County makes changes to employee benefits during labor negotiations
In the current economy, when cuts may be necessary, heading up labor negotiations isn’t going to win you any popularity contests, but Mono County Chief Administrative Officer Jim Arkens continues to plod along in the necessary task, having completed negotiations with three of the County’s five bargaining units.
The three completed units are MCPE (miscellaneous public employees), Deputy Probation Officers, and the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association.
Currently, the County is negotiating with public safety officers and will begin negotiations with the paramedics soon. Arkens expects the negotiations with the paramedics to go on for awhile.
“There are a lot of issues,” he said. To address some of the issues, the County has commissioned consultants Fitch and Associates to produce a report that will identify the best paramedic structure going forward. The consultants are currently talking with community leaders and members and the report is expected in June, according to Arkens. Some have suggested that rather than having two paramedics in a rig at one time, the County may look to change to one paramedic and one EMT. Arkens couldn’t confirm or deny that strategy, claiming decisions were pending the outcome of the report and will ultimately be decided upon by the Board of Supervisors. He does not expect negotiations with paramedics to be completed until after the report is released.
“We will most likely be actively involved when it comes out,” he said.
Throughout the completed and current negotiations, Arkens claimed the County has been trying to avoid affecting employee’s base pay and has instead been reviewing benefits.
“We’re not targeting any employees,” Arkens said. “We don’t want to take anything away, but as times get tough we have to look at the issues. Mono County is already three years behind other counties in California. Everyone else has been reducing for some time.”
Mono County has not had to resort to any layoffs or furloughs.
One benefit the County has tampered with is the longevity incentive, which rewards employees for hitting a certain milestone in their careers with an increase in pay.
“It has been touted as a retention tool, but we’re not convinced that it works,” Arkens explained.
The MCPE and Probation Officers have reduced their longevity benefit by 1% while the Deputy Sheriffs’ have frozen it for the time being.
The County also reviewed health care benefits. Until now, Mono County employees haven’t had to contribute to their health care. In the completed negotiations, the bargaining units have agreed to begin to pay a portion. At-will employees, i.e. administration such as Arkens, will also pay a portion of their health care benefits.
“An employee plus one dependent will pay $25 per month and a family plan will be $50 per month,” Arkens said.
Accused in the past of being “anti-union,” Arkens commented that he had been a union officer and member for 21 years.
“I understand unions,” he said, “but in my current position I am looking out for providing the County with the best services for the lowest cost, and balancing the budget.”
He added that the current negotiation agenda was actually set before he became CAO last year.
“Granted I was the HR Director at the time, but the agenda was put together by Dave Wilbrecht,” Arkens said.
In other County benefit news, Finance Director Brian Muir recently refinanced the County’s side fund with CalPERS. The side fund is what the County pays into PERS in anticipation of what PERS will have to pay out when employees retire. There is an interest rate attached to this debt. By refinancing in the open market, the County was able to significantly lower its interest rate, and save $500,000 over the next 12 years.