As county supervisors find themselves at or near settlement on contracts with most of the county’s unions — managers, attorneys and rank-and-file employees — they’re now left facing their most formidable challenge in the Super Bowl of labor talks. 

Public safety.

To date, the all-Republican board has made no secret about its insistence that all county workers pay the full employee share of their pensions. But what is different this time is that when they say everybody, they also mean sheriff’s deputies.

“Their pension reimbursement to me is nonnegotiable. Everybody has to pay their portion of the pension,” said Supervisor Shawn Nelson.

No county employee group has been given a salary raise to help with that obligation in recent times.

Expect that to change.

Given the political calendar — we’re just a few months away from the June primary — and that San Diego deputies got an 8-percent raise over four years have sources close to law enforcement negotiations indicating that deputies may be offered to a 4-percent salary raise to partially cover the new requirement they pick up the employee share of their pensions, estimated to average 16 percent of a deputy’s paycheck.

So where would county officials get the extra money to fund raises?

There are indications that cities contracting with the county could be asked to step up their contributions, especially since they don’t carry the county unfunded pension liability for each deputy working under contract.

“She has to anticipate and strategize for increases,” said Lt. Jeff Hallock, a spokesman for Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens. “Some of those costs would potentially be passed on to contract cities.”

Sheriff’s deputy union leaders are busy reminding those pushing for a hard line on law enforcement that deputies can move to other agencies if Orange County pay and benefits fall behind.

“There is a cost associated with replacement,” said Tom Dominguez, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, who noted that the cost includes training. “It’s about $180,000 per person. … That adds up substantially.”

Dominguez added that there are worries about OC deputies leaving for other agencies.

 “It puts a lot of stress on the department, which costs a lot,” he said. “That’s the concern we have, and I know the county has the same concern.”

While other unions have come to public blows with county supervisors during contract talks — most visibly seen in the public campaign “The Real Supervisors of Orange County” by the Orange County Employees Association — Dominguez said deputies are focused on quietly negotiating a deal that benefits both sides.

“We’re not knuckle-draggers, ‘give us all the money’ ” type of people, Dominguez said. “That’s not what we’re about.”

Yet he knows this year’s negotiations don’t offer any side much wiggle room.

“It is going to be a challenge. The last, best and final [offer] is a 13- to 15-percent pay cut, … so I don’t think for any of us a 13-percent pay raise is in our future. For us to suggest otherwise, wouldn’t be reasonable,” he said.

So what is reasonable?

“We’re going to have to continue to meet with the county and see if there’s something creative that can get us through this contract,” Dominguez said. “The board has a lot of choices to make, just like we do. There are a lot of tough decisions to make.”

Yet Nelson, who has led negotiations, said deputies’ 2001 pension enhancement has effectively broken the bank, not leaving much room to maneuver.

With county costs for an annual pension payment soaring beyond 60 percent of a deputy’s paycheck, Nelson said there are tough choices ahead.

Supervisor John Moorlach often points to the 60-percent figure, saying that it’s the best argument that employee groups should collectively work to lower their pension benefit.

Nelson balks at deputies describing the imposition of pension payments on them as a pay cut.

“When I pay it, I don’t get any credit. But when they do, it’s a pay cut,” Nelson said.

“They chose this pension,” Nelson said, disputing a claim by Dominguez that county officials asked deputies to take pension enhancements a decade ago because it was cheaper for the general fund to enhance pensions as opposed to wages.

Despite what actuarial estimates might have been a decade ago, today the reality is ugly.

“This pension is so expensive, Nelson said. “Even if you pay your full share, the employee share, they’re in shock at how much it costs. No kidding. Where have you guys been over the last eight years?”

Nelson adds that when the last Board of Supervisors negotiated with the deputies last time around in 2009, they scaled up deputy payments to their pension in too feeble a fashion.

So while the county’s unfunded pension liability soared beyond the $5-billion mark, deputies’ pension payments were too little. Today, the Board of Supervisors wants them to go from paying about 6 percent to 16 percent.

“They’ve all gotten huge raises. Huge raises. They just demanded it go into the pension jar,” Nelson said.

Yet Nelson admits changing now is a big disruption for deputies. “The hit is big, there’s no denying that.”

Nelson even opened the door to the discussion of raises for the rank and file, saying even a best case scenario means a pay cut for them.

“If they got 4-percent pay increase, it’s actually a pay cut,” Nelson said.

Despite sentiments among deputies that the Board of Supervisors doesn’t appreciate their service, Nelson indicates there isn’t much wiggle room on the budget.

“I’m not looking to screw anybody. It’s not my fault the county budget is flat,” Nelson said.

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