A sharply divided Orange County board of supervisors Tuesday, on a 3-2 vote, approved a two-year labor contract for more than 2,000 deputy sheriffs working throughout the county jails and patrolling local communities.
The deputies’ contract became controversial because of allegations of pension spiking from Supervisors’ Chairman Shawn Nelson and John Moorlach, who voted against the labor pact.
Both supervisors took issue with the deal ultimately approved privately saying that deputies got too much of a salary offset in the negotiations, making a mockery of the requirement that they pay more into their pensions.
The county approach to negotiations with sheriff deputies, offsetting higher pension payments with salary increases, is a concept that supervisors rejected in other labor negotiations.
Tom Dominguez, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, publicly disputed Nelson and Moorlach’s claims, saying they had “mischaracterized” the trade offs as pension spikes.
Dominguez said deputy sheriffs still lagged in medical coverage behind other workers, criticized the requirement to pay full pension share as too fast and reminded supervisors that the contract was not popular with rank and file deputies.
County officials now pay the equivalent of about 60 percent of a deputy’s salary to their pension contributions and the county’s unfunded pension liability is past the $5 billion mark.
That has put significant strain on both the county budget and salary talks.
According to the county staff report, the net estimated impact of the term of the two-year contract would be a total cost to taxpayers of $14.7 million, making it the most expensive labor contract at the county.
For comparison, the deal recently reached with 12,000 general county workers carried a cost of $22 million over three years. According to sources knowledgeable about the county budget, the salary concessions to deputies will present challenges next year as many one-time revenue enhancements were utilized to keep this budget cycle balanced.
Supervisors Todd Spitzer, Pat Bates and Janet Nguyen on Tuesday supported the deal with the deputies saying it was competitive with what’s being done in other counties and would avoid Orange County losing good deputies to other places that pay better.
Of that group, only Spitzer – rumored to be gearing up for a run for district attorney in 2018 – will have to potentially deal with the budgetary implications as both Bates and Nguyen are running for the state senate.
Moorlach and Nelson – both visibly demoralized on Tuesday – largely stood alone in their opposition to the deal, with several elected officials and candidates – State Senator Mimi Walters and Assemblywoman Diane Harkey – sending representatives to the public podium Tuesday to speak in support.
The Orange County Register’s editorial page also took issue with the concessions in the contract concluding, “this deal is not in the best interest of the community.”
Later in the day, Moorlach wrote in his “Moorlach Update” newsletter entitled “Python’s Tightening Grips” that “increased salaries will mean increased pension liabilities.”
Although Nelson voted against the deal, Walters, in a statement, credited him for a “monumental” achievement in getting the deputies to pay into their pensions like every other employee.
Even Orange County’s conservative Lincoln Club – which has been very vocal about the county’s unfunded pension liability – remained silent on the issue, with President Wayne Lindholm avoiding comment.
Both Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and District Attorney Tony Rackauckas publicly supported the deal, arguing that low crime rates and public safety compensation are connected.
“Safety and security comes at a cost,” Hutchens said in a prepared statement.
Only one candidate running for one of two open county supervisor seats in November chimed in on the issue.
State Assemblyman Alan Mansoor – running to replace Moorlach as 2nd District Supervisor – stood firmly and vocally with Moorlach saying he would not support raising deputy salaries to match heightened pension contributions.
His opponent, State Board of Equalization Board Member Michelle Steel – who already received campaign support from the deputy’s union – remained silent when asked her opinion of the deal.
That position is similar to the answers given during the Feet to the Fire debate on the race earlier this year.
In the 5th District, the silence was similar.
Dana Point Mayor Lisa Bartlett didn’t respond to a call seeking comment.
Laguna Niguel Mayor Robert Ming danced around the issue offering a roundabout comment.
“I wasn’t part of this process so I can’t comment on how we got here, but I can certainly share how I would approach things next time. We need a long-term fix for how pensions are funded so we don’t end up underfunded again. We also need to attract and retain quality deputies. My South County cities expect a high quality of service from the sheriff so we can’t expect to pay total compensation at the bottom of the barrel, but many cities are struggling financially too, just like the county. Every dollar in increased sheriff contract costs comes out of parks, streets and other city programs. Finding the right balance won’t be easy, but those are the things I’ll be focused on.”
The trade-off negotiated after two years of private talks that got deputies to pay their full employee share of their annual pension in year two of their contract came in exchange for a three percent salary raise, another potential 5.5 percent salary hike through step increases for senior deputies and enhancements to health care as well as retiree medical coverage.
With the deputies now agreeing to pay their full employee share of their annual pension payment, every public worker at the county would be paying their full share of pension obligations by 2015.
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