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Sonoma County government's largest labor union has upheld its close vote approving a tentative contract, a step that likely marks the end of a tense tug-of-war with the county that began almost a year ago.

The election result had been in doubt since union voting ended Feb. 26 because of a conflict in internal union rules.

With that resolved, the agreement is expected to be approved by the Board of Supervisors at its March 19 meeting. It would represent the first significant progress in the county's bid to curb its rising pension costs and hold down salary expenses for represented employees.

In exchange for the concessions, which include the elimination of pay and perks that can boost pensions, greater cost-sharing by employees in retirement benefits and a short-term salary freeze, workers are set to receive future-year wage gains and additional help with health care expenses.

The deal with Service Employees International Union Local 1021 would settle what had been an escalating standoff with the county, including plans for a strike had the agreement not been ratified.

It also could affect ongoing contract talks with the county's 10 other unions and bargaining groups.

Fiscal watchdogs and pension overhaul advocates have criticized the negotiations, saying quicker and deeper cuts are needed to cover mounting service backlogs, including road upkeep, and pay for long-term pension liabilities, now at $353 million.

But county officials have defended the deal, saying the changes to pensions alone could save the county more than $83 million over the next decade, accounting for 58 percent of the savings the county says are needed to make the system sustainable.

"It had to change and it has changed and we're on our way to that overall goal," said David Rabbitt, chairman of the Board of Supervisors.

SEIU officials were unavailable to comment Monday.

County administrators signaled that the closely watched settlement is likely to be a model for county negotiators as they seek agreement with other unions.

Like SEIU, most have publicly questioned the need for further cuts after years of job losses, unpaid furloughs and other reductions intended to close large, recession-era deficits.

"Given the long history of things that have been taken from them, there are a significant number of employees who are very unhappy about this," said Bill Robotka of the Engineers and Scientists of California Local 20 IFPTE, which represents about 200 county workers.

County officials have argued the cuts are needed to free up money for government services and infrastructure projects that have been put off during the economic downturn.

SEIU represents half of the county's 3,500 employees, including rank-and-file workers in most county departments except for public safety divisions. The employees tend to be among the lowest paid in county government.

The union informed the county in a letter Friday that the outcome of the union's Feb. 26 ratification vote in favor of the tentative agreement would stand.

The 32-month deal was approved by a 52-to-48 percent margin.

But the legal outcome was in question for more than a week because of a conflict between current union rules, which require only a simple majority for approval, and past practice, which required approval by each sub-group or bargaining unit in the local.

By that measure, the deal -- rejected by four of the union's six county bargaining units -- would have been voted down.

The contract vote last month was the union's second since the two sides began negotiations in April. In December, union members overwhelmingly rejected a package that would have extended what is now a five-year freeze on cost-of-living wage adjustments for an additional three years.

The new proposal offers a shorter, 16-month freeze in exchange for a total bump of 3 percent over the second 16 months of the contract.

A projected rebound in property and sales tax revenue is expected to pay for the additional expenditures, county administrators said. Those estimates show a current-year rebound of 0.75 percent in property tax revenue, the main source of county discretionary funds. Future-year growth is projected at 1 to 2 percent annually.

The deal also includes additional money toward employee health care costs -- previously estimated at $4.8 million for the life of the contract -- and a set of tiered one-time payments to each worker starting at $1,915 and reaching $2,700 for the highest-paid SEIU members.

Pension cuts were part of both packages.

The county's goal heading into bargaining was a 3 percent total reduction in employee compensation.

County administrators on Monday did not make public their analysis, which they plan to publish Friday. But they said the cuts and sweeteners on pay and health care in the deal would amount to an overall 2.5 percent reduction in 2013-2014, for a savings of about $4.3 million on current payroll.

The reduction in 2014-2015 would be about a 2 percent drop on current payroll, or a $3.4 million savings, they said. The county's total annual pay and benefit costs represent $490 million of a $1.3 billion budget. SEIU accounts for about $200 million of the total.

Pension costs, including annual payments on pension bond debt, have eaten up a greater share of county payroll each year. Now at about $97 million, or 20 percent of total payroll, they were projected to grow to 30 percent by 2022 without any changes.

To curb those costs, county supervisors last year backed elimination of many forms of pension-eligible compensation, including leave cashouts, deferred compensation retirement payments and dozens of categories of premium pay.

The extra compensation adds an average of more than 12 percent to pensions for county employees, or more than 14 percent for sheriff's deputies and other public safety workers, a Press Democrat analysis last year found.

The SEIU contract is the first to curtail those moves for represented employees. The same limits are included in a tentative contract package for the county's highest paid employees, including the Board of Supervisors, department heads and managers.

Also up for approval next Tuesday, it calls for a 6.9 percent cut in total compensation for supervisors, 4 percent for department heads and 3.5 percent for managers, according to preliminary figures provided by the county.

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett. wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.

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