Negotiators representing more than 1,800 Orange County sheriff’s deputies have apparently reached an impasse in salary talks with county supervisors as the two sides have been unable to come to terms on employee pension contributions and pay raises.

Supervisors have remained steadfast in their demands that deputies pay significantly more toward their pensions to help alleviate the county’s $5-billion unfunded liability. Deputies, meanwhile, say they are ready to agree to increased pension contributions but want a pay raise to help cushion the blow.

Adding pressure to the negotiations is the reality that the county must balance its budget with $73 million less than it had previously, because supervisors lost a legal fight with Gov. Jerry Brown last year over property tax revenue.

The supervisors’ largest bargaining chip is the fact that the county now pays the equivalent of more than 60 percent of a deputy’s paycheck to the pension system each year.

While deputies were required to pay a small portion of their employee share of monthly pension payments in the last county contract negotiation, the amount was small and was slowly phased in over several years to the current 6 percent. Prior to 2009, deputies paid nothing into their retirement benefits.

County supervisors argue that’s unsustainable, not only for the solvency of the pension system but for the prospects of any pay raises in the near future.

They are demanding that deputies immediately step up to pay the full 16-percent employee share of their monthly pension contribution.

Deputy union officials counter with the argument that other jurisdictions are in hiring mode, and if county officials force such a hard deal on the union, they will lose their best deputies to other places and have to spend large amounts to recruit and retain.

They point to the myriad problems faced by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which recently confronted allegations that softening recruiting standards has attracted deputies with less than stellar backgrounds.

In many ways, an impasse is hardly surprising given this is the last of a group of grinding contract negotiations in the county’s so-called “Super Bowl of Labor Talks,” with the contracts of a half-dozen county unions expiring in recent years.

Nearly every group — executives, managers, attorneys and general employees — has reached impasse, and most have had hard pension payments imposed on them. General workers already pay the full employee share of their pension payment.

Yet while the overall message from the supervisors has been consistent, they seem to have recently split over tactics with the deputies.

Supervisors Chairman Shawn Nelson and Supervisor John Moorlach have reportedly drawn a hard line on pensions, arguing full employee share must be paid. They argue after paying for deputy pensions, there’s nothing left for raises in the public safety budget.

Two other supervisors — Pat Bates and Janet Nguyen, who both face State Senate elections this year — have been willing to consider alternatives but haven’t jumped out in front of their colleagues, according to sources.

Not so for Supervisor Todd Spitzer, a potential future contender for district attorney, who considers himself close to law enforcement. Spitzer was the force behind a special closed-door meeting late last week that reportedly held a deal.

“I wanted a counter,” said Spitzer on Friday. “I asked the chairman [Nelson] to hold a special meeting. I thought we were close and we needed to go back into closed session,” Spitzer said.

It’s rare to see county supervisors publicly disagreeing on terms in the midst of labor talks, but Spitzer said he is deeply troubled by the confrontational nature of the relationship between the board and deputies.

“I thought it was really close,” he said. “I really don’t want to go to impasse.”

Spitzer said he’s concerned about department morale, saying it ranks 16th out of 22 law enforcement agencies in Orange County when it comes to pay and benefits.

“I’m concerned, and I know the sheriff [Sandra Hutchens] is concerned about recruitment and retention,” Spitzer said. “I don’t want to turn Orange County into Los Angeles.”

Spitzer said he’s “not happy about impasse, because it sends the wrong message to the rank and file that our board is not concerned about our public safety personnel,” he said.

Reportedly, supervisors are trying to find a way to offer some sort of pay raise immediately — as much as 4.5 percent. That could be followed next year by a hike for senior deputies, those with more than 15 years, engineered through a quiet step increase. Salary for entry-level deputies would likely be the hardest hit pay rate.

Yet on Friday, the formal deadline for the union to respond to the county’s “last, best and final offer,” no one was willing to talk publicly about that kind of deal.

Earlier Friday, county Human Resources Director Steve Danley said supervisors’ direction was to declare impasse at 4 p.m. if the deputies did not accept the county offer.

Then two hours after the deadline had passed, Danley said deputy union officials had sent a letter seeking a delay.

Danley then said he would consult attorneys and other county officials before declaring impasse, saying, “I’ll hold off on any pronouncements until Monday.”

However, a spokeswoman for the deputy sheriffs on Friday night said a decision had already been made.

“Our understanding is we are at impasse,” said Kimberly Edds, spokeswoman for the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs.

That was followed by a formal letter sent to members that night.

“We have been advised that the Board of Supervisors will not extend the Last, Best and Final offer date,” wrote association President Tom Dominguez. “The Board of Supervisors declared impasse as of 1600 hours today. Their action will now begin the process of mediation.”

Dominguez advised members that mediation could turn out a deal.

“As the Board of Supervisors and AOCDS have seen progress toward reaching an agreement, there are still differences that need to be resolved,” he wrote.

Spitzer also was confident a deal could be reached, despite the ominous tone of the word “impasse.”

“Impasse is a term of art,” Spitzer said. “It means you will continue discussions but generally involves a mediator. I’m hopeful we’ll be able to continue the discussion.”

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