Officials See Deal as Bridge to New Era of Public Sector Work

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Orange County’s all-Republican Board of Supervisors appears set to embark on a radical experiment to reshape local government, giving it a more entrepreneurial twist.

And they’re doing it in partnership with labor.

But both sides have only 14 months.

On it’s face, the contract between the Orange County Employees Association or OCEA and the county on behalf of 12,000 county workers would run through June 25, 2015, and feature a 1.25-percent salary increase along with a one-time payment of 1.25 percent of salary next month.

Other changes to health insurance, noncashable time off and premium pay for confidential employees are expected to reduce public costs by $15.6 million over the next three fiscal years.

The salary bump and one-time payment are expected to cost $37.8 million over the same period.

Overall, the new agreement, the product of a formal mediation, is projected to cost the county $7.4 million per year.

Officials from both sides are heralding the temporary pact, mainly because it buys them time.

Time to be creative.

“We were so burdened by this ongoing cloud of labor negotiations, we couldn’t get to the creative stuff,” said supervisors Chairman Shawn Nelson, who was himself catapulted into office in 2010 on an anti-public employee union campaign that featured more than $1 million in labor spending against him.

Nelson — whose colleagues proposed to retain chairmanship of the board for a second year to finish labor talks — said he supports the current labor contract because he sees an opening.

Both sides are talking about trying to make county government more entrepreneurial by rewarding employees who craft efficiencies in their departments and keep overall costs down.

“There’s are some things we can do with employees and get them focused on how they can get a reward,” Nelson said. “Hey, if you can do the same thing with less people, you ought to get more in wages. The challenge is coming up with metrics.”

Nelson said given Orange County’s incredibly poor return on property taxes from Sacramento, there’s a general acknowledgment among both supervisors and labor officials that resources are not going up.

When Orange County gets back six cents for every dollar of property taxes sent to Sacramento, Nelson argued, “Everybody’s getting the raw end of that deal. And until it’s fixed, it going to sting for all of us.”

Until that changes, the old ways aren’t going to work going forward, both sides seem to agree.

“I sense a willingness to do something different,” Nelson said.

OCEA officials also argue there’s a better way to negotiate salaries and create efficiency for taxpayers in terms of enhanced services.

This bridge agreement allows them time to figure out how to get there.

“I think we really have to become creative,” said Nick Berardino, general manager of the OCEA. “It’s not just creative. We have to begin to understand what does the public sector look like in the future. And how’s it going to evolve. And be prepared to meet the new realities.”

“It’s the way we deliver services. You have to be efficient in how services are delivered,” he said.

Berardino said OCEA has been pushing for this kind of approach for the past three years in county negotiations.

Now is the time to move forward, he said.

“We’re prepared to engage in that process and look at how employee compensation can be rewarded for efficient performance,” he said.

Nelson said the challenge would be how to quantify those kinds of savings and redirect them into workers’ paychecks.

“The challenge is how to be a leader and how we would implement it,” Nelson said.

The current round of salary talks — called the Super Bowl of labor negotiations, because virtually every employee group had their contracts expire around the same time — has dragged on for more than two years and become as nasty as they get in recent memory.

Deputy sheriff’s are the last outstanding union still in the midst of labor negotiations, having received a tough last, best and final offer from supervisors in January. That offer requires deputies to pay the full employee share of their pension — from just over six percent to 16 percent — with a small raise of 1.25 percent.

The attorneys association has challenged the county’s negotiations approach in court. Managers also faced imposed terms. Even supervisors themselves have faced tough questions about their pay and pensions.

Negotiations with OCEA became incredibly tense recently with a host of nasty television and Internet attack ads launched against county supervisors and assault allegations leveled by county officials against Berardino.

Today both sides seem a world away from that harsh reality.

“It was a tough compromise for both sides,” Berardino said. “What I like is that it gives us an opportunity to work with the county on embracing a new era for public employees in terms of compensation and delivering services.”

Please contact Norberto Santana Jr. directly at nsantana@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/norbertosanana.

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