Sonoma County gives ground in tentative labor contract

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.

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