Sonoma County?s Board of Supervisors moved Tuesday to shift a greater share of medical premiums onto 2,700 public employees after five months of failed talks with the union representing the workers.

The unilateral action converts the county?s share of health care premiums for employees to a $500 monthly contribution, eliminating the current payment that is equal to 85 percent of the employee?s health plan choice.

Officials with the union representing those workers, the Service Employees International Union, had countered with a proposal calling for employees to pay set amounts for medical premiums based on whether they insure dependents.

But the supervisors were unanimous Tuesday in contending that the county plan makes more headway in addressing rising health care costs.

?The fact of the matter is the dollars aren?t there to do what we?ve done in the past. I think we?re all trying to do the best we can,? said Supervisor Tim Smith.

County employees were angered by the board?s action. More than 70 turned out at the supervisors? meeting, wearing purple SEIU T-shirts and toting picket signs criticizing the board as unfair and heavy-handed.

?That?s what we?re fighting for, the fairness in the allocation of resources. You?re hurting families,? said Chip Atkin, a county human services worker.

County officials said there is a $14million annual gap in covering ongoing costs of worker and retiree medical benefits, and if left to accumulate it could lead the county to eliminate the benefit.

The supervisors acknowledged the rancorous negotiations with SEIU, but they backed county administrators on the plan that is similar to those placed on the county?s 2,400 retirees and 650 nonunion workers.

?Sometimes we have to make very difficult decisions, and this was one,? said Supervisor Mike Kerns.

But county workers complained that county administrators didn?t bargain in good faith to reach a compromise with the union, as in past contract talks.

?It looks like those days may be over. Not only will your employees feel the brunt of it, but so will your constituents,? said Jerry Newman, a child welfare worker and union negotiator.

Workers said morale will suffer as a result.

?You need to step back and take another look at the situation, because employees here are not happy,? said Myrna Spiegler, a county public health worker.

The change in medical premiums for current employees takes effect in June. The county also approved a $600 monthly bonus that is discretionary and can go toward salary or health premiums.

Similar changes in medical premiums for retirees also take effect in June. But they will be phased in over five years with the county?s contribution gradually reduced to $500 a month. For retirees, the county currently pays 85 percent of the lowest-cost health plan.

Union officials criticized the board for taking its final vote on Election Day, when many union supporters were busy working for candidates.

SEIU and other unions backed candidates for several supervisorial seats in hopes a new board would reconsider the current board?s decision.

County administrators and SEIU representatives are expected to begin a new round of contract talks in February.

You can reach Staff Writer Michael Coit at 521-5470 or