Ventura County negotiators said Friday they are hopeful they will be able next week to stave off a threatened strike by the county's largest employee union over increases in salaries and retirement benefits.
Their hopes hinge on the union's willingness to suspend part of its demands for several months.
Supervisor John Flynn said he is fairly confident an agreement will be reached. "We don't need a strike," he said. "And a strike will not be necessary if I have anything to say about it."
If an agreement is reached with the Service Employees International Union, Local 998, it would end the months-long threat of a strike that could seriously affect county services. The union represents 4,200 employees, or 56% of the county government work force.
Under a compromise the Board of Supervisors could be asked to approve Tuesday, the county would agree to a $12-million package of salary increases.
The raises would give county government workers parity with their counterparts throughout Southern California, union officials said.
In exchange, the union would postpone until this fall demands for a multimillion-dollar boost to a pension plan benefiting 85% of its county members.
Union chief Barry Hammitt said he is hopeful a strike can be averted and is willing to wait a few months to work out details on the retirement benefits. However, he said, his workers will need more than just a verbal promise to revisit the pension issue at a later date.
When talks resume with board members during Tuesday's closed-session meeting, Hammitt said, he expects a written guarantee for a 3% cost-of-living adjustment for county workers hired after 1979. That was the year the county reduced pension benefits for future employees. "If the talks aren't productive," Hammitt said, "we probably won't work the next day."
County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston said his commitment to finding a fair resolution is sincere. "We're trying to come up with some language that will give SEIU some comfort that we are taking their request seriously and intend to do something about it later this year.
"There isn't enough money to do what they want to do right now," Johnston said. "Until we figure out what is affordable for everyone, we can't start divvying this up."
The county recently estimated that the pension hikes for the union's workers, 750 sheriff's deputies and other smaller employee groups would cost $252 million upfront and as much as $36 million a year to maintain.
That is unaffordable, county officials said, particularly at a time when a sluggish stock market has already cost the retirement fund millions of dollars.
Hammitt said the county's calculations are a "worst-case scenario." He said he believes the county could meet the union's pension demands with no upfront costs and $2 million per year for 30 years.
But Hammitt's calculations don't include increased retirement benefits for 750 sheriff's deputies, who are also negotiating with the county for a new contract. The deputies are pushing a plan that would allow those with 25 years' experience to retire at age 50 with payouts equal to 75% of their salaries, up from 50%.
County officials want to take the next few months to work out details on the retirement packages, including how much of the additional contributions employees would be willing to shoulder.
Meanwhile, the county's apparent agreement on salary increases represents a victory for the union.
The union had said county workers would need salary increases ranging from 2% to 27%, or an average 10% hike, to reach parity with their counterparts across the region.
First, the county countered with a 3.5% offer. The compromise now on the table would give the union what it wants, but pay for that in part by reducing the county's work force through attrition.
Staff writer Catherine Saillant contributed to this story.