County to ask workers for concessions

Kent County commissioners recently adopted a resolution that gives the county’s administrative staff the authority to ask all unionized and non-union employees for concessions in their wage and benefit packages for the next two fiscal years.

But because of an unusual situation, commissioners were unable to vote last week on a new labor agreement for one of the county’s bargaining units, a contract that includes an annual wage hike for two fiscal years.

Commissioners adopted the concession-seeking resolution because the county’s general fund, which pays for most of the services offered by the county, is facing a preliminary deficit of roughly $10 million for the 2011 and 2012 fiscal years. The county currently plans to address those shortfalls with about $8 million in budget cuts and with a $2 million infusion from the fund balance for each of those years.

Having to cut $8 million from the general fund will result in more county employees being laid off at the end of this year and the end of 2011. But if enough concessions are agreed to by county workers, fewer employees are likely to lose their jobs when the new fiscal years begin. The county’s fiscal year is the calendar year. “I think it’s important that we do this,” said Commissioner Brandon Dillon.

But while they authorized staff to ask employees to accept less, commissioners couldn’t do anything to prevent the 178 members of the Kent County Law Enforcement Association from getting more. The Sheriff’s deputies who patrol county roads will receive a wage hike of 2.25 percent this year and another 2-percent next year. The total two-year cost to the county for the salary and benefits increase is $715,236.

“We’re kind of backed into a corner here,” said Commissioner Bill Hirsch.

That’s because the labor agreement came from binding arbitration, which is available through state law and only for police and fire departments. “It sounds to me like the arbitrator was just trying to be fair,” said Commissioner Gary Rolls, who added that the board approved a similar increase last year for deputies who work at the Kent County Jail.

Commissioners were to have voted on the labor agreement last week, but the county’s Legislative Committee voted not to recognize the new contract a week earlier so the matter didn’t come before the full board. But even if the commission would have voted no on the agreement just to send a fiscal message to county residents, the contract would still go into effect, because it was legally awarded to the officers association by a state-empowered third-party negotiator whose decision is final.

In fact, County Human Resources Director Don Clack said the membership of the officers association couldn’t vote on the two-year pact, either. Still, a few commissioners expressed concerns that a wage hike for one group will make it more difficult for the county to get concessions from other employees.

“It’s going to be hard for us to ask all groups, including us, to take a freeze,” said Commissioner Keith Courtade.

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