County Council approves a new contract with its largest employee union

  • By Noah Haglund Herald Writer
  • Tuesday, September 20, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

EVERETT — A divided Snohomish County Council approved a new contract Monday for the largest union representing county workers.

The agreement passed 3-2, despite controversy over a one-time $460 payment that some county lead

ers called a contract signing bonus.

Others called the payment compensation for rising medical costs. That’s a view shared by some elected officials and members of the Washington State Council of County and City Employees, an affiliate of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Plus, some elected leaders added, the agreement made a step toward curbing taxpayers’ future share of rising employee benefits.

“This agreement offers the opportunity to slow or reduce the growth rate of the county’s medical costs,” Council Chairman Dave Somers said. “In return, we have agreed to a one-time payment to AFSCME employees and that we will work with the union to continue the county’s tradition of offering employees fair medical coverage while addressing the unsustainable growth rate in these costs.”

Somers voted with council members Brian Sullivan and Stephanie Wright for the contract. Councilmen Dave Gossett and John Koster were against it.

The union represents nearly 1,400 of Snohomish County’s approximately 2,500 workers. Multiplied by all employees represented by the union, the $460 payment would total more than $600,000. That’s assuming other county employees with different unions or no union representation don’t get the same offer, which is possible.

In remarks after the vote, Koster worried that the one-time payment could lead to worker layoffs.

“It’s a clump of dough and it’s a big hit on each one of the elected (department heads’) budgets,” he said after the meeting. “My fear is that it could result in further reductions.”

Gossett prefaced some of his remarks by saying that he’s a strong union supporter and that he supported what he felt was a very generous union package.

Under one popular medical plan, county taxpayers in 2010 paid more than 87 percent of employees’ medical costs.

“Many taxpayers in this county would consider that a generous program and far better than the program they receive,” Gossett said.

Gossett also accused County Executive Aaron Reardon of encouraging the union to push for more concessions and for the council to grant more concessions. He also said the executive kept civil attorneys from the prosecutor’s office out of the negotiations.

Gossett also repeated his contention that the $460 payment “is a signing bonus, clear and simple.”

“Since day one I have made it very clear I would not vote for a signing bonus,” he said. “The signing bonus is dressed up as a medical payment of some kind. Yet the fact is that in 2011, employee medical costs will not go up one cent.”

Sullivan, on the other hand, said, “We do need to more forward and get through this contract so we can get on with the business of the county.”

Union employees, as many have pointed out, have made concessions. They’ve had no cost-of-living increase for the past two years and 11 furlough days in 2009 effectively cut salaries by more than 4 percent. Other county workers, excluding those working public safety jobs, have made similar financial sacrifices.

The agreed-to contract includes a 1.35 percent cost-of-living increase effective next spring.

“We came to a deal and we’re glad it’s all put away,” said Chris Dugovich, the union’s state-level president. “We’ve recognized the economic difficulties that everybody’s been encountering and tried to come to a reasonable arrangement on the medical benefits issue for Snohomish County, and we’ve tried to do that across the state.”

Both the employees and the taxpayers are hurting from rising medical costs, which have increased by double digits in each of the past few years, Dugovich said.

The contract under negotiation actually began Jan. 1 of this year and runs through 2012.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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