The long-running battle between the city and the Ann Arbor Police Officers Association flared up again in March. The union contends that officers should pay less for their health care than other city workers because high levels of radon in the old police department made many of them sick. Stephen Rapundalo, chair of council’s labor committee, rejected that claim out of hand.
As reported by AnnArbor.com, the Second Ward Democrat declared, “There is no evidence to support the union’s contention that they have a higher need for health care because of the building in which they were housed.”
“When I read that, my hands were shaking,” says AAPD officer Pete Tsangaris. “The city caused my health problem because of the condition of that building. And [Rapundalo] should know it. I filled out my injured officer [report] on March 12, 2009, and if he didn’t know about it, it’s because he didn’t want to know. When you look at it, it’s right there in black and white.”
Relations between the city and its employee unions are tenser than ever. Negotiations with the AFSCME and firefighters’ unions have gone to mediation, while negotiations with the police officers’ union have gone past mediation to arbitration. The most optimistic estimate is that a police contract could be resolved by the end of the year–a year and a half after the old contract expired.
The biggest issue in the failed negotiations is health coverage. “Several years ago, we adopted a revised health care plan,” explained former city administrator Roger Fraser shortly before his departure at the end of April. “In the new plan, employees contribute more and benefits cost more, but the total cost for the city is down 15-18 percent. Over the course of a couple years, nonunion and senior [police] command staff went into the new plan, and we’ve been trying to do the same with the other unions.”
Rapundalo describes the current benefits more bluntly as “rich and unrealistic by anybody’s standards and totally out of sync with the public sector.” In the past five years, according to data provided by employee benefits supervisor Kelly Beck, the city’s health care bills per employee have grown from $8,448 to $11,263, four times the rate of inflation. That sucked an extra $4 million from an already strapped budget.
Mayor John Hieftje knows the details. “The salaried staff costs the city $10,680 a year for [health] benefits. That’s comparable to the U-M. But AFSCME employees cost $12,310, fire $12,871, and the police $13,121. We’d like to see our AFSCME, police, and firefighters on the same plan as the rest of the city.” Based on those figures, it appears that just shifting the police to the new plan would save the city $300,000 a year–enough to pay the salaries of three officers.
“Increases in benefits mean fewer employees,” the mayor says bluntly. “Unions need to take more responsibility for paying a portion of their benefits costs. It’s not a threat; it’s a reality.”
In an interview at the new $47 million Ann Arbor Justice Center, AAPOA president John Elkins, bargaining vice chair Jamie Adkins, and Michigan Police Officers Association president Jim Tignanelli paint a very different picture.
“It’s all about health care,” says Tignanelli. He says he’s currently advising forty police unions on contract negotiations, “and I tell all of them the same thing: health care benefits have got to change–but not here. What’s different here is that we’re concerned about the toxic levels of radon in that building that may have made at least thirty people sick–and may have killed one. And we’re deeply concerned with the potential for illness going forward.” Indeed, not long after the interview, another officer died of a potentially radon-linked disease.
On and off since the late 1980s, police department employees have tested the radon levels in the longtime AAPD headquarters in the first floor and basement of the Guy Larcom building. The EPA says the air in a typical U.S. home has a little more than one picocurie of radiation per liter (pCi/L). It says levels between two and four pCi/L are cause for concern and urges remediation if levels exceed four pCi/L–as they do in an estimated 40 percent of Washtenaw County homes.
In the late 1980s, using simple home test kits, the officers found levels of 9.5 and 9.9 pCi/L. Three professional tests between 1990 and 1993 found levels between 6.4 and 16.7, prompting the city to install a mitigation system that reduced radon to acceptable levels.
Apparently they didn’t stay that way. The police did more home radon tests in 2008. When they got results in the high teens to low twenties, the AAPOA filed a grievance asking for two things: to have an independent agency test the building’s air quality–and to get the department the hell out of there.
It was easy to understand the union’s concern. Officer Jason Zogaib was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia in 2007, and officer Vada Murray, a nonsmoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2008. The professional test, completed in February 2009, reported radon levels between sixteen and twenty-one pCi/L.
That same month, the city council approved the final budget for the Justice Center, and Tsangaris, another nonsmoker, was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The next month, the city broke ground on the AAPD’s new home, tests done by the state found radon levels between twenty-two and twenty-nine pCi/L–and Zogaib died of acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
The union believed the Larcom Building made Zogaib, Murray, and Tsangaris sick. When officer Dawn King emailed retirees asking about their health, twenty of those who responded had diseases she believed might have been caused by the building. With the late Zogaib and the nine current employees who also have health problems that might be radon connected, that’s Tignanelli’s thirty–a number that includes Adkins, who believes the building caused her hypothyroidism.
Stephen Rapundalo says that’s all baloney. “The AAPOA has offered no medical or scientific evidence to link definitively and in a causative manner the Larcom facility and its environment to any health symptoms/maladies displayed by staff,” the labor committee chair emails. “Nor has there been any evidence to suggest that the incidence and type of symptoms are different than the rest of the general population.”
