A group of Longview city employees has successfully bargained for cost-of-living raises over a three-year contract, ending a cycle of wage-freezes and unpaid furlough days that began in 2009.

Over the objections of newbie City Councilman Mike Wallin, the council on Thursday approved the city's 2012-2014 contract with American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. AFSCME is the union for the Longview Police Department's 10 or so non-commissioned workers, which include clerks, community service officers and the police evidence technician.

This is the first of several open employee union contracts to be settled, City Manager Bob Gregory said.

The contract provides for a 2.7 percent cost-of-living raise this year and pay increases ranging between 2 percent and 3.5 percent in 2013 and 2014, depending on the inflation rate. The new contract also increases employees' share of health insurance premiums from 10 percent currently to 15 percent in 2013 and a still-to-be-determined amount the following year.

All non-union city employees got the same deal for 2012 regarding pay raises and insurance premium cost hikes, Gregory said.

Wallin, who was sworn into his first council term at Thursday's meeting, cast the lone vote against the contract. It wasn't because he's stingy, he said.

"While I'd like to give every employee a cost of living allowance, the spending path we're on now is not sustainable," he argued. "While undoubtedly deserving, I think to give these employees or other employees a cost of living allowance will only shorten the time before fiscal imbalance."

Last summer, the city's finance director said if the economy doesn't improve, the city will start draining its reserve fund at the end of 2012 and be in deficit by 2015.

Wednesday, Gregory said city department heads had made assumptions in their annual budgets for some cost of living increases and hikes in medical premiums and benefits.

"We couldn't ask people to take pay cuts and freeze their salaries forever," he said. "We're trying to bargain all those (open contracts) within what we agreed to."

In 2009, the city opened employee contracts and asked unions to take unpaid furlough days or pay cuts to help the city bridge a $1.5 million budget gap. Four of the five city unions agreed to such concessions. The holdout was the Longview Police Guild, which received a 3 percent raise in 2010 and another one in 2011 after taking contract negotiations to binding arbitration.

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