3/24/08

County sets stage for big union payday

Rank-and-file county workers faulted their lawmakers last week for giving a $10,000 raise to legislative aide and Hudson County (NY) spokeswoman Alexis Eggleton. "How can you give her a raise when we're vastly underpaid?" they wondered. But while the county's union workforce focuses on Eggleton and her new salary, there is more to the story.

Since November 2007, the county Legislature has handed out $164,895 in pay raises to 35 of its nonunion workers, also known as managerial and confidential employees.

It all started at the top. The nine county legislators gave themselves a raise of $611, or 3 percent. They now make $20,977 for their part-time duties. The salary of Legislature Chairman Jonathan Rouis was also hiked by 3 percent, to $29,977.

Lawmakers defended their raises last week when asked if they were prudent financial decisions considering the county is facing costly capital projects and dwindling revenues. Rouis, a Democrat, called the raises a "cost of living adjustment," and said a periodic raise is necessary to attract quality elected officials. Republican lawmaker Leni Binder said the legislators' salaries pale in comparison to what they could make using their time for private employment.

"I don't think the raises were out of line because just my cost of staying in the Government Center, rather than working elsewhere, eats that money up," Binder said.

As for county employees, several got raises comparable to or larger than Eggleton's. The director of veteran services received a $9,765 boost, the county auditor got $10,000, and the position of deputy clerk to the legislature got $13,077. When Josh Potosek was promoted to the new position of commissioner of management and budget, he got a $27,758 raise.

Some lawmakers defended these decisions, too. Potosek took on myriad new responsibilities when he was promoted, such as oversight of the personnel department and all the county's credit cards. New financial laws would have required an outside auditor, or more work for the in-house auditor. In the end, giving the county auditor a raise was cheaper, lawmakers said. The veteran services raise was based on tenure, and money was freed for the deputy clerk when another clerk's position was eliminated.

Still, other lawmakers were unhappy with the staff pay raises. Binder and fellow Republican Jodi Goodman voted against the 2008 budget in part, they said, because they disagreed with the higher salaries. Both went along with their Democratic counterparts in accepting their own raises.

Now the county will have to defend these pay raises when it negotiates new contracts with union leaders this year. With a $100 million jail project, $51 million in landfill debt, and a slumping economy on the horizon, county officials have been warning of a financial dilemma. The new pay hikes send a different message to union brass, who believe there must be money in the coffers for their workers, too.

"We are concerned when confidential employees are afforded large raises but rank-and-file employees are overdue the raises they deserve," said Lou Setren, the business agent for more than 600 county workers who belong to Teamsters Local 445. "What's good for one should be good for all."

(recordonline.com)

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