Lots of talk, no deals, between Kern County and unions

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Published in the Bakersfield Californian on July 1, 2011

By James Burger

When the county of Kern launched negotiations with their 14 employee unions last year, the Board of Supervisors planned to fill a $15 million hole in the 2010-2011 budget with savings from immediate union concessions.

Now, with the budget year ending 12 months later, supervisors have yet to secure even a single union contract or collect savings from union concessions.

The county’s budget was balanced in July 2010 when unexpected revenue from higher taxes and departmental savings came in — filling the hole supervisors had planned to fill with cuts to employee benefits.

But supervisors took a hard line at the bargaining table, rejecting union proposals while refusing to budge on their core demands — that workers who don’t contribute to retirement or health care costs from their paychecks to begin contributing and that unions that haven’t reduced the pension formulas for new hires agree to do so.

Union negotiations broke down. Supervisors declared impasse with the unions, one by one. Mediation failed.

And the county and its unions stumbled into a sort of limbo where employees lived under their old contracts and supervisors declined to impose a new one.

Now contract negotiations are in a holding pattern with mediation sessions and fact-finding investigations spread out over the next 60 to 90 days.

Unions are still staunchly against an all-cuts contract that does not return anything to union members.

Regina Kane, president of the Kern County chapter of the Service Employees International Union, said if supervisors want financial concessions they need to give the union some kind of benefits in return. SEIU, which represents most county employees, has asked for a number of non-monetary benefits such as better break policies, Kane said.

Marc Haiungs, president of the Kern Law Enforcement Association — the union for sheriff’s deputies — said the county has never been in the dire financial circumstances that it says justify the sweeping pension and health care concessions it is seeking.

“They have the money. They were just wanting that political headline saying that they’d gotten concessions,” he said.

And Derek Robinson, president of the Kern County Fire Fighters union, said the supervisors would already have a contract with some concessions from the unions if they hadn’t taken a hard line and been unwilling to offer employees something in return for them.

But 2nd District Supervisor Zack Scrivner disputes the argument that the county has enough money to continue with the status quo.

While county budgets are balanced, services to the public have been slashed sharply in the past three years to keep the county afloat.

“You look at (Recreation) and Parks where we’re talking about shutting down the recreation buildings. Veterans buildings are being shuttered for anyone who isn’t a veteran. I have one code enforcement officer in the entire 2,800 square miles of the second district.” he said.

And, he said, since the county’s out-of-pocket pension costs are projected to balloon drastically over the next decade, the county risks making more cuts to services as time goes on.

Scrivner said retirement benefit formulas must be reduced for new employees to control pension costs over the long term and employees must pay into retirement and health care programs to ease the short-term costs.

Haiungs said the unions aren’t unwilling to make the deals supervisors are looking for, but there has to be a give-and-take — something good that employees can accept to balance the negative impacts to their bottom lines.

Scrivner said the county has recognized that its projected cuts to employees will cause hardships, and offered to phase in the increases in retirement payments in over a five-year contract, rather than the previous three-year deal.

Unions didn’t accept that idea.

There is uncertainty about whether the supervisors will eventually impose contract conditions on employees, something that seem inevitable earlier in the process, or whether they will try to find a way to make a deal at the table.

“It doesn’t seem like they want to impose,” Haiungs said.

“We’re getting to the point where imposition is inevitable,” said Brian Ronan, president of the Kern County Probation Officers Association, adding, “Sometimes we don’t know whether board members are willing to or ready to impose.”

Scrivner said supervisors want to reach an agreement with county unions — one that contains the conditions supervisors have been pushing for.

Kane said that, so far, the situation is a win for unions.

“We haven’t paid dime one,” she said.

The final resolution, Kane said, may be decided by who flinches first.

“I guess it’s going to come down to who is more stubborn, me or (board chairman) Mike Maggard,” she said. “I think it’s going to be me.”

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