County seeks pay concessions from workers

THURSDAY, OCT. 15, 2009

Officials asking to amend contracts say 250 could lose their jobs

Spokane County could lay off as many as 250 employees next year to close a projected $10.5 million gap between expected tax collections and its current budget.

County officials are asking to renegotiate the labor contracts they signed last year to eliminate the promised cost-of-living adjustment raises and seek other concessions before the 2010 budget is approved in December. Union leaders are talking with members of county departments and may come up with proposals for various labor units.

“Every department and every union is in a different boat,” said Gordon Smith, staff representative of the Washington State Council of County and City Employees, who handles work for 14 of the county unions. “In bad times, though, it’s about trying to save jobs.”

The unions have just received the information they need to start talking with department heads, Smith said: how large a cut each department faces and how each department plans to make it.

For many departments, the cuts are between 10 percent and 11 percent.

Overall, the county is facing a $10.5 million shortfall in its general fund, which this year had a budget of about $146.4 million. Translating that shortfall strictly into jobs would mean layoffs of about 250 workers without changes in the labor contracts, county spokeswoman Martha Lou Wheatley-Billeter said.

“The sales tax is the big culprit,” said Marshall Farnell, county chief executive officer. Retail sales are down, and the county has lost some sales taxes because previously unincorporated areas have been annexed or become cities.

County officials want to start with getting union members to agree to give up next year’s cost-of-living adjustments – 2.5 percent for most employees but about 3.5 percent for some in the Sheriff’s Office – that are promised in labor contracts signed last year. The contracts can’t be amended without the consent of a majority of the union members.

Farnell said raises county employees have not yet received “would be the easiest to give up.” But he acknowledged that forgoing the raises alone will not cover the shortfall, and some layoffs or furloughs would still be needed.

Not all workers are paid out of the general fund, Smith said. Some, such as the utility departments, are paid by revenues from the services they provide and aren’t in financial trouble. Even if those employees give up their raises, it wouldn’t help the shortfall in the general fund, he said.

Unless all workers give up cost-of-living adjustments, however, the county would find itself in a situation where workers doing the same job in different departments would be paid differently, Smith said.

The county and its unions will return to the bargaining table next year, and county officials can’t promise to restore the raises in future contracts, Farnell said: “Where’s our economy going to be in 2010?”

The unions are looking at a combination of furloughs, turning paid holidays into unpaid time off and other possibilities, Smith said.

Department heads have looked at furloughs, too. The Planning and Building Department operates on a four-day week because of budget cuts, Farnell said, but many departments and the courts need to be open Monday through Friday.

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