five-year contract with the union representing highway employees.

"It is a win-win for both sides," Supervisor Satish Mohan said at a Town Hall news conference, flanked by the head of the highway union, Chris O'Neill, and the personnel director, Robert McCarthy.

The major breakthrough in the talks was the union's agreement to move to a single health insurer for its 162 members.

That issue was long a sticking point, and became even thornier as talks dragged on. The town had earmarked $558,000 for the year for insurance costs in the Highway Department -- and by last month that was already gone as employees continued using multiple insurers.

Using a single insurer is expected to save the town $52,000 a month. In the tentative pact, all employees agree to contribute 10 percent to the cost of their premiums. They now make no contribution. New hires, however, will chip in 15 percent.

Mohan characterized the salary increases in the agreement as "modest" but would not release details pending ratification.

O'Neill said he wasn't sure when a vote would be taken because of summer vacations and other issues involving members. The Town Board would act following that vote.

The pact also doubles to 10 years the time employees must be on board before receiving "longevity" pay, additional money paid to reward years of service.

Negotiations with the highway union started in December 2005, but there were a variety of disruptions. After entering office, the reform-minded Mohan said he wanted to handle employee negotiations, shifting away from the use of McCarthy.

O'Neill subsequently complained he couldn't get Mohan to respond to his requests for meetings. Then came the October storm. When talks resumed, Mohan replaced McCarthy. O'Neill said at the time Mohan "came in acting like a bull in a china shop."

On Thursday, both sides played down the acrimony. Mohan called the union "very magnanimous" and made a point of standing and shaking hands with O'Neill -- twice. O'Neill's smile was not nearly as wide as Mohan's.

Asked if the tension during the negotiating period -- both at the table and in the Highway Department -- would now ease, O'Neill said, "You can't please all the people all of the time."

Mohan -- a University at Buffalo academic who entered office with no government or political experience -- also said he had learned a valuable lesson during the negotiations: That they are too involved and time consuming for him to continue to take the lead role.

By the time Thursday's announcement was made, McCarthy had taken over as chief negotiator. And Mohan said that would be the way things are in the future.

He said he was not "doing justice" to his other duties as supervisor by spending so much time at the bargaining table.

"This was a learning process," Mohan said.


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