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O.C. Staff Bonus Battle Intensifies

In tight times, two on the Board of Supervisors want the widely granted pay raises reconsidered.

May 25, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

Two members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors want to reconsider a $15.5-million bonus program for county employees, a move that could further strain labor relations in the county.

Supervisors Chuck Smith and Chris Norby have placed the county's bonus plan on the agenda for the board's June 10 meeting. Although the supervisors have asked only that the program be discussed, Norby said he might favor eliminating it.

The move comes one week after the county grand jury criticized the Performance Incentive Program as a hidden pay increase for most of the county's 18,000 workers. The program is designed to be based on performance, yet the grand jury reported that more than 95% of the county's workers receive the 2% bonuses each year.

For higher-income employees, such as attorneys in the public defender's or district attorney's offices, the bonuses can be more than $2,000 a year.

Nick Berardino, assistant general manager of the Orange County Employees Assn., said the union, which represents 13,000 county workers, will not agree to eliminate the bonus plan, which is part of a contract that runs through June 2004.

"If the board voted to do away with this, they would be in total violation of the contract," Berardino said. "There is no question about that."

About 150 union members attended the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday to show their disapproval of the grand jury report. If the board votes to reconsider the bonus package, relationships could become strained, Berardino said.

"I find it to be very disappointing that the board, during the term of a contract that is in effect, would be talking about doing away with an employee benefit," Berardino said. "That is virtually unprecedented in the over 25 years I've been representing county employees."

In its report last week, the grand jury was critical of several recent benefit increases for unionized county workers, including the bonus program.

"It is not a true incentive plan, but rather an across the board 2% pay raise for almost all employees," the grand jury stated in its report.

Norby, who was not on the board when the program was approved in 1999, said the grand jury raised significant questions at a time the county is considering layoffs and service cuts to balance its budget.

"Employee pay should be based on performance," Norby said. "But it doesn't look like that's the case. It's an entitlement."

Smith said he wants county staff to prepare a report that would help him better understand the cost and effectiveness of the bonus plan.

"I want to see if we've gotten anything out of the money that's being spent by the county, especially in these times," Smith said. "If the thing appears it's not working, I'll do everything I can to make sure the county is not losing a lot of money on something that's not working."

Orange County Treasurer-Tax Collector John M.W. Moorlach, who has criticized benefit increases, including a potentially lucrative pension for law enforcement officers, said the bonus program also concerns him.

"I think it needs to be reevaluated. These are tough times. A thorough analysis of whether it's been effective would be worthwhile," Moorlach said.

Norby conceded that the county's contract with its unionized workers might make it difficult to rescind the pay bonuses. But he said that if the county is stuck with the plan, he will support changes to ensure that the bonuses are based on performance. And the issue will probably come up next year, when the county negotiates new contracts with its work force.

Berardino said it's an issue he doesn't expect his workers to be willing to negotiate.

"Doing away with the PIP program will be unacceptable to OCEA. That's not an acceptable alternative, something we have no interest in doing and would not agree to," he said.

Smith said, "Everything is negotiable."

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