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Unions, Management Back County Furloughs : Budget: Proposal to have government employees take a week off without pay would save county almost $5.8 million and could delay possible layoffs.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

All San Diego County government employees will be asked to take a week off without pay under an unprecedented voluntary program designed to save the financially strapped county $5.8 million by June 30, the Board of Supervisors and labor leaders announced Monday.

The program, endorsed Monday by representatives of the county’s five major employee unions, covers virtually all 15,300 county workers, including the five elected supervisors and top managers from Chief Administrative Officer Norman Hickey on down.

At a news conference Monday afternoon, labor and management representatives billed the program as a historic agreement that would help reduce the county’s $32-million deficit, forestall the prospect of layoffs and maintain basic services.

“This is the first time that employees, elected officials and county management have come together, and I can think of no better cause to cooperate on than to maintain services to the public,” said Eliseo Medina, executive director of the San Diego County Service Council, SEIU, which represents about 10,000 county employees.

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As a result of the accord, the supervisors agreed not to consider $5.8 million in proposed program reductions that could have led to job cuts when they deliberate today on a plan aimed at reducing the budget deficit by $20 million.

Named “Budget Emergency: Time Off for Public Services,” and known as “BE TOPS,” the program is an alternative to layoffs of county employees and a $9-million mandatory work furlough program that managers had proposed last week. The agreement resurrects an idea that Medina had proposed last summer, when the county’s budget woes began.

There were “subtle hints that they were going to have to lay people off,” said Don Bronson, a Sheriff’s Department dispatcher and representative for Local 102 of the Service Employees International Union. “They didn’t come right out and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to lay you off, here it is, take it or leave it.’ ”

Even if the program is successful, however, it is only a short-term, partial solution to the county’s budget problems. With a biweekly payroll of $23 million, the county will save the equivalent of four days’ pay if it reaps the $5.8-million savings.

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“This is a short-term measure for the current fiscal year,” said David Janssen, assistant chief administrative officer. “It is not a solution to the long-term county problems.”

Despite officials’ claim that all department heads had pledged to participate in the program, Dist. Atty. Edwin L. Miller and his approximately 700 staffers had not decided Monday whether to participate in the program. Under the terms of the program, a department head can block an employee’s request for a furlough.

“The district attorney hasn’t signed on and isn’t going to until we get some additional information,” said Steve Casey, Miller’s spokesman, who noted that Miller’s office has never overrun its budget. “There are ways to save money and help solve the the fiscal problem. “Whether this is the best, or even a reasonable way, has yet to be demonstrated.”

Judge Patricia Cowett, presiding judge of the San Diego Municipal Court and a court administrator, said employees and managers there have not begun discussing whether to participate in the program.

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“We hadn’t been informed of it or approached about it, so we haven’t begun discussing it,” Cowett said. The 28 Municipal Court judges and seven commissioners are paid with both state and county funds.

Judge Judith McConnell, presiding judge of the Superior Court, said “we’re willing to ask our employees (to consider furloughs), but we’re concerned about what effect it will have on court operations.”

While the county is asking for 40 hours of unpaid leave from everyone, terms of the agreement allow employees agreeing to participate to take off as little as a few hours or more than a week. The time off can be scheduled consecutively or spaced at intervals throughout the rest of the fiscal year.

Certain classes of employees, such as deputy sheriffs, nurses in county hospitals and some social workers, will not participate in the program if furloughs would leave insufficient staff in health and safety jobs, officials said.

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The Sheriff’s Department, for example, would be forced to pay overtime to keep a sufficient number of deputies in county jails if furloughs were allowed. Although the Deputy Sheriffs Assn. endorsed the program Monday, the Sheriff’s Department will attempt to save money through other, unspecified methods.


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