Pacific County Sheriff’s workers threaten strike

SOUTH BEND — Corrections staff, 911 dispatchers and other support staff in the Pacific County Sheriff’s Office unanimously authorized to strike “when and if deemed necessary” after negotiations soured between the Pacific County Commissioners and their union.

Darren O’Neil, secretary-treasurer for Teamsters Local 252, said that a timeline for a potential strike has not been established, although it could cause havoc for the county jail and 911 services in Pacific County.

Deputies have a separate contract and would not necessarily go on strike.

County Commission Chairwoman Lisa Ayers says that the county is working on a “contingency plan to make sure critical services are taken care of. It may not be business as usual, but we will keep things operating.”

“I am taking the union seriously and at their word,” Sheriff Scott Johnson said Thursday afternoon. “There is a real potential for a strike in my office.”

The Teamsters Union Local 252 issued a press release on the situation Wednesday night. The employees have worked without a contract since the end of 2010.

The union has been pressing for a wage increase for the employees, but the county commissioners have not agreed to those terms. Ayers wouldn’t comment on specific bargaining details.

The commissioners also declined to give a raise to the deputies, but by state law, the county was forced to go to binding arbitration with the deputies. After two years without a contract, the deputies won the fight and retroactively received a 1.5 percent raise for 2011, a 2.88 percent raise this year and a raise that could be between 1.5 percent and 3 percent based on the consumer price index for 2013. Johnson is predicting the raise could be 2.43 percent.

During bargaining in 2010, O’Neil said that the support union took into consideration the economic downturn and agreed to freeze their wages and benefits. He said they also cut their retirees’ medical benefits and absorbed the increased cost of active medical plans with no increase in wages to offset expenses. “Since medical costs have gone up each year, 911 dispatchers, corrections officers and support personnel in the Sheriff’s office are taking home less pay while performing their vitally important public safety jobs under more stressful conditions,” O’Neil said in the press release. “In an effort to check this downward spiral, the non-commissioned public safety employees are asking for the same modest increases that were recently granted to the commissioned deputies.”

Sheriff Johnson said that the negotiations have been exclusively between the commissioners and the union. He said he’s not been invited to sit in on the talks or to join in on the conversation. Johnson said he thought it was an unusual situation.

O’Neil said in his 19 years bargaining with Pacific County, this is the only time the sheriff hasn’t been at the table, too. “I want to make sure the public understands that I still have the support of my employees and I support them, as well. But I’m in the middle,” Johnson said. “It’s really hard. I want to make sure to handle this appropriately and maintain our operations. I’ve been in contact with fire and police chiefs in the area, who have shared their concerns about continuity of operations. This is an extremely difficult situation, but a plan is in place. We will will make sure the front door is still open. I hope they’re able to have negotiations fruitful and we don’t get to that stage.”

The Sheriff’s Office has 46 employees, including 911 dispatchers, law enforcement, corrections and clerical staff. O’Neil said the employees continue to have a good relationship with the sheriff.

“For a 24-hour operation, there are 10 jail staff and 12 dispatchers,” O’Neil said. “It’s not like they don’t have a lot to do. These people do a difficult job, have disrupted their family lives but are there to serve the public.”

Johnson said that he only has seven deputies and has five vacant deputy positions. His administrative team consists of himself, an undersheriff, two sergeants, a lieutenant and the jail superintendent is also a commissioned officer. Johnson said he’s leaning on all of his officers to ensure proper coverage of the county. He also has two people on a drug task force, although Johnson said he recently signed a co-operative agreement with Grays Harbor County to help out because $19,000 in state grant funds were eliminated.

He says there are times when the only two people out patrolling are himself and his undersheriff because manpower is so thin.

“I have been out at midnight responding to calls, myself, with no other deputy in the field,” Johnson said. “Every day I get concerns from the public. We are just barely able to respond to in-progress incidents,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to do the follow-ups we know need to be done.”

Commissioner Ayers said that the county is dealing with “very difficult times.”

“Public safety is huge to us but the economy is what’s impacting what is going on here,” Ayers said. “If the funding is not there, we can’t pay and we’re doing everything we possibly can to take care of critical services.”

Pacific County Commissioner Bud Cuffel noted that it’s been years since any county employee received a pay raise. “Except for the deputies, nobody’s had a raise,” Cuffel said. “I was a union member and I support the unions … and I feel very bad for our employees, but our budget is so tight we’ve not had any choice.”

Cuffel said the county had 228 employees back in 2008. But after layoffs and eliminating vacant positions, the workforce has been reduced to a little less than 180.

“We may have been able to add temporary employees to help public works, but that’s it,” he said. “We’ve been very lucky in the past 10 years to put some money away in our reserves, but we’ve spent it. There’s relatively little reserves left.”

Pacific County has about an $8 million general operating fund and $2 million in reserves. Ayers said the county had been relying in spending about $800,000 beyond the revenue. “And we can’t do that anymore,” she said. “We must maintain services but can’t go bankrupt.”

There is some good news on the horizon, she said, with increases in the county’s private harvest tax and other timber revenue, which the county heavily leans on to sustain its budget.

The Teamsters press release states, “While the union remains committed to continue to work towards a fair and equitable solution to this dispute, the employees ask that the citizens of Pacific County urge the Board of County Commissioners to do the same.”