For the third day in a row, Orange County negotiators on Wednesday reached a tentative wage agreement with an employee union that has been in tough negotiations and on the brink of a walkout since its contract expired in July.
The International Union of Operating Engineers, which represents about 100 technicians who control plumbing, heating and cooling in county buildings, was the fifth employee group to reach an agreement with the county in the last two weeks.
Members at "a very well-attended meeting" in Santa Ana Wednesday evening approved the pact by an 89% margin, according to the the engineers' negotiator, Joseph P. Wetzler.
The string of agreements comes barely two months after the county claimed that it could not afford any pay raises. Wetzler said the pay package, covering 30 months, is roughly equivalent to the other settlements, giving members about a 15% pay raise, at about 6% a year, but without the bonuses that were paid to the sheriff's deputies. County negotiators also agreed to pick up employees' share of increased premiums in health insurance for the term of the contract, he added.
"I was surprised," Wetzler said. "I was just about convinced that we would not reach agreement and we would probably have been out on strike."
Union and county officials have not disclosed terms of the agreements reached Monday and Tuesday with the International Assn. of Firefighters and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents about 530 welfare workers.
They said the agreements will be kept confidential until they are ratified by the union memberships. All three agreements must also receive final approval from the Board of Supervisors.
Tuesday, without comment, the supervisors unanimously passed the accords reached last week with the sheriff's and marshal's deputies.
Their contracts are identical. They include a 14.25% pay raise over the next two years and an immediate increase of 3%. Deputies in both groups now receive between $2,220 and $2,983 per month.
Union officials say the county has recently reached the agreements because it has put more money on the table. But county negotiator Dave Carlaw said again Wednesday that he would not reveal the cost of the settlements to the county.
After its budget hearings in July, the county claimed that it had no money for any raises. County Administrative Officer Larry Parrish said the budget was so tight that it would require up to 40 layoffs.
The discrepancy between the county's previous position and its recent offers has caused an apparent credibility problem with its employees.
"They lied," Wetzler said. "They misled the public and their employees by saying they had no money."
On Wednesday, Roger R. Stanton, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said: "The board, I think, would like to look forward to an improved process in the future. I think this has been a learning experience, and hopefully there will be an ability to do things better next time."
Stanton declined to elaborate on what has been learned and what problems there have been during the negotiations.
Carlaw also declined to characterize the progress with three remaining county employee groups still negotiating their contracts.
"I'm doing well when I'm not predicting," he said. "We're happy to get them (the unions that have settled), and we're going to continue working to settle the remaining units."
The remaining groups include the 6,500 members of the Orange County Employees Assn., mostly clerical and supervisorial employees; the 560 mechanics, landfill workers and heavy machinery operators in the Service Employees International Union, and the 260 attorneys who work for the public defender, the county counsel and the district attorney.
The attorneys' contract expired last Thursday.
Times staff writer Mark I. Pinsky contributed to this story.