By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County government is settling for less taxpayer savings than it originally sought in contract talks with most of its rank-and-file employees.
The 2.25 percent cut in overall compensation, down from a proposed 3 percent reduction in wages and benefits, is built into a proposed labor contract with the county’s largest group of public safety workers.
The tentative deal with the 470-member Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association goes to the Board of Supervisors today for approval. Ratified last week on a narrow union vote, it covers correctional deputies and counselors, probation officers, park rangers, emergency dispatchers, fire inspectors and some investigative posts.
The agreement, which balances a short-term salary freeze with wage increases in future years, mirrors a similar compromise reached earlier this year with Service Employees International Union Local 1021, the county’s largest bargaining group, representing 1,700 workers in mostly non-public safety departments.
Between the two deals, the county estimates overall taxpayer savings of about $6 million a year, including $1.5 million from the law enforcement contract.
The county’s initial target would have achieved more than $8 million in annual savings between the two deals, including $2 million a year from the law enforcement contract.
County officials defended the compromise, saying it still achieved much-needed savings on rising pension costs and met the county’s target of cutting compensation costs by at least 3 percent — before adding back money to help employees with health care costs.
“The board had two sets of goals,” reducing long-term pension costs and assisting employees with health care expenses, said Chris Thomas, the assistant county administrator. “From my perspective, we’re continuing to meet the board’s goals and we’ll continue to do that throughout the rest of negotiations.”
The savings target achieved in the latest deal does not signal a wholesale revision to the county’s bargaining stance with other employee groups, Thomas said.
But Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt acknowledged the consistency in the two deals this year would not be lost on groups still at the negotiating table.
“I think they can read the papers and do their own analysis,” Rabbitt said. He nevertheless voiced support for the give-and-take in the multi-year contracts, which are aimed chiefly to reduce county pension costs, up more than 400 percent since 2000.
“I think we have made to-date the changes we need to make,” he said.
The county remains in contract talks with groups representing more than 650 employees, including deputy sheriffs, engineers, prosecutors and public defenders.
The county has already agreed upon or set compensation terms for more than 60 percent of its 3,500 employees, including those covered by SEIU and 600 top officials and unrepresented employees.
Among top earners, the Board of Supervisors is set to take an overall compensation cut of 8.5 percent, while reductions for department heads and managers are at 6.8 percent and 5.1 percent, respectively.
Most county employees have been working under a five-year freeze on cost-of-living increases to wages. The main exception is deputy sheriffs and sheriff’s sergeants, who received a 3 percent cost-of-living boost in 2009, plus equity increases of about 2.8 percent, according to the county. Their union heads back to the bargaining table Wednesday.
Members of the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association approved the tentative deal 143 to 117. Kimber Williams, the SCLEA president, said opposition was high due to discontent over previous concessions and a disputed jail staffing schedule the county proposed to limit overtime.
“There are some members who are tired of giving,” Williams said.
The 29-month deal would continue the salary freeze through October 2014. After that, wages would increase a total 3 percent over the remaining 13 months. The contract would expire in December 2015.
It would shift some county pension costs to employees, curtail pension spiking moves and eliminate a total of two of the group’s 17 wage premiums, which enhance daily pay and pensions for different skills, posts, certifications and shifts. It would reduce three premiums by making them payable only for hours worked in a particular assignment.
The changes are not on the scale of those in the SEIU agreement, which eliminated or reduced about 17 premiums. Williams said the comparison wasn’t relevant.
“The county said they wanted to get a 3 percent reset,” she said. “It was up to the association as to how we got there.”
You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.