Arbitration nation 

Last fall, Missoula city administrators discovered they were $700,000 short. After a few gasps and a review of the city’s financial situation, administrators realized that one of the primary culprits for the shortfall was the unanticipated quarter-million dollar fire department arbitration settlement. Presented as a one-time anomaly, in actuality, the shortfall could happen again (and again and again…) if things don’t go well at future mediation sessions between the city and fire and police departments.

“The fire arbitration was so expensive because the department won the wages they wanted,” says Missoula human resources director and lead negotiator for the city Brenda Camilli. “It was much more than the city had planned to pay for wages.”

Later this month, the police department and city will start on mediation—a step prior to, and less dire than arbitration. While the police and city may be closer on many issues than the fire department and the city were—the police and city have already made some headway in negotiations over pay increases—the police have the advantage of learning from the fire department’s success.

In the fire arbitration, firemen were awarded free health insurance, says Missoula Police Association President and local officer Jason Huntsinger. “So that’s the issue that we really took notice of and brought forward to the city.”

Another advantage the police have is that—for the first time—they don’t have to go through binding arbitration, which gives them more bargaining power.

“We’ve never really had the ability to go in and hold our ground,” says Huntsinger. “It’s been called collective bargaining, but when it came down to it the city had the ability to impose their last best offer whether we liked it or not. Now we can refuse.”

The two parties will meet with a state mediator on Wednesday, Jan. 15. If the city and police can’t find common ground in mediation, the process moves to arbitration.

“I think both parties want to avoid that,” says Camilli. “Both sides know it’s a risk to go to arbitration because someone who isn’t really familiar with our city or our budget or the union’s needs is going to make the decision for us.”

Camilli says she feels more confident about negotiations with the police, but there is still along way to go.

“We’ll have to see what kind of movement there is on both sides before we know,” says Huntsinger.

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