Plan may unionize public safety agencies

A high-ranking state senate Democrat is considering introducing legislation this year that could encourage the unionization of local fire and police agencies — a prospect that concerns Mesa County leaders.

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, said the legislation she plans to introduce will change how police and fire agencies unionize.

Tochtrop declined to comment on the proposal’s specifics but did say she has “talked about the concept” with representatives from Colorado’s firefighter and law enforcement communities.

The suggestion that state lawmakers could even consider making it easier for police and firefighters to unionize, however, has drawn flak from Mesa County’s elected leaders.

“I think that is a work in progress,” said Rep. Steve King, R-Grand Junction. “Hopefully it’s a work in progress we can put a stop to.”

Grand Junction Mayor Gregg Palmer said the Grand Junction police and fire departments have employee associations, but the city does not negotiate employee wages, benefits or other matters with them.

Sam Rainguet, spokeswoman for the city, said the city has collaborated with the associations on other projects, such as the failed 2008 ballot questions to build new police and fire stations.

“They are well-organized groups, and they do some very good things for our community,” she said.

Nonetheless, local leaders said strengthening local police and fire agencies’ collective bargaining position could cost local taxpayers more.

Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey said a union could demand pay increases, more benefits and the creation of tenure for employees.

“I’ve heard many anecdotal stories from colleagues around the country … about employees that the agency needs to get rid of but can’t because of the union rules,” Hilkey said in an e-mail. “These are officers with integrity issues, use-of-force issues … that the public expects us to weed out, but they can’t due to the union.”

At the behest of Mesa County Commissioner Steve Acquafresca, the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce voted Tuesday to oppose any legislation encouraging the unionization of local public employees.

Diane Schwenke, president of the chamber, said such a bill could signal a trend toward the strengthening of unions’ positions in the private sector.


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