The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday took its first independent action to rein in pension costs, unanimously approving a pair of deals that lower payroll expenses for more than 60 percent of the county workforce.
The deals include a 32-month contract with the county's largest labor union and a compensation package for its highest paid employees, including elected officials, department heads and managers.
Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents about half of the county's 3,500 employees, ratified the contract in a tight vote last month.
The two deals alone could achieve more than three-quarters of the $150 million pension savings the county says it needs over the next decade to make its retirement system sustainable.
Supervisors said Tuesday's action made good on their pledge to seek a balanced solution to one of the county's main fiscal woes. The next step is talks under way with the remainder of the workforce, including sheriff's deputies and other public safety workers.
"The bright light of the future has to be the county being in a fiscally sound place so that we can all benefit," said Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt, referring to taxpayers and employees. "The two have to coincide."
Union sentiment Tuesday was mixed. Some members backed the deal while others criticized its concessions and took aim at compensation terms for top officials.
The SEIU contract balances a continued short-term salary freeze with 3 percent in future-year wage gains. It offsets some of the pension cuts with additional help on health care expenses.
The average annual cut to total compensation over the period is 2.25 percent, below the county's initial target of 3 percent.
By comparison, the Board of Supervisors is set to take an overall cut of 8.5 percent. The reductions for department heads and managers, even after a parallel salary bump of 3 percent, are at 6.8 percent and 5.1 percent, respectively. The county supervisors, whose salary is not tied to the package, will not receive a pay increase.
"It's hard to criticize what we came out with in the end," said Tim Tuscany, a psychiatric nurse and bargaining team member for SEIU. The union represents many of the lowest paid employees in county government, including rank-and-file workers in most county departments except for public safety divisions. The 1,700 workers account for about $200 million of the county's $490 million total payroll.
On the other side, the 600 top officials and unrepresented employees covered under the "salary resolution" approved Tuesday account for $112 million of the payroll.
Combined, the deals for the two groups will save about $19.7 million through late 2015.
The compensation overhaul is aimed to permanently reduce labor costs after years of declining or flat tax revenue, lower long-term pension liabilities -- now at $353 million -- and free up funds for a range of government services.
The changes were set in motion nearly 16 months ago and faced a number of possible obstacles. But state action last year on overhauling pensions helped the county clear one hurdle, setting lower benefit tiers for new employees.
And in their vote last month, 52 percent of SEIU-represented workers agreed to the county's more extensive pension changes, including a greater share of their paychecks going to cover pension premiums.