Deputies group says proposal puts them in harm's way

The budget Multnomah County Chairman Ted Wheeler released last week could be vetoed from an unlikely direction: a group of county employees.

The union representing patrol deputies for the Multnomah County sheriff's office plans to employ a new law that gives public safety employees' unions the ability to challenge budget cuts or working conditions that they believe threaten their safety.

'Absolutely, we're going to fight it with everything we've got,' said Todd Shanks, president of the Multnomah County Deputy Sheriffs Association. Past budget cuts mean there is no more to be cut, he said, adding, 'You can only whack a tree so many times before it falls down.'

Wheeler responded that 'I would be very disappointed' by any challenge. 'It would call into question who is in charge of the budget,' he said.

Senate Bill 400 was adopted by the Oregon Legislature last year, making employee safety and staffing levels a subject of collective bargaining for public safety unions.

In other words, any significant change in staffing levels that jeopardizes police and firefighters has to be folded into formal contract negotiations.

As a result, public safety unions now have a legal club they can use if they feel that municipal budget cuts will endanger them - one that, if used, could place a question mark over the county budget for six months into the fiscal year.

According to Carol Brown, the county's senior labor-relations manager, the county soon could formally notify the sheriffs whether the cuts will affect their working conditions - a required step under the new law.

The unions then can formally request that contract bargaining be reopened to include the changes. Typically, bargaining lasts 90 days.

If no agreement is reached, then the issue could be placed before either a mediator to forge a compromise, or an independent arbitrator who chooses between the two dueling sides.

Either one could take a month or more, and the patrol deputies' union is represented by a prominent Portland labor lawyer, Will Aitchison, who routinely wins such arbitrations.

The budget by law has to be adopted by July 1.

Asked how that would work, Brown said, 'The majority of the budget would move forward (but) we would obviously have to do some contingencies that are up in the air … we couldn't implement changes until we had gone through the bargaining process.'

Still another question would be raised by the fact that the new law has not been tested in the courts or in arbitration, so no one knows quite how its language will be applied.

'This is untested territory,' Wheeler said, adding that the law 'throws a great deal of uncertainty into the process.'

The new law was adopted over the objection of city and county governments who said it would be financially devastating.

Public safety unions, however, supported the law, saying it was not fair that employees' workplace safety could be jeopardized by budget cuts.

Shanks said that is exactly what Wheeler's proposed budget will do.

For instance, Wheeler plans to cut and redeploy patrol deputies, while also slashing the sheriff's Special Investigations Unit, which probes midlevel drug dealers and low-level organized crime.

But the Special Investigations Unit already has been slashed drastically, leaving only four deputies, working with a sergeant and a Gresham officer.

Cutting that to two or three deputies, Shanks said, will put the unit in a tactically dangerous situation if it tries to do a major drug bust or search warrant.

Currently, the unit trains for such situations, but if it has to call in deputies for backup that have not been specially trained, it could lead to confusion and injury, he said.

'We have an obligation to make our working conditions safe for our employees, and that's what we're going to do,' Shanks said.

As proof that the sheriff's patrol functions already are understaffed, Shanks cited discussions two years ago when the sheriff's office tried to turn over patrol obligations for the western part of unincorporated Multnomah County.

Talks ended when the Portland Police Bureau said it would need several officers to replace the single sheriff's deputy on patrol, Shanks said.

Wheeler said he can justify every individual cut, but said it is the principle he is worried about.

'The BCC has clear statutory authority for the budget. We have to be able to manage the finances of this organization. We need to be able to make sure that the budget is balanced and the county lives within its means,' he said.

'If we have to bargain every single reduction that comes before us, that is certainly going to make our job substantially more difficult.'

The club being wielded by the patrol deputies could lend fuel to potential concerns about Wheeler's plan to open a section of Wapato jail.

Critics say it will cost the county $7 million at a time when the county budget overall is being cut, and actually lead to cuts of more than 100 scarce jail beds.

However, Wheeler says opening the facility is a prudent move and will pay off for public safety in the long run. He cites two proposed mandatory sentencing measures on the November ballot, one of which is likely to be approved.

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