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County wants unions to talk wage freeze

Grappling with a tight budget plan, Washington County wants some employee unions to reconsider pay increases guaranteed by contract.

The county is asking four unions with contracts in place through next year to reopen those contracts so wages can be renegotiated.

The goal, some officials said, is for those unions to erase a planned 3 percent raise and to get other unions that soon will negotiate new contracts also to accept a wage freeze.

A proposed 2010 county budget already assumes employees agree to a wage freeze, but that was not explained publicly when the plan was introduced.

A wage freeze will prevent further budget cuts, County Board Chairwoman Myra Peterson said.

"If they don't (agree), we have to let more people go," she said of the wage freeze in an interview. "That's the bottom line."

Peterson later said she should not have made public the county's intention because labor negotiations are handled in closed-door sessions.

County staff said they have asked the four unions back to the bargaining table to discuss 2010 wages, but will honor existing contracts if the unions decide against renegotiating. Staff declined to say they want agreement to freeze all salaries, but acknowledged the county's budget anticipates an organization-wide wage freeze.

"If we do give a general adjustment, we'd be looking at reducing the total number of full-time employees in the organization," Assistant Administrator Molly O'Rourke said.

Board to vote

The wage request comes as Washington County commissioners say they will not raise their salaries for 2010 and top county administrators and department directors say they, too, will forego pay increases next year.

The County Board caught some heat last December when three commissioners voted to raise their 2009 salaries by 3.5 percent. Commissioners earn $52,713.

Peterson, who represents the Cottage Grove area and voted for the 2009 increase, said foregoing a pay bump in 2010 has nothing to do with last year's decision.

"It's the economy," she said. "It's the difficulty of balancing the budget, asking our staff to do more with less."

Peterson said Washington County is among the most streamlined of Minnesota county governments and has one of the lowest employee-per-capita rates in the state.

Commissioner Lisa Weik of Woodbury said the County Board is responding to the challenge of having to set a budget without knowing how much state aid Washington County will receive for 2010.

"It's certainly a reflection of the economy and just the best value for the taxpayers," Weik said. "With the cutbacks at the county, I think it's a show of leadership."

Common problem

Washington County is not alone in its budget challenges, said Jim Mulder, Association of Minnesota Counties executive director. Flat wages and spending cuts are common across the state.

"What I have been hearing is that it seems like a majority of counties will be freezing their (commissioner) salaries," Mulder said. "It's certainly not the thing that makes or breaks the budget, but it is symbolic that when you're asking your employees to look at salary freezes, (commissioners) should too."

Commissioners will not formally vote on their 2010 salaries until December. In the meantime, officials soon will begin meeting with unions to talk about 2010 wages for the county's 1,100 union employees.

One of the four labor groups under contract is the International Union of Operating Engineers, or the Local 49ers. Union leader Kent Korman said he knew that the county wants to reopen contracts for wage negotiations.

The union's nearly 50 members will decide whether to renegotiate, he said, declining to speculate on their position.

"We need to sit down with them to hear what they have to say," Korman said of the county's labor negotiators.

But he added: "We're under no obligation to make any changes."

Washington County has not asked its unions to reopen contracts for wage adjustments in at least 25 years, said Kay McAloney, human resources director. McAloney recently sent a letter to the four unions under contract through next year to request that they go back to the table to talk wages. That request is a sign of extraordinary economic times, she said.

"They're very unique and not in a positive way," she said. "I would say that this is the most difficult year I've ever had in negotiations."

Talks to start

The four unions asked to reopen their contracts represent 174 employees, including equipment operators and staff in the county attorney's office and the sheriff's department.

Contracts for another four bargaining units end this year, and talks over new contracts are to begin soon. Those groups include the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents some 700 Washington County employees.

McAloney would not say whether the county will seek 2010 wage freezes from those unions.

"We have a duty to negotiate," she said, and that cannot take place in public.

Seeking an all-staff wage freeze is a "responsible path" for the county, Weik said. Taxpayers expect that the county will look into every area of spending as it decides how to fund county services next year.

"From that perspective," Weik said, "I would hope that everyone would go to those (labor negotiations) meetings with an open mind."