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Union votes on contract proposal that cuts county pension costs


Long-sought changes to curb Sonoma County’s public pension costs are included in a proposed labor contract that covers about half the county workforce and is up for approval by the Board of Supervisors Tuesday.

The proposal could set in motion pension and pay rollbacks for the remainder of the county’s 3,400 workers, including unionized and unrepresented workers, managers and elected officials.

SEIU 1021 union members with the County of Sonoma rally in front of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, Tuesday July 31, 2012 in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

But action by the Board of Supervisors depends on the deal’s approval by members of the Service Employees International Union Local 1021, the county’s largest bargaining group, representing mostly lower-paid line staff.

Final results of an SEIU election that started this Tuesday will not be known until Monday night, hours before the supervisors’ next meeting. Sources say approval is far from certain.

The tentative contract is the first for the county’s 11 bargaining groups to include both county-proposed and state-mandated changes to pensions, revisions that affect current and future employees.

According to the latest state figures, Sonoma County has the second highest per capita pension debt in California, where mounting pressure from taxpayers who have seen their retirements vanish is forcing the overhaul of a public pension system that many say is no longer sustainable.

A central provision of the contract would shift an additional share of pension premiums, equivalent to 2.25 percent of pay, onto employees.

New employees would be shifted into a new, lower tier of pension benefits expected to cost taxpayers less over the long term.

Other changes affecting current employees would scale back or eliminate types of non-salary pay that can add to pensions. Those include cashouts of accrued vacation and sick leave, which would be exempted from pension calculations, and payments into a controversial deferred compensation retirement program that benefits mostly higher-paid employees. They would be eliminated.

Only a small fraction of SEIU workers get those additional retirement dollars and the union has lobbied heavily to end the benefit.

The proposal maintains what is now a five-year freeze on cost-of-living pay adjustments for employees but does not substantially alter merit pay raises.

The county would plow some of its savings back into non-pensionable lump sum payments to employees, starting at $1,500 next year and dropping to $700 the following year. Other savings would go toward employee health care costs.

Along with other employee concessions in the proposal the county believes it is on track to achieve its overall goal in labor negotiations: to reduce employee compensation costs by 3 percent.

But county officials would not elaborate further on the terms of the three-year deal, saying that if they did they could expose the county to allegations of interfering with the union’s vote.

Early this week, County Administrator Veronica Ferguson cast doubt on whether she would make the proposed contract available to the public before the board meeting. The county ultimately did release the 196-page document, but only after the union posted the proposal to its website Tuesday.

Most Board of Supervisors’ agenda items are accompanied by staff analyses that are presented days in advance. But an analysis of the labor contract won’t be made public until Tuesday, provided the issue advances to a board vote.

Several supervisors said that was a regrettable outcome that couldn’t be avoided because of the item’s timing and the need to withhold county communications that could be seen to influence the union’s election.

“I’m not very happy about it,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who as board chairwoman has pushed for greater county transparency, especially around pay and benefit decisions.

The Tuesday meeting is the board’s last of the year. Zane said she could schedule another if the union advances the deal and public input on the contract is extensive.

County officials said a board vote this year is desired in order to lock in a pension change for a small group of future employees with previous government service. Without that vote, those employees could be eligible for the more generous pension formulas owed to current workers.

Ferguson, for her part, said she was “comfortable” that the proposed agreement, full of complex legal language and labor provisions, would be adequate for “the public to discern what it is the board is doing.”

Union officials also were cautious in their statements about the proposal. They framed the deal as an attempt to finesse county cuts while seeking assistance for employees on soaring health care costs.

After a controversial 2008 rollback, the county’s contributions towards employee health care are now capped at $500 a month, plus a monthly $600 discretionary cash allowance.

But with hourly wages that start at $13 and top out at just over $48, SEIU-covered workers are facing “incredible hardship” paying for medical insurance, said Andre Bercut, a county child support officer and member of the union’s bargaining team.

Under the proposal, the county would put additional money into individual health reimbursement accounts. For family coverage, that contribution would start at $3,700 in the first year and grow to $5,580. For individuals with one dependent, it would go from $1,300 in the first year to $2,028 in the third year of the contract.

The payments along with the lump sum cash would be prorated for part-time employees.

Union officials have acknowledged the county’s need to address some of the pay components factoring into pensions. Those include perks that increase retirement payments by an average of more than 12 percent, or more than 14 percent for public safety workers, according to county retirement records.

Along with stock market investment losses and the higher retirement benefits granted by the county in the past decade, the extra perks have factored in the steep rise in taxpayers’ costs, up more than 400 percent since 2000. The county’s current pension underfunding, set last December, is $353 million.

