County leaders take step to rein in labor costs

July 14, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

NEW — 12:50 p.m. July 14, 2010

King County leaders took a step Wednesday to reduce labor costs — or 60 percent of the cash-strapped county’s budget.

The proposed reforms could require county employees to pay more for health and dental benefits, limit inflation-related raises, cut overtime and call for employee layoffs to be based on merit instead of seniority.

County Council members — acting as the Labor Policy Committee — adopted the set of labor reforms in a unanimous decision. The changes could impact as many as 11,000 county employees.

The package could prompt a face-off between county leaders and public employee unions, as the county struggles to contain a $60 million budget deficit next year.

Councilwoman Kathy Lambert, the Issaquah representative on the council, and council Chairman Bob Ferguson spearheaded the effort.

“Labor is the face of King County, and our employees perform many vital and important functions,” Lambert said in a statement. “Our dedicated staff includes doctors, nurses, attorneys, clerks, jail guards, judges, sheriff’s deputies and wastewater workers. These people are assets to the citizens of King County, and their compensation needs to be fair.”

Councilman Reagan Dunn, the other Issaquah-area representative on the nine-member council, has also advocated for labor reform.

“King County labor policy reform is a difficult undertaking but it is absolutely necessary,” he said in a statement. “Budget sustainability and efficiency will remain out of reach until labor costs are addressed and brought in line with fiscal reality. This is a meaningful step in the right direction.”

Lambert — first elected as a Republican — and Ferguson — first elected as a Democrat — put aside partisan politics to complete the proposal.

“Today’s bipartisan effort demonstrates the kind of leadership we must maintain to keep the county on track despite the significant fiscal challenges we face,” Ferguson said in a statement.

County voters approved a measure in 2008 to make the council, county executive and county assessor offices nonpartisan.

The council hailed the reforms as the first major review of labor policy since King County and Metro merged in 1994. Members approved the reforms a day after County Executive Dow Constantine announced he had frozen his salary and the salaries of about 150 other top officials.

Under the county charter, the executive acts as the county’s lead negotiator in labor talks. The council proposal provides guidelines for Constantine as he enters negotiations with 63 of the county’s 73 bargaining units next year.

The council and labor leaders discussed possible changes at a May summit.

“I am encouraged by the county-wide teamwork we are seeing — elected officials, our valued employees, and the public — as together we take on the most serious financial challenges that county government has ever faced,” Constantine said in a statement.

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