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County budget cuts shadow new labor pact

Cogen gives union talks a push; both sides praise result
by: L.E. BASKOW Workers in the largest union representing Multnomah County employees will vote on a three-year labor contract that protects their health care and pension benefits, though they’ll forgo cost-of-living adjustments next year.

Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen personally intervened into contentious labor negotiations with the county's largest union late last week, brokering a deal that left both sides saying they got what they needed.

About 2,800 members of Local 88 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees preserved their current health care and pension benefits for three more years, and some of them will get new flexibility in scheduling work hours.

Cogen, faced with reduced state and federal funding for county services, convinced the union to forgo cost-of-living-adjustments, or COLAs, in the second year of the labor pact.

'I got what I needed, which was controlling our labor costs,' Cogen said.

AFSCME members are expected to approve the three-year contract in a ballot-box vote at select county facilities on Sept. 28 and 29.

'Overall, I would say that this is the best contract we could have agreed to with the county in this economic climate,' said Michael Hanna, president of AFSCME Local 88.

The successful labor negotiations come as Multnomah County commissioners are slated to approve $4.5 million in cuts to the recently approved 2011-12 county budget on Sept. 15, to account for reduced state payments to the county. The county expects it will have to make more cuts in February, due to further reductions in state allocations to the county, and again when the federal budget is finalized, Cogen said.

The three-year labor pact grants workers a 1.2 percent COLA for the fiscal year that started July 1, none in 2012-13, and a COLA in the range of 1 to 4 percent during the third year of the deal, depending on inflation. Eligible workers also will get step raises on schedule.

Talks had been getting heated after six months, with little sign of agreement, until Cogen decided to try his hand one day at the bargaining table.

The negotiator hired by the county didn't know the county, Hanna said, and communication between the union and county officials was stilted during the talks. 'At the very end, Chair Cogen kind of realized that the whole working relationship and approach of working with the union was really at risk,' he said. 'Within a very short order, we pretty much got things resolved.'

After Cogen intervened, the county dropped its proposal to limit the ability of laid-off workers to 'bump' other workers with lower seniority, which allows senior workers to keep their jobs. The county had wanted to limit that right to the worker's department, rather than countywide, because 'sometimes people bump into the wrong job,' Cogen said.

He also agreed to a three-year contract rather than the two-year deal the county initially sought. The county also dropped a proposal to reopen the health care benefit terms in the middle of the contract, if costs rose higher than projected.

When the union resisted losing workers' COLA this year, Cogen got AFSCME to agree to a freeze during the second year instead. That suits the county just fine, he said, because the state cuts are for two years, so the county will be in a better financial position next year to weather those cuts. In addition, inflation is very low this year, Cogen noted, so the 1.2 percent COLA might turn out to be lower than one that would have been awarded next year.

The county never sought changes in pension benefits, after Gov. John Kitzhaber's administration dropped efforts to roll back state workers' benefits.

The union secured a commitment to have a labor-management committee establish a new system to allow workers more flexibility in scheduling. For example, if their job doesn't depend on them being at work at 8 a.m., a worker might be able to work a later shift, to accommodate taking a young child to daycare or school, or do a split shift so they may attend college classes.

Cogen said that might help the county by boosting worker morale and productivity. 'Why not let them do that?' he said.

Cogen, who publicly stated going into negotiations that a one-year COLA freeze was his top goal, said it's not fair to say he gave in to the union, as he got what he wanted.

Hanna said worker morale at the county would have suffered, along with Cogen's relationship with AFSCME, if the county persisted in the takebacks it initially sought. 'I think Jeff Cogen has some political aspirations beyond the county,' Hanna noted.

AFSCME is the third-largest public employee union in Oregon, and the largest in local government.

Two more rounds of cuts

After the impact of the Legislature's 2011-13 budget became clear, the county calculated it lost $12 million in state funding, which paid for 59 county positions. Among the biggest was a $3.2 million cut in state funding for the mental health crisis line. Cogen said the Legislature shifted funding so those funds are now awarded based on local governments' population, rather than the need for the service. That means Ashland or Pendleton will have the same funding, proportionally, as Multnomah County, he said, despite the more-pressing needs for that service in the county.

The county was able to use reserves from its mental health insurance program to plug that gap, and used some other money set aside in reserves. As a result, the commissioners expect to approve today a package of $4.5 million in budget adjustments. That will wind up eliminating the equivalent of 15 full-time positions in the county, Cogen said.

However, the final state budget resulted in the need to add 19 positions in mandated county services such as aid to developmentally disabled people, said David Austin, county spokesman. Also, some of the 15 lost positions are vacant, so the number of actual layoffs will be lower.

Cogen fully expects more cuts in state payments to the county when the Legislature convenes in February, because, among other factors, the state budget was built on unrealistic cost savings in health care based on a pending reorganization of how health care services are delivered. Then there will be at least $4.1 million in federal cuts to the county, and perhaps a lot more, Cogen said.

He has retained about $2 million in county reserves to mitigate some of those pending cuts.