Some of the medical conditions on King’s list, like the four reported cases of hypothyroidism, can be caused by radiation but aren’t known to be linked to inhaled radon. But according to the National Cancer Institute, there’s no question that radon can cause lung cancers like Murray’s, and Zogaib’s leukemia could also be radon related.
As the union sees it, the evidence of past radon levels speaks for itself–it’s not their job to prove medical cause and effect. “We provided all the historical radon documents to City Administration when this all kicked off in the fall of 2008,” emails Adkins. “So at least city officials, including [HR director] Robyn Wilkerson, [public services administrator] Sue McCormick, Roger Fraser, [safety manager] Bob Cariano, and Chief Barnett Jones were all made aware of the issues and past history of conditions in the basement and first floor of City Hall.
“The documents are evidence of our higher need for health care. Look at the totality. One sick individual does not justify maintaining our health care. But when you have decades of documented problems and multiple individuals with illnesses, you have to take a step back and realize something is not right.”
It’s too late to talk with Officer Murray–the former U-M football player died in early April. But Tsangaris is alive and more than willing to talk about what he believes the Larcom Building did to him.
“I’m forty-four and from Brooklyn,” says Tsangaris. “I was a Marine and a police sergeant in New York and joined the AAPD on January 11, 1993. I had an extremely healthy lifestyle. I used to power-lift, used to run two to three miles three times a week. And in 2002 I was on the SWAT team.” The SWAT test required him to run a mile in eight minutes–and Tsangaris says that he regularly did it with more than half a minute to spare.
“Then I developed this issue with the lungs,” Tsangaris continues. “My runs were getting worse and worse. I failed one [SWAT team test] and barely made the makeup. I came across at 7:59 and thought I was going to die.
“When I walked into doctor’s office the first time in December 2006, I was wheezing, because my normal breathing was wheezing. When I took respiratory tests, they thought I must be a smoker. The doctor at the U-M asked how long I’d been smoking, and I told him I never touched a cigarette in my life.
“They found upper obstruction and distortion of the upper trachea of the right lung. What that means is I can’t use it. Nobody else in my family has ever had lung issues. Then I told him I work in a building with high radon, and the doctor says he thinks that caused it.”
Though he believes his illness is work related, Tsangaris hasn’t filed a workers’ comp claim. “It’s pretty iffy,” he says. “It’s hard to find someone [an attorney] to go against the city. They have deep pockets and all the time in the world to drag it out.” Zogaib and Murray’s families do have workers’ comp claims against the city–and neither has been resolved yet after more than two years. Neither family responded to calls from the Observer, but Adkins says she saw Zogaib’s claim before it was filed, and it blamed radon exposure for his illness. She believes Murray’s did as well.
“The city caused my health problem because of the condition of the building,” Tsangaris says. “No doctor will say it’s 100 percent [caused by] radon. But after Jason, and then Vada, and now me, you think they’d figure it out.
“City council has never had a good relationship with officers. They don’t take care of their own people. I’m glad they take care of homeless people, but not their own people?”
“We’re not asking for an increase in wages, and we’re not asking for an increase in pensions,” says MPOA president Tignanelli. “We just want what we already have: the health care benefit [changes] the city was awarded eighteen months ago, the last time they took us to arbitration.”
The AAPOA arguably won that arbitration: the arbitrator granted the officers the pay raise they requested, 8.5 percent over three years. But the arbitrator did require them to make up to $500 a year in co- payments when they receive care–a first for the AAPOA.
In the most recent round of bargaining, the city asked the officers to contribute toward their health coverage as well. The union said no and countered by offering to have current officers contribute more toward their pension plans–plus giving new hires less generous pensions and retiree health care.
The city said no to that. “While significant changes for new hires is something we would like to pursue in the future,” wrote Wilkerson, “it is not a top priority right now. It appears that the City may be forced to lay off some police officers, so we are certainly not in a hiring mode.”
Roger Fraser confirms that health benefit concessions are a high priority–and considered them when deciding what to cut to close an estimated $2.4 million deficit. “Those departments that have old benefits are required to make more severe cuts than those that don’t,” Fraser says. “If employees cost us more money because of their benefits, they’re going to take higher hits. That includes fire, police, and AFSCME.”
“If layoffs occur, that is an issue which will have to be dealt with,” responds local union president Elkins by email. “The AAPOA has experienced reductions in personnel for the past ten years. Even with benefit reductions awarded to the City through our last contract, we still experienced even further personnel reductions including 24 sworn personnel since that contract was settled.”
Considering the severity of the city’s budget problems and the depth of the staff cuts, the hard feelings aren’t surprising. But they also reflect a culture clash.
Besides representing the city’s fiscal interests in negotiations, Rapundalo has a PhD in physiology and heads the life sciences trade association MichBio. Serious and disciplined, he knows what medically convincing proof looks like–and has little patience for anecdotes and anxieties.
Officers Tsangaris and Adkins don’t have scientific proof, but they do know that for years they and their fellow officers worked in a building where radon levels far exceeded what the EPA considers safe. They’ve seen two officers die young and believe their own medical problems are radon related.
“There are documented significant issues with the areas of the Guy Larcom building” says Adkins. “It is a simple fact. We are just asking the City for a status quo in our health care benefits for those active employees who were housed in that facility for so many years.”