5/2/08

County pleads for union give-backs

In a bid to secure millions of dollars in concessions, Macomb County, Michigan officials have stepped up their negotiations with the employee unions four months after most labor contracts expired. With both sides jockeying for position, some critics say the Board of Commissioners and top administrators should have stepped forward and set an example by accepting concessions in their own health care and pension benefits. But the commissioners are quick to respond that they have accepted a 2-year pay freeze, and wages for all nonunion employees are frozen this year.

"Everybody wants someone else to go first," said county board Chairman Bill Crouchman. "Why haven't they (the unions) gone for a pay freeze? It goes both ways."

With the county facing a budget deficit of perhaps $12 million next year, securing several million dollars worth of concessions is a key component of the board's bid to balance the budget. With rapidly rising health care costs exceeding $16,000 per family and the county's contribution to the pension system topping $16 million a year, the actions at the bargaining table are key.

The county's 21 unionized bargaining units have accepted the need for give-backs, with their top priority resting on avoiding worker layoffs. The assumption, at this point, is that negotiated concessions for the 2,031 full-time unionized employees will be matched by the county's 450 nonunion employees.

Though negotiations got off to a slow start, with few bargaining sessions held before the Dec. 31 expiration of contracts, the tone has changed in recent days. The board's Personnel Committee scheduled a special session last week to meet behind closed doors to discuss bargaining and a second special meeting is slated for this morning.

"We seem to be making some progress. We hope to have agreements as soon as possible but these things have a life of their own," Crouchman said. "We want to settle everything soon because every month that we don't costs us a ton in health care alone."

Typically, county contact negotiations have dragged on for months or years. But this year commissioners have placed a major emphasis on reducing benefits as a means of dealing with chronic budget shortfalls.

Though the nonunion employees didn't accept concessions first, the leader of county government's largest employee union said that the ongoing process allows the unions to set the pace.

"I prefer to see the glass as half full," said Donna Cangemi, president of the 900-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

On the county board's agenda are changes in health care premiums, co-pays and deductibles. If the commissioners get their way, the employees' only option will be insurance coverage offered by HMOs.

Talk of converting from a traditional pension plan to a 401(k) plan is on the back burner for now, but the commissioners hope to trim down the cash-strapped county's generous "70-point plan" for retirement compensation.

Under that plan, any employee with a combined age and years of service that add up to 70 can retire with a full pension and lifetime health care benefits for themselves and a spouse. As a result, employees can retire at 50 years old.

County employees accepted health insurance concessions two years ago in mid-contract givebacks that were supposed to save the county $2.5 million a year.

Under those revised agreements, workers faced higher co-pays, severe restrictions on traditional Blue Cross Blue Shield health insurance, and new limitations on health care coverage for retirees.

A county consultant who predicted big savings was proven wrong last spring when officials reported that the concessions which took effect January 2006 had saved only about $500,000 for the first year.

Now, some commissioners say privately that the unions have every incentive to delay labor agreements so that they can avoid the financial hit of concessions. Labor leaders counter that they have been bargaining in good faith and proceeding at a reasonable pace.

At the same time, an ongoing issue is the fact that nonunion administrators and department heads - and particularly commissioners - will feel the economic impact of whatever concessions are negotiated.

Critics wonder if commissioners who will suffer the impact of cutbacks may be reluctant to make reductions in benefits.

The 26 commissioners serve part-time but earn a salary of $34,000 plus a full benefits package worth more than $10,000. Not all commissioners tap into the health care insurance but several are already eligible for pensions, which makes retirement pay a keen issue for board veterans.

Privately, some commissioners concede that their colleagues have been asking questions in executive sessions, closed to the public, about how proposed concessions would affect them.

When contracts come up for approval in public session, Crouchman said, commissioners who judge the proposed pact on its personal impact, rather than its overall benefit to the county, will do so at their own peril.

"The first time a commissioner would say that," said the St. Clair Shores Democrat, "would be the last time they would be in office."

Cangemi acknowledges that some of the internal sessions among the coalition of unions sometimes veer off into personal particulars, rather than the overriding goal of a fair contract for all employees.

"I think we've even seen that in some of our discussions," she said. "You've got to think about the whole group, not just about individualistic needs."

(macombdaily.com)

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