Union employees who work at the Columbia County Courthouse are taking exception to the proposed Columbia County budget that calls for 26 unpaid furlough days over the next fiscal year, and are asking the county commissioners to dip into reserves to make up a $750,000 budget deficit.

'We just think that 26 furlough days and closing the courthouse to the public every Friday is a little drastic,' said Pam Benham, president of Columbia County Courthouse Employees union AFSCME Local 1442. 'We just think the money is there in the reserves.'

Twenty-six furlough days amounts to a 10 percent pay cut. At 48 members, AFSCME Local 1442 is the county's largest bargaining unit. The county reserve is $3.8 million.

Columbia County Commissioner Tony Hyde said the county has already pulled from reserve funds to bring the budget to its current level.

'We're $1.5 million in the red,' Hyde said. He said the reserve funds have been allocated to draw the deficit down, and added that uncertainties posed next year restrict further reductions.

The county currently receives a federal timber subsidy based on logging reductions in the 1990s following tighter environmental restrictions. That subsidy is set to expire in 2012.

'Our projection next year, if we get no timber dollars, is a $2.8 million deficit. We're not talking about a year. We're talking about a long-term issue,' he said.

This isn't the first furlough county employees have had to take. Last year, employees who receive their salaries out of the unrestricted general fund had taken four unpaid furlough days, and eight were required in the 2009-10 budget year.

Employees in the Road Department, Sheriff's Office and the county's Economic Development Department will not have to take furloughs.

Negotiations between county leaders and the union are ongoing. Employees have also been asked to consider taking a lower cost-of-living increase this year than what is spelled out in contract.

'Right now we're just kind of in a wait-and-see attitude. We want to get through negotiations in the county and see if we can work something out that is beneficial to everybody,' Benham said.

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