Our View: Public’s interests must come first in next labor deal

Our View
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Autumn may have sporting minds turning to the pigskin, but the old-fashioned country hardball being played by Placer County administrators and employees appears to have no end in sight. Leaders from both sides must choose to play a different game in the future. A timeout is appropriate after the county Board of Supervisors’ voted to impose a package of cost-saving measures on the 1,850-member Placer Public Employees Union two weeks ago. The measures included doubling health-care premium contributions by employees from 10 percent to 20 percent, increased pension contributions by employees and establishing a two-tier pension system under which future county employees will receive pensions based on the average wage of their last three years, rather than the highest year of compensation. The imposed conditions will apply until June 2011. No doubt the imposed contract changes will hit hard the pocketbooks of county employees. No one likes paying more for health care or retirement, especially when wage freezes, plunging home equity and personal investment losses have combined to hammer household net worth and cast further uncertainty about the future. But amid gloomy financial forecasts and rising taxpayer discontent about government wage and benefit packages, county administrators have little room but to shift some costs to employees. How they both accomplish their goals — union leaders securing a fair compensation package and the county balancing budget and service considerations — will always be a delicate balancing act that requires open dialogue, sacrifice and compromise. Each time a new labor agreement is signed, each of these are involved to varying degrees. Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery may have gotten it right in voting against the changes, urging county negotiators to try mediation before the iron fist of imposing the contract. Mediation works if both parties want to work out a deal. But her reasoning, that retirees shouldn’t pay more for health care or that a new, 600-hour cap for sick pay shouldn’t be implemented, showed her disconnect with the private sector. Are there any companies offering 75 days of sick pay? If county leaders used the impasse to take a one-off shot at the union, shame on them. If union leaders felt the association didn’t need to dig deep on concessions, they should think again. Moving forward, both sides need to put the public’s interests first, with a labor contract that’s in line with service priorities — public safety, human services and streamlined, efficient operations. The truth is that comprehensive, fundamental change is necessary. Public employees should be treated fairly, but should know longer expect a rich package of health and retirement benefits to offset what used to be lower wages and salaries. That gap no longer exists with the private sector. County administrators must restructure county staff and services. That starts at the top, with county CEO Tom Miller, his cadre of assistants and board support staff. Get leaner, stay lean and influence department managers to do the same. County management should lead by example with a tiered salary cut — 10 percent for those making more than $200,000, and 5 percent for those making more than $100,000. Furloughs or higher benefit costs cut far deeper on someone making $45,000 than someone pulling in six figures. Taxpayer expectations must be tempered. With calls from conservatives, liberals and tea partiers alike calling for “smaller government,” taxpayers shouldn’t expect the same or better level of service they once received. These concepts are hard to accept on their own, but each must be recognized before union reps and county labor negotiators sit down again at the bargaining table. And sit down they will. The county and employees’ union have nine months to figure out their next moves. That time will pass quickly, so both sides should begin planning now to build a labor contract that’s fair to all. Especially the taxpayers of Placer County.