RAVENSWOOD, W.Va. -- Ravenswood Mayor Lucy Harbert is optimistic that Century Aluminum retirees will reach an agreement with company officials that could lead to hundreds of jobs returning to her small town.
"I feel that they're going to work it out," Harbert said. "Maybe I'm being optimistic, but I'm really thinking that the right thing's going to happen."
Retirees and the company have hit an impasse in recent days over a deal that would restore some retiree health care benefits yet keep costs low enough to allow for a successful restart of the Ravenswood aluminum smelter.
Century idled the plant during the recession in 2009, laying off more than 650 people in the process.
Citing the need to control costs should they restart the plant, Century ended health care coverage for Medicare-eligible retirees in 2010. Early retirees between the ages of 55 and 65 lost coverage 2011.
Retirees have been fighting to get it back ever since.
Last week, CEO Michael Bless said restarting the Ravenswood plant was a top priority for 2012. He said negotiations were ongoing to restart the plant and restore some benefits to retirees.
Company and retiree representatives sat down in Charleston to hash out a deal Sunday, but were unable to reach an agreement.
Sources familiar with the talks say the retirees are not comfortable with the latest offer, which included a partial reinstatement of about $4 million per year in benefits. To contrast, Century said the total elimination of all benefits saved the company about $18 million last quarter.
Sources also said retirees were seeking a 10-year guarantee of any restored benefits. The company's offer, however, detailed that benefits would only be guaranteed so long as Century was in business.
The 10-year guarantee would protect retirees, should the company be bought out or declare bankruptcy. That requirement appears to be one factor keeping the two sides at loggerheads.
Harbert attended a meeting at the Ravenswood plant Tuesday with company, union and state officials to continue discussions.
While Sunday's negotiations did not yield a deal, Harbert said both sides are still working to forge an agreement.
"Everyone's still talking, so it's not a dead issue, that's for sure," Harbert said. "They're just trying to get everything put together."
In recent weeks, Harbert has been acting as a kind of conduit between the affected parties.
She's met several times with Century's chief of U.S. operations John Hoerner and executives from American Electric Power to find out what they need.
She also has met with representatives for Sens. Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.Va., and has spoken with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on several occasions.
Harbert said her main message to all involved is, "What do you need done and what can we do to help?"