The Hays City Commission on Thursday voted 3-2 in favor of opting out of the Public Employer-Employee Relations Act, effectively ending the city’s negotiations with its three labor unions representing service employees, fire and police.

The mood was tense during Thursday’s discussion, as commissioners explained their decisions and labor union representatives urged them to maintain involvement in PEERA.

The discussion was initiated by Commissioner Lance Jones, who voted in favor of ending the city’s involvement in PEERA. He was joined by Sandy Jacobs and James Meier, with Shaun Musil and Henry Schwaller IV opposing.

“I’ve spoken with staff; I’ve spoken with union members; I’ve spoken with citizens and union leadership. I believe the City of Hays is an outstanding employer focused on what is an investment not only of our city but of all of our associates,” Jacobs said. “The wage and benefit committee provides strong input and decisions relative to pay and benefits, and the staff is inherently focused on a great work environment.

“ ... In speaking with union members and representatives, they — for the most part — could not provide examples of what may have benefited our employees solely because of their negotiations.”

Schwaller spoke strongly against the move, noting the city chose to come under the provisions of PEERA in the early 1970s because the leadership structure at that time was not treating all employees fairly. He said thinking of union negotiations during the budget process helps ensure the city is putting its “best offer on the table.”

“In that way — and I don’t mean this literally — but it does keep us honest because it makes us think about how are we going to treat our employees with hours, wages and working conditions,” he said. “My fear is not that anything will happen in the short run if this happens, but the next city manager probably won’t be like Toby (Dougherty) … and I probably won’t be on this body then. That would be my fear, that we go back to that kind of autocratic leader and then the morale will suffer.”

He also noted some city departments, particularly police, have been struggling to keep a full staff and questioned how ending labor union negotiations might look to prospective employees.

Musil also stood by his earlier opinion to continue negotiations, but publicly apologized for potentially “offensive” language used at an earlier meeting. He said in November the discussion of ending labor union negotiations came as a “sucker punch” to city employees.

“I won’t take back what I said, because I felt like it came from what I believe in. But I didn’t want to represent the commission in a bad way,” Musil said. “We all have to make decisions on a weekly basis that are tough.”

The vote does not end the labor unions themselves, as employees still will have the right to participate. But Esau Freeman, business representative with Service Employees International Union Local 513, said taking away the right to negotiate turns the chapters into “social clubs.”

“It just merely turns the unions into a social club is what it does,” he said. “If we do not have the right to exercise our collective bargaining rights under PEERA, what’s the point in sitting around talking about work?”

Freeman, as well as representatives with the labor unions for fire and police officers, all spoke in favor of continuing negotiations at Thursday’s meeting. When asked by Musil how opting out of PEERA would affect employees, Phillip Gage with the Hays Police Department and local chapter of Fraternal Order of Police said he believes the move would “take away their voice.”

“I’m not certain what all would change. I feel like our voice would be taken away from us,” Gage said. “It’s a new horizon if you guys do elect to get out (of PEERA), and it’s just uncertain for me. What we have now is certain, and we’ve made it work for 40-plus years.”

Jones, while initiating the discussion last month, noted only about 12 cities in the state of Kansas still are covered by PEERA. While the law is mandated for state employees, local governments have the ability to “opt out.” The Ellis County Commission is set to begin a similar discussion at its 5 p.m. Monday meeting.

Jones, whose term on the commission ends in January, also cited cost as a concern. On average, labor negotiations cost the city approximately $20,000 per year. That amount increases if the city reaches an impasse with the unions, meaning they can’t agree on contract terms. In those cases, an outside mediator is brought in to assist, and the next step would be fact-finding if the mediation fails to resolve the conflict.

The amount of employee participation in labor unions also was discussed Thursday. Of the city’s 113 employees who are eligible for union membership, only 61 have signed up.

While 100-percent of union-eligible firefighters are members, the number drops to approximately 63 percent for police and only about 31 percent for SEIU. PEERA mandates a membership rate of at least 50 percent among eligible employees, Jones said, noting the city attempted to decertify SEIU Local 513 in 2013 due to low membership levels. The process did not work due to a temporary increase in membership.

Freeman said some service employees have trouble paying the annual union dues because of increasing health insurance costs and low wages — which he said highlights the need for labor unions.

“Once people signed up, they sent the message that they want unions. However, they can’t afford to pay that 1.5-percent because of their wages,” he said, noting service employees typically make lower wages than police or fire members. “And when their insurance started to change price-wise, they ended their union benefits. We see that happen all the time in many work groups. When the employer cuts the benefits for the worker, the worker gets mad at the union.”

Regardless of whether labor negotiations are part of the budget process, the commission has the final authority to determine wages and benefits.

Due to state law, the city’s action to end labor union negotiations will not take effect until the end of the 2018 budget year. Employee contracts already set for the 2018 fiscal year will remain in effect.

“I think there’s two interests I really want to look out for. One is the interest of the employees — and that’s all 178 employees whether a supervisor or a worker, or whether they’re a union member or not,” Meier said in explaining his vote. “The other interest that I want to look out for is the taxpayer and the general interest of the city. Sometimes those two things compete with each other. I think this is one of those instances. The other thing I always want to look out for is the short-term benefit or short-term gain vs. long-term benefit or long-term gain. For me, this is a decision I think 10 years from now is going to benefit the city of Hays.”