Still, the contract proposal faces an uphill climb, with a key sticking point being the lack of any cost-of-living adjustment, sources said.

“We have a lot of people in serious financial straits,” said Bercut, the SEIU bargaining team member.

How that financial pressure affects the union’s vote — and the fate of pay and pension overhauls proposed for eight other county bargaining groups currently in negotiations — won’t be known until Monday night.

“We’ve had our meeting with members, we explained (the proposal),” Bercut said. “Now it’s in their hands to decide if they feel we’ve done a good enough job or if they want us to go back and negotiate some more.”

12 Responses to “Union votes on contract proposal that cuts county pension costs”

  1. Juvenal says:

    @R. B. Fish

    “Get rid of the public service unions! Why should 3% of people get all the public service job opportunities and not allow other taxpayers the opportunity to work in thier own community.” (sic)

    R. B.: the taxpayers ALREADY have the opportunity to work in public service. It’s called the Civil Service and it was created as the antidote to patronage.

    By the way, if you should ever take a Civil Service exam, spelling counts.

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  2. David says:

    “skilled qualified county employees”, what a laugh! Try dealing with those “skilled qualified county employees” and you will change your tune!

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  3. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    From where I sit this is going DOWN. It’s not fair, SEIU has already taken major cuts in both staff being laid off to the public’s detriment and income. The families can’t take more yet the BOS keep hiring high salaried management and contracting out jobs that are cheaper done by skilled qualified county employees.

    SEIU will strike if necessary. I wish the public would support their fellow working people and INSIST that the manager ratio to staff level in the county be brought to a more reasonable level. Oregon has passed a law stating that the management to rank and file level WILL BE 1:11 ratio. This is reasonable. The county’s ration of management to rank and file is about 1:5.73. THIS IS PATHETIC. And more managers get added everyday.

    If the people on this post really wanted the county to save money they would INSIST that manager jobs be eliminated. They average about $100,000 per year and that doesn’t even include the perks. Bringing the ratio to a REASONABLE LEVEL will result in MILLIONS SAVED. Not paying the county deferred comp managers get alone would save about $4 right now.

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  4. RICHARD says:

    RE: “… pressure from taxpayers who have seen their retirements vanish is forcing the overhaul of … public pension …”

    Bad capitalist are defeating worker groups one at a time. Remember when Bethlehem Steel, United Air Lines and other workers lost pensions ? The people did not stand united with their fellow workers. The people divided will always defeated.

    When we act together for the common good it will be better. How about we channel all this energy into real pensions for all ? Let’s pressure congress to expand social security, not reduce, restrict nor renege on it.

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  5. Skippy says:

    “Raise wages or STRIKE.”
    The delusional addicts speak.
    As though there were an endless supply of other people’s money.
    How very Obamesque.
    Strike. Please strike.
    Remember the Air Traffic Controllers?
    They all got new jobs, except the ones that didn’t.

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  6. R. B. Fish says:

    Get rid of the public service unions! Why should 3% of people get all the public service job opportunities and not allow other taxpayers the opportunity to work in thier own community.

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  7. whitt says:

    Ban public unions! Its a conflict of interest.

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  8. Taxpayer says:

    Double their wages,Bankruptcy will come sooner.

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  9. Just Me says:

    If the County really wanted to save money, they would get rid of the excess management. And I don’t mean DEMOTE them into a job they have never held but is in the same job class series. I see evidence of that bad error in one department. The demoted manager can’t even do the job he was demoted to, doesn’t possess the skills or knowledge and is constantly asking the already overworked staff to do his job for him. He just needs to RETIRE! Or quit and go on Social Security until he has his 10 yrs in the Retirement system. Then they could hire someone who will be value added to the department instead of a drain on it.

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  10. Snarky says:

    GAJ :

    The cops always claim “you get what you pay for” ….. and that they deserve far more than they get.

    But wait… didn’t a SRJC career cop just get caught stealing public funds for so many years that they are trying to figure out the damage right now?

    And.. didn’t a San Francisco cop just get caught, off duty, robbing a bank and is now being prosecuted?

    And isn’t a Los Angeles cop being prosecuted right now for, off duty, felony assault of a party goer by breaking the victim’s jaw in an unprovoked attack?

    And weren’t two LAPD cops just convicted of dismissing a traffic citation in exchange for a promised bribe (alcohol) from a female motorist ?

    Why, yes,,,, we get what we pay for !
    Clearly, the cops don’t get paid enough.

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  11. bear says:

    Raise wages or STRIKE.

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  12. GAJ says:

    Public Safety, where any real savings can be found, will fight this tooth and nail.

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