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Sonoma County government and its largest union have reached a tentative labor agreement that would provide short-term salary savings and curb long-term pension costs in exchange for some later wage growth and increased county contributions for health-care coverage.

Approval by members of the Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents about half of the county's 3,500 workers, could avert a planned Feb. 28 strike.

The walkout was conceived in part to protest pay and pension cuts in a previous deal that union members overwhelmingly rejected in December.

Some of those concessions remain in the new deal, but the county also appears to have done an about-face this week, sweetening the package with cost-of-living wage gains that were not part of the original offer and are not built into its current budget.

The county's main budget expert, Chris Thomas, the assistant administrator, said Tuesday in an interview that "basic projections didn't show any room to afford any kind of (cost-of-living adjustments)."

But what emerged from a 17-hour negotiating session Wednesday was a deal that delays those increases until 2014. It was announced by the union on its website Thursday.

County officials insisted the overall package would lead to savings for taxpayers.

Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt called the deal a "balancing act" between "what the public requires" and what is "good and fair" for employees.

But county officials were tight-lipped about the terms Friday and declined to discuss their revised savings projections, saying they did not want to sway the union's vote on the agreement, which is set to begin Tuesday and finish Feb. 26.

"I don't want to talk about the terms of this tentative agreement until we can discuss it publicly," after the union vote, said County Administrator Veronica Ferguson.

An SEIU leader said members appeared to welcome the settlement, reached in the 11th month of increasingly tense negotiations.

"The overwhelming vibe is positive," said Lathe Gill, Santa Rosa-based area director for SEIU Local 1021. The union represents rank-and-file employees in most county departments except for public safety divisions. The employees tend to be among the lowest paid in county government.

"Almost everyone we've talked to is pleased this is happening," Gill said.

The union's previous contract expired in August. The new deal would extend to October 2015. If approved by the union, it would go to the Board of Supervisors in March.

The standoff has been closely watched because any deal with SEIU could determine the outcome of contract talks under way with most other county employee bargaining groups. Agreement with a majority of the unionized employees is needed before proposed pay and pension cuts for managers, elected officials and other unrepresented workers take effect.

County officials say cuts are needed to free up money for government services and public infrastructure, including road repairs, and to pay off long-term liabilities to the county pension system, currently at $353 million.

Union officials have criticized the proposed concessions, which come amid a slow rebound in government revenue and after years of job cuts, pay freezes, unpaid furloughs and other reductions aimed to fill large recession-era deficits.

Under the proposed deal, what has become a five-year freeze on cost-of-living wage adjustments would continue for the next 16 months. Pension changes would go into effect immediately for new and current workers, including greater cost-sharing by employees and limits on pension spiking.

How to attend

The Russian River Rodeo resumes Sunday, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., at 23450 Moscow Road, Duncans Mills.

Admission is $12 for adults, $7 for those 60 and over and $5 for children 12 and under.

Together the pay and pension changes would aim to achieve a 3 percent annual cut in total compensation for SEIU-represented workers, or roughly $6.8 million over the first 16months, based on county payroll figures.

It was unclear Friday how much those savings would be offset when the costs-of-living increases take effect.

The county's total annual pay and benefit costs represent $490 million of a $1.3 billion budget.

For the remainder of the contract, starting in mid 2014, the county would provide a cost-of-living wage boost of 1 percent in the first year and an additional bump of 2 percent in mid-2015.

The salary gains would amount to a total cost of $4.8million, based on current payroll.

Other costs would come with the additional contributions to employee health care and through a tiered set of one-time payments to each worker, starting at $1,915 and reaching $2,700 for the highest-paid SEIU members.

The cost of county contributions into new health reimbursement accounts for employees could amount to about $4.8million for the contract term, based on county estimates generated for the previous deal with SEIU.

Labor leaders say the additional health care assistance is needed to address soaring costs that have largely been shouldered by employees since the county capped its contributions in 2008. The county previously covered 85 percent of insurance plan premiums, but the county's fixed monthly payments of $500 now cover just over half of the lowest-cost plan, said Gill, the SEIU representative.

The previous benefits rollback included a monthly $600 discretionary cash allowance for each employee to lessen the impact, but rising insurance costs have resulted in less take-home pay for workers, especially those with families, Gill said. "It's been a very significant change for our members," he said.

County leaders signaled that they were willing to give ground on health care expenses to achieve savings on pension costs, which are more difficult to overhaul.

"The goal of this board all along has been to reset the base, to move costs from the pensionable column to the non-pensionable column," Rabbitt said.

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