By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County’s preliminary budget talks have revealed what some say are growing fault lines between leadership and labor about how to address the county’s looming $43 million deficit.
The different stances of the two groups were most apparent this week when employees, at the request of management, offered cost-saving suggestions — a list of 167 items covering everything from consolidation of departments to limiting space heaters.
Among the top 15 ideas presented Tuesday to the Board of Supervisors were those with the potential to save the most money across the largest number of departments.
Supervisors did not endorse any of the ideas, but they quickly backed off at least three. Those proposals called for savings specifically from the county’s upper-echelon employees, including supervisors and managers.
Several supervisors and County Administrator Veronica Ferguson said they were not interested in such proposals because they were not “equitable,” meaning they do not take savings from the entire workforce.
“When we’ve taken a hit in this county, we’ve taken it across the board,” Supervisor Valerie Brown said.
Not true, said union officials who criticized the county leaders’ reaction as a repeat of past budget years, when they said cuts targeted mostly rank-and-file workers. That pattern is likely to continue in June, they said, when the county could shed as many as 500 mostly filled jobs, an unprecedented number, to help balance the budget.
“Our members give and give and give. And our members get laid off” year after year, said Carl Carr, field representative for Service Employees International Union Local 1021, the county’s largest bargaining unit with about 1,800 members.
Both sides cited past budget moves to support their claims.
Brown mentioned unpaid furloughs that all employees have accepted over the past two fiscal years and in the coming one. That mandatory time off has resulted in a 3 percent to 5 percent pay cut countywide, officials say.
A representative of the county’s 370 midlevel managers also said his group’s ranks have been significantly thinned in recent years.
But union officials said most cuts still have been in their ranks, and a county personnel official later confirmed that all of the 53 workers laid off through cuts to the 2010-2011 budget were represented by bargaining groups. This year, more concessions from management are needed to soften the blow on line workers, SEIU officials said.
Two versions of an idea they’ve pushed recently were among the proposals rebuffed Tuesday. They would either temporarily freeze or cut deferred compensation, a benefit that funnels a percentage of salary and an additional county payment into a retirement account separate from the pension system.
The benefit goes to about 40 percent of the county workforce, or nearly 1,480 of 3,700 employees, including several hundred SEIU-affiliated supervisors.
SEIU members, who receive the lowest county-paid deferred comp benefit — about 0.5 percent of salary — have pushed to have the freeze applied to all county workers, a move they said would save up to $4.1 million.
The two deferred comp proposals that showed up in this week’s presentation, however, would target a smaller county group of 600, including supervisors, management, unrepresented workers and confidential employees — largely payroll workers, clerks and executive secretaries. The maximum estimated annual savings is $2.8 million.
SEIU officials insisted the narrower proposal did not come from their ranks. And not all labor groups were supportive.
Ed Clites, president of the county’s second-largest labor group, the 530-member Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association, said his members, who receive a 2 percent county-paid deferred comp benefit, likely wouldn’t support the proposal.
It drew stronger opposition from mid-level managers, whose leaders said it chipped away at one of the main benefits they have left.
“If we’re going to give up a couple-million-dollar benefit, we’d like to see others following suit,” Sonoma County Administrative Management Council Chairman Ray Leonard said.
A third proposal would save up to $50,000 by eliminating a decades-old benefit that pays half of the Board of Supervisors’ contribution to their pensions.
Six of the county’s 11 bargaining units have a similar but smaller benefit for a portion of their members.
Supervisors did not single out the idea Tuesday, but some of their comments suggested it, too, would face opposition.
Overall, county leaders sought to portray the presentation as a constructive airing of ideas. They downplayed any hints of a standoff.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane praised employees for “great creativity and commitment,” while Supervisor Mike McGuire said “very difficult decisions” ahead require new ideas.
“We can’t just do what we’ve always done,” he said.
Facing such dire financial problems, Ferguson, the county administrator, said it was “natural” for one group of employees to target another for budget cuts.
“The most important thing is that we have an equitable application of some of these,” she said, repeating the newest buzzword.
She said her office would work with employee representatives and bring some proposals back to the board with more details on savings figures, timeline and feasibility.
Not all the ideas were so disputed. Some, such as a cut in pension benefits for new employees, already are being discussed. Others would extend existing efforts, including a spending freeze on training and a halt to annual county buyback of vacation time for rank-and-file workers and holiday time for elected leaders.
However, such “one-time” measures may not be sufficient this coming fiscal year, county leaders said.
Property tax revenue — the county’s main source of discretionary money — is in its second year of decline. It is projected to be down 2 percent, or $4 million, from the current fiscal year and sales tax revenue is projected to be flat, officials reported Tuesday.
County costs, including salaries, benefits and public services, also continue to rise.
Ferguson’s preliminary budget proposal seeks to tackle the deficit head-on, cutting by 25 percent general fund spending at all departments.
By necessity, high-profile programs such as the Sheriff’s Office helicopter, services for youth offenders, seasonal park upkeep and community policing are on the potential cut list. A preliminary tally of positions to be trimmed is due next Friday.
In the longer term, departmental consolidations are not out of the question, Ferguson said.
“Significant and ongoing savings are the top priority,” she said.