Wage freeze gets Placer County supes support, cool reception from union

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Placer County supervisors gave their blessing today to a halt in merit pay raises for all county employees starting in July. With the latest estimate from the CEO Tom Miller’s office pegging next year’s funding shortfall at $23.6 million, the board approved a number of actions intended to help bolster a shaky financial future. Jeff Bell, a CEO’s Office budget analyst, said the estimated shortfall – which was closer to $19.6 million during December projections – could go even higher as the state grapples with its own financial challenges and looks to county funding “takeaways” for new revenue streams. Supervisors approved a package of directions to staff that includes potential suspension of merit increases for all county employees, affirmed the 3-year-old hiring freeze and signaled a hard-nosed approach with the Placer Public Employee Organization union in upcoming contract negotiations on salaries and benefits. The CEO’s office now has a blueprint for working with management personnel, the Deputy Sheriff Association and the union on attempting to balance next year’s budget. The vote on suspension of merit increases was rolled into the package vote approved 4-0, with Supervisor Rocky Rockholm absent after undergoing shoulder surgery earlier in the day. Left out of the package was a proposal – that had been approved last year without debate – to give Miller authority to direct layoffs. Three elected department heads – District Attorney Brad Fenocchio, Treasurer Janine Windeshausen and County Clerk-Recorder-Registrar Jim McCauley – had said they wanted more time to look at all options. Windeshausen said that she and other department heads were due to complete early budget projections by Friday and needed to be able to provide their input on layoffs in relation to service reductions to the public. A spokesman for the Public Employees organization expressed strong reservations about a package that could result in an across-the-board wage freeze. Chuck Thiel, business representative with the union, said county workers have already agreed to pay more for healthcare and take monthly unpaid furlough days. “Due to staffing reductions with the hiring freeze, layoffs, fewer work hours and the elimination of temporary employees and extra help, the employees of Placer County are working harder than ever before,” Thiel told the board. “While county staff and work hours have been reduced, the need for services has increased in many sectors due to this budget crisis. To ask the employees to give more is asking too much.” Thiel reiterated the union’s hope that the board could reconsider its philosophy against early retirement options and voluntary severance incentives. While Rockholm was absent, his thoughts on freezing wage increases were read out by Miller before the vote. Temporary stoppage of merit increases could save the county an estimated $1.5 million next year, the CEO’s office has estimated. Rockholm noted that Miller, County Counsel Anthony La Bouff and some other managers had voluntarily turned down their wage increases and that he had reluctantly voted for merit raises brought before the board for other managers. “By imposing the freeze with our new budget, we assure that all employees are affected equally within the new budget year,” Rockholm said.