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City budget ball in unions’ court

With Monday night’s adoption by the City Council of a new Evanston city budget, the focus shifts to whether the city will be able to persuade its unions to agree to a series of concessions built into the budget document.

With Monday night’s adoption by the City Council of a new Evanston city budget, the focus shifts to whether the city will be able to persuade its unions to agree to a series of concessions built into the budget document.

The budget projects savings of $950,000 from eliminating cost of living adjustments, $720,000 from giving city workers four unpaid holidays, and $50,000 from increasing employee contributions to health insurance premiums — all items that are subject to collective bargaining.

In addition, the budget also assumes that none of the union workers will get a pay increase in the new year. If the unions got just the roughly 2 percent pay increases most received last year, that would add more than another $1 million to the city’s budget tab.

So those four items could easily blow a $3 million or larger hole into the city’s hard-fought efforts to eliminate a $9.5 million budget gap. About three-quarters of the city’s just under 800 workers are unionized.

It’s extremely hard to tell how long the contract talks may last.

As City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz noted in an interview Monday night, the city still doesn’t have a contract with the police union to cover the budget year now ending — an agreement that was originally scheduled to have been reached nearly 12 months ago. Talks on new contracts are also underway with the firefighters union and AFSCME to replace one-year deals that expire next week.

Bobkiewicz says he can’t wait long to come up with alternative budget cutting strategies if deals with the unions aren’t reached soon.

He says he’ll return to the council with proposals for further cuts by May 1 if the union talks haven’t been resolved successfully, or if the city appears to be running into trouble with other revenue or expense items in the budget.

Bobkiewicz also says that, assuming the unions agree to the unpaid holidays plan, residents won’t be faced with being unable to do business with the city any more days this year than in the past.

He says city hall won’t close extra days to achieve the savings — workers just won’t be paid for four holidays to which they’re already entitled.

He adds that other state and local governments that have shut down operations for selected days by furloughing workers have often found themselves ending up paying more than the projected furlough savings to call back workers on overtime to maintain emergency services during the furlough periods.

The Los Angeles Times reported last fall that that’s just what happened with a California plan to furlough state workers.

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