Fact-finder urges middle ground in county-union stalemate

The Bakersfield Californian Logo

BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer

Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011

An impartial fact-finder has recommended the county of Kern and its employee unions meet in the middle to resolve long-simmering contract disputes, but one side complains the other won’t budge.

Derek Robinson, president of the Kern County Fire Fighters union, said his group offered to follow the fact-finder’s recommendations even though it would have meant some county firefighters begin paying 20 percent of their health care premiums and 12 percent of the cost to fund their retirements.

They’ve historically been exempted from contributing to retirement and health care costs.

Newly hired county firefighters would also earn a lower retirement benefit, which now gives them 3 percent of their annual pay for every year of service to the county and allows them to retire at age 50.

But the county soundly rejected the idea in an email exchange between the firefighter union lawyer and a county representative.

“The county is not in the position at this time to accept the conditions as specified in the Summary of Conclusions in the Fact Finder’s decision,” wrote Tracey Eldridge of the County Administrative Office. “Therefore, we renew our request to continue with mediation.”

The sticking point may have been that the fact finder’s recommendation also included a finding for the union that would have granted 3 percent raises to county firefighters in the second and third years of the agreement.

Supervisor Zack Scrivner declined to speak directly to any specific union’s situation to avoid negotiating in public, but said in general he believes there should be no raises for county employees.

He understands, he said, that many county employees who are not currently required to pay into their retirements could take a serious financial hit if that exemption is removed. He supports phasing in the amount of contributions exempt employees would make over several years.

But, Scrivner said, health care contributions need to be increased immediately because the money would be an immediate boon to county’s finances.

“It’s reasonable to require that folks pay into their health care,” he said.

The fact-finder who reported on county negotiations with the Service Employees’ International Union — the union that represents the majority of county employees — agreed that the health care contributions should be made by county employees but suggested that the 20 percent premium payments demanded by the county should actually be phased in over two years — to 10 percent in the first year and 20 percent in the second.

As for retirement payments, the fact finder recommended that union members not be required to pay contributions to their retirement costs.

“…the Factfinder is not persuaded that the county has demonstrated a sufficiently compelling fiscal basis to warrant its proposed change to the employee retirement contributions for the employees at issue, a substantial take-away for these employees,” fact finder Walter Daugherty wrote.

In a footnote, Daugherty pointed out that the average employee would face a $4,870 annual decrease in income from the county proposal.

Regina Kane, president of the Kern County chapter of SEIU Local 521, said the union was willing to go with the fact-finder’s recommendations but the county rejected the idea on Tuesday.

“We felt that the fact finder was fair,” she said. “We’re very disappointed in hearing that the county is not accepting the recommendation. We have had a lot of contact with the members and they are very disappointed.”

Supervisor Mike Maggard said he stands firm on his stance that employees must pay into their retirement and health benefits.

Both he and Scrivner acknowledge that the county is in a healthier financial position than it has been in the past.

Daugherty wrote that “one may argue that the county’s fiscal situation is not as bleak as it portrays,” but he “cannot fault the county for taking a conservative approach to economic issues” given the uncertain times governments in California face financially.

Maggard said the county is solvent because supervisors have made steep staffing and program cuts over the past several years.

Supervisors point to dire reports from the Kern County Employees’ Retirement Association showing that county pension bills will continue to grow sharply in the next few years.

“When I look at our long-term financial situation, it’s my opinion that we are very much in financial duress,” Maggard said.

Robinson said by prolonging the conflict with the unions, supervisors are failing to capture the money that he and other union leaders have agreed to begin contributing under the recommendations the various fact-finders have made.

His union has, he said, agreed to concede the pension reform that supervisors sought when they started the process.

But the county won’t meet the union in the middle with pay increases.

Kern County unions have accused supervisors of worrying more about the politics of pension and healthcare reform than the realities of the county’s situation and, Robinson said, that doesn’t appear to have changed.

“I think they want to be able to grandstand that they imposed these conditions against the evil, powerful unions,” he said.

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