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1-Year O.C. Labor Pact Is OKd

Supervisors approve a deal with sheriff's deputies, who forgo a raise but will have their health care contribution increased by the county.

October 29, 2003|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

Divided Orange County supervisors approved a one-year labor contract Tuesday with sheriff's deputies after a terse confrontation over union control of a health-care trust fund.

Deputies had agreed to forgo a pay raise, citing the county's fiscal problems, but asked supervisors to slightly increase the county's contribution toward members' health-care coverage, to about $14 million a year from about $12 million.

County labor negotiators agreed to the terms. But two supervisors balked, questioning why an annual financial review hadn't been done in the 16 years that the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs has controlled the health-care trust fund. It is the only county employee union to manage its own health benefits program.

Robert MacLeod, general manager of the deputies union, complained that after the roughly 800 deputies had agreed to go without pay raises, two supervisors were questioning how the union managed its health benefits fund.

"We came to the table under a white flag and we got a double-cross," MacLeod said.

Supervisors Chris Norby and Chuck Smith said they only wanted more accountability for the money. Provisions for an annual financial review were included in past contracts but apparently were never requested or provided. The union this time offered to provide a report but not to open its books.

"For 16 years, this has been in the contract and ignored," Norby said. "It's time we all started taking it seriously."

MacLeod and other union officials told supervisors that the trust fund saves the county by providing health care at less cost than the county's system. For example, the county pays about $880 a month for health care for other employees -- the cost for deputies will go to $620 a month.

The cost savings is about $6 million a year, MacLeod said.

"If the county demanded an audit of every vendor that saved them money, they may find it difficult to find vendors to do business with the county," he said.

Sheriff Michael S. Carona urged supervisors to approve the contract, lauding deputies for forgoing the pay raise.

That saves money for the county and for 14 cities that contract with the county for police protection, he said. The department also contracts with John Wayne Airport, the Orange County Transportation Authority and the county for harbor patrols.

The final contract provisions were approved by 96% of voting deputies, union officials said.

"These men and women stood tall recognizing the fiscal crisis we're in," Carona said.

Supervisor Bill Campbell joined board Chairman Tom Wilson and Supervisor Jim Silva in supporting the contract. They noted that adding provisions for a financial review of the health-care trust fund would have reopened contract negotiations, which began several months ago.

But accountability is important with county funds and the review should be added to future contracts, Campbell said.

The board has been critical of previous labor provisions recommended by county negotiators and approved by supervisors that later proved more costly than estimated.

Last year, supervisors awarded deputies a 50% increase in pension benefits, allowing them to retire at age 50 with 90% of their final salaries for life. That increase, plus stock market losses, created a deficit of tens of millions of dollars in funding for the county's pension fund. Supervisors haven't yet agreed how to make up the difference.

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