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Officials Fear Blue Flu Strain in This County

Labor: Deputies union threatens slowdowns and sickouts over demand for 5% raise. Supervisors say they don't have the money.

September 22, 1997|RICHARD WARCHOL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After an embarrassing wage dispute with prosecutors last year, Ventura County supervisors once again find themselves butting heads with law enforcement personnel.

The 780-member Ventura County Deputies Assn. is demanding a 5% pay raise worth $2.6 million and has threatened work slowdowns and "blue flu" sickouts if the county does not negotiate a deal. A state mediator was called in Friday to help avoid a showdown.

"It's important for the parties to continue contact and see if there's common ground," county negotiator Ed McLean said. "When the parties don't meet, nothing is being accomplished."

Citing ballooning personnel costs, a $4-million reduction in state revenues and other continuing budget problems, county supervisors say they cannot afford any pay raises this year.

Frustrated by the prospect of yet another drawn-out labor dispute, Supervisor Frank Schillo said it is difficult for the board to rein in spending when it has no control over sheriff's personnel.

"It is the dumbest system I have ever run across," Schillo said. "We're responsible for the money, but not the employees."

Still, getting into a fight with law enforcement is something officials would like to avoid.

In Los Angeles County, sheriff's deputies have participated in a seven-day outbreak of "blue flu" to try to force officials there to meet their demands for a pay raise. Hundreds of deputies have called in sick, including 93 of 135 bus drivers who take jail inmates to court. On Thursday, a judge issued a temporary restraining order to stop the sickouts, but deputies promised an appeal.

Ventura County Sheriff Larry Carpenter insists the local dispute isn't quite as contentious.

Although he is concerned, Carpenter said the standoff between the county and the deputies' union is common in labor negotiations.

"The stage that we are in now is not unusual at all," said Carpenter, noting that he is not a party to the negotiations. "It is important. It is serious. But it is not unusual."

Supervisor John K. Flynn, who has criticized members of the deputies union for staging public rallies in and outside the board's regular Tuesday meetings, said he believes the union's actions will work against it.

"I didn't think they were very effective," Flynn said. "No one likes a bunch of people standing around with their arms [crossed], trying to put pressure on you. You're taking a risk when you do that. And I don't think it settles well with the public."

But more than 10,000 people have signed form-letter petitions in support of the deputies' actions. The petition cards depict three deputies standing next to three thugs.

"Who do you want in your neighborhood?" it asks. "Pay your deputies, as if your life depends on it."

The deputy sheriff's association is just the first of eight county employee unions whose contracts come up for renewal this fiscal year.

The county's dispute with the deputies union comes a year after stalled contract negotiations prompted Ventura County prosecutors and public defenders to sue the county, alleging bad-faith bargaining and union-busting efforts.

Prosecutors sought parity with the county's civil lawyers, a dispute that was settled in January when the union's 100 members accepted a 3% across-the-board pay raise.

The latest dispute also follows a huge labor victory last month, one that could cost the county millions in additional pension costs by increasing the value of every benefit paid.

Ruling on a suit by the deputies union against the Ventura County Board of Retirement, the state's highest court agreed that extra pay for bilingual skills, uniform expenses and cash paid in lieu of vacation time must be included in pension formulas. The county has petitioned the state Supreme Court for a new hearing.

County officials maintain that they have negotiated in good faith with the deputies union despite there being no money in the county budget for employee raises.

But banding together with the other county employee unions, the deputies association commissioned an audit of county finances that showed $33 million in money budgeted but never spent that could be used for employee raises.

The audit, by the Harvey M. Rose firm of San Francisco, suggested that the county is in "excellent financial condition," a statement county managers were quick to dismiss.

Ventura County Auditor-Controller Thomas O. Mahon said the firm used the right numbers, but interpreted them poorly.

"I'm in complete disagreement with [the audit]," he said. "The individual figures they drew off of were correct, but they didn't look at the whole picture."

In each of the previous four years, he said, the county board had overprojected revenues, forcing departments to make midyear cutbacks. The county finished those years with $15-million fund balances, he said.

Had the $33 million been spent, the county would have been in deeper financial trouble, Mahon said.

Last week, the county released a report of its own that drew equal fire from the deputies union.

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