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Resistance in the county 

Attorney unions hold out against pension rate increases

On Nov. 23, San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Adam Hill did a strange thing. After county officials finished their routine business for the morning and applauded an agreement reached with the union representing SLO County Sheriff’s deputies, Hill blasted two other unions for resisting similar agreements.

“I’m happy that our deputies association has in fact agreed to pay more for their pension,” Hill said. “Our deputy county counsels and assistant DAs are unwilling to help us in moving forward with this reform.”

No one spoke out in defense of the two unions. Most people at the meeting, in fact, just agreed.

“Our goal is the long-term stability of this county, and whatever way we have to try to establish that stability, we are lock step to do that,” Supervisor Frank Mecham chimed in.

As two of the county’s most powerful unions dry the ink on their pay packages for the coming year, two other groups are holding out. Actually, for the past three years, unions representing SLO County’s legal underbelly—the Deputy County Counsel Association (DCCA) and San Luis Obispo Government Attorneys’ Union (SLOGAU)—have snubbed every county offer.

It’s really no surprise that the county would be butting heads with unions over pensions. SLO County opted for a private system, not participating in the $217.2-billion California Public Employees’ Retirement System. The county’s system has become a bit of a headache in recent years. Thanks in large part to the impotent economy, combined with a few badly placed investments (switching from primarily bonds to primarily stocks just before the tech bubble burst, for example), the SLO County Pension Trust was $279 million in the crapper, according to the most recent actuarial table released in June. Of the $1.5 billion owed to about 1,900 retirees and another 2,500 county employees waiting to cash in, the county pension fund was short by 22 percent. Pension gurus have asked the county to pump in more money to keep retirees happy.

Officials slapped on a few bandages over the years, but the bottom line is the fund needs money and it needs money bad. The county is looking to increase contributions into the pension by more than 7 percent across the board.

The San Luis Obispo County Employees’ Association (SLOCEA) and the newly formed Association of San Luis Obispo County Deputy Sheriffs (ASLOCDS)—virtual Goliaths of county unions—polished off their contracts for the coming year, which include increased contributions split evenly between the county and employees.

Members of the DCCA and SLOGAU have been at an impasse after county officials began jacking up employee contribution rates. In the 2007-08 fiscal year, union members refused to accept such a deal. In fact, they argue that the county can’t require them to negotiate pension rates. In a letter sent to the county earlier this year, Santa Monica firm Silver, Hadden, Silver, Wexler, and Levine said the union can’t “‘bargain in a manner that would impair its members’ vested rights under the Plan.”

Think of it like pleading the Fifth: Members argue that the terms of the county’s pension plan protect them from negotiating for rate increases that could end up screwing them in the long run.

“It’s an attempt to take away something that’s already been earned,” said attorney Stephen Silver, representing the unions.

Joined at the hip by a so-called “me too” clause, the deputy DAs receive the same pay and benefits as their county counsel counterparts (an average employee makes a base pay of $7,264 per month). They combined their collective legal minds and together sued the county. The case is set for a hearing in January 2011. County supervisors hired a private law firm, and on Nov. 23 paid out $135,000 from general fund contingencies to litigate that case, among others.

At the core of the unions’ lawsuit is the belief that the county is supposed to bear the brunt of increased contributions.

County officials have been desperately grasping for a permanent fix to the budget, which is choking on escalating salaries brought about under the prevailing wage ordinance and increased pension costs because of the flimsy financial markets. However, if the DCCA and SLOGAU win their suit, that could mean other unions have taken long-term hits rather than short-term pay cuts.

“I think what the county wants is something more permanent,” Silver said.

Silver decried Hill and other officials for publicly criticizing the unions, defending that they have offered to take short-term salary cuts rather than permanent pension increases—a proposal he said county officials have never accepted.

Some county officials have pointed to the fact that even such gigantic unions as SLOCEA and ASLOCDS have bent a bit this year.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea for any public employees to be resisting these reforms,” Hill told New Times. “Because the public kind of wants them.”

County Counsel Warren Jensen, who is management and therefore not part of the union, said even if language of the county’s pension plan is a little fuzzy, the county is allowed to negotiate contribution increases.

“We were able to achieve that with most of the other unions,” he said.

Union members would argue they’re not resisting such reforms, but that the reforms violate the plan. That plan, however, is convoluted at best.

“There are very few plans that are exactly like our plan,” Jensen said.

 

News Editor Colin Rigley hopes he retires before the sun dies. Contact him at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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