Grievance denied, arbitration is likely next step

County courthouse employees union still smolders over furloughs
by: Scanned illustration NOT FUNNY MONEY – Phony $100 bills bearing Columbia County Commissioner Earl Fisher’s visage have been circulated around the business community in Scappoose imploring people to contact the county commissioners for reducing the courthouse employee furlough requirement. The current county budget is predicated on the 48 courthouse employees taking a one-day furlough every week for a total of 26 weeks. The furloughs result in a 10 percent across-the-board pay cut for the courthouse employees.

Columbia County officials on Monday rejected a grievance filed by a county employees union over the practice requiring those employees to take 26 unpaid furlough days off in the current budget year.

As a result, Courthouse Employees Union AFSCME 1442 members are signaling a desire to skip further mediation and head straight into arbitration, said Roger Kadell, the union's vice president.

'Most people are saying they prefer to go straight to arbitration, because most feel the county has not been mediating in good faith,' he said.

Declining revenue and increasing personnel costs drove the county to implement the furlough program, which results in a 10 percent salary cut for employees.

Kadell said the existing contract provides the county with measures for managing tough economic cycles. Furloughs, he said, are not one of those measures. He said the county should have better planned for its current financial situation and that holding the county to the contract's terms is a union priority.

'There's no mention of the use of furloughs in the contract, and I think a key sticking point is we have to stand up for the contract,' he said. 'Otherwise, it doesn't mean anything.'

Aside from salaries, furloughed employees have retained full-time benefits.

The courthouse employees union is one of four county bargaining groups. Others include the road department and sheriff's office, both of which have not had to adopt the furlough program. The fourth, which represents parole and probations officers, agreed to it, said Columbia County Commissioner Tony Hyde.

The courthouse employees union contract, a copy of which is available online, does specify layoffs. It also indicates the county has the option to reduce employee hours and spells out a process for doing so.

Kadell said layoffs would also be disagreeable. Instead, he said the union wants the county to dip deeper into its reserve account to make up the county's $750,000 budget shortfall.

'I think a lot of [the union's position] is predicated on the fact there is an assumption we have reserves, and we don't,' Hyde said.

Hyde said the county already has tapped $1.5 million in reserves to bring the deficit to its current level. He said the use of further reserves could significantly compromise next year's budget, which has the potential for a wider budget gap if federal payment programs don't pan out. County payments, a federal program that allocates money to counties that have reduced logging due to tightened environmental standards in the 1990s, is one such uncertainty.

'It's just very unfortunate that we're in a budget situation that requires such draconian cuts. But we're really in that spot,' Hyde said.

At present levels, Hyde said, the county has two months worth of operating revenue on hand. Reserves less than that level could compromise the county's credit worthiness, Hyde said.

He said the impasse with the courthouse employees is unfortunate.

'I care about our employees. That's part of our jobs. None of this was done with any amount of ease, that's for damn sure,' he said.