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County workers agree to forego cost-of-living pay increase in 2011

San Juan County will bank on more than a half-million dollars in payroll savings to help keep the books balanced in 2011 — and to keep its workforce largely intact.

On Oct. 12, the County Council approved an amendment to the collective bargaining agreement with Local 1849 in which union members agreed to forego any cost-of-living increase in 2011. Members of Local 1849, which represents about 150 county employees, were slated to receive a 3 percent pay increase next year as part of a four-year contract that went into effect in 2009.

Similarly, the council approved a resolution that excludes a large majority of the county’s non-union workers from cost-of-living increases in the year ahead as well. Under the agreement and the resolution endorsed by the council, union members and their “non-represented” counterparts will also be required to take five non-paid furlough days.

In total, more than 200 employees will be affected by the cost-of-living freeze and the five furlough days, which, according to county officials, will translate into $525,818 in payroll savings in 2011.

The union agreed to amend its contract following two months of negotiations.

County Human Resources Manager Pamela Morais said the county and union representatives began negotiating possible concessions once several triggers were met that allowed the collective bargaining agreement to be reopened. Those triggers include the loss of 16 or more bargaining unit positions since January 2009 and a looming 14.7 percent increase in medical insurance premiums — paid by the county and employees — that will go into effect next year.

“This represents not just stagnation, but a loss of real income,” Morais said of the price paid by employees for a hike in insurance premiums.

Phyllis Morrison, president of Local 1849, said union members agreed to wage concessions and furlough days largely to prevent any further job losses. The county, faced with sharp revenue declines in the wake of a prolonged downturn in the local economy, trimmed roughly 20 positions from the workforce over the past two years and had been considering additional cuts to bring next year’s budget into balance.

“We knew we had to come up with something,” Morrison said. “We didn’t want to lose any more people. Bottom line, this was about keeping jobs.”

Still, union officials vow to keep what Morais describes as a “laser-like focus” on the council’s priorities and spending decisions. Connie Sundstrom, a member of Local 1849’s negotiating team, said there are numerous financial decisions that have either been made or are being considered by county management that remain of great concern to union members, such as the use of paid consultants and possible privatization of the solid waste operation, which would lead to the elimination of about a dozen union positions.

“There’s a lot of areas that can be focused on,” she said.

With a half-million dollars in payroll savings on the books, the county’s financial team, led by Administrator Pete Rose and Auditor Milene Henley, unveiled Oct. 12 a preliminary 2011 budget that is balanced. It features a general fund totaling $13.6 million in anticipated revenue and expenses.

Whether that balance can be maintained remains to be seen. Members of the Sheriff’s Guild, which agreed to forego a cost-of-living increase for this year, have yet to come to terms on a new contract. In addition, the verdict is still out on whether the county’s elected officials will receive a salary increase beginning next year. A decision from the Citizens Salary Commission, which determine how much elected officials of the county are paid, is expected sometime in December.

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