County Chief Hints at Cuts to Work Force

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With a strike by government employees looming, County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston suggested Monday the county will have to make do with a "leaner, meaner work force" if demands for higher salaries and better benefits are met.

A threatened walkout Friday by 4,200 clerks, receptionists, accountants, librarians and other general government workers was an unspoken but potent factor during the Board of Supervisors' budget deliberations Monday.

Johnston made his comments while reviewing potential revenue losses and new demands for budget dollars in fiscal 2002, which begins July 1. Chief among them is an estimated $23-million hit the county general fund could take if expanded retirement benefits demanded by the two largest unions are approved.

"We are growing at such a rapid pace compared to our revenue that at some point we will have to put the brakes on," Johnston said.

One way to do that would be to trim the county's 7,500-person work force, he said. The Board of Supervisors would make any final decision, and some supervisors appeared willing to consider it.

Barry Hammitt, chief of Service Employees International Union Local 998, has said union members will not work past Thursday, when their contract expires. But even as supervisors were preparing to approve a $1.1-billion budget for the coming fiscal year, talks between the county and that union remained at a standstill.

Workers are asking for wages they say are on par with government employees doing the same job in neighboring counties. On average, they are seeking a 10% pay hike, while the county has offered closer to 3%.

In addition, the union is demanding cost-of-living increases on pensions for 85% of its members who do not qualify for the inflationary hikes.

Hammitt, who did not attend Monday's budget session, stopped short of saying workers would walk off the job this week.

"Hope springs eternal," he said. "The Board of Supervisors still has two days to avoid this. It depends on what the board does."

It is unclear how many SEIU members would participate in a strike or other job actions. But union leaders said they have created a strike fund of an undisclosed amount and have been staging information picket lines for weeks.

A massive walkout could threaten the county's ability to operate because SEIU members account for many general government services.

In the clerk-recorder's office, for instance, hundreds of people every day take out marriage licenses, record documents and file business documents, said Clerk-Recorder Richard Dean.

Although each department has plans to use managers to cover essential services should a strike occur, there may not be enough to go around, he said.

"If everyone walks, we won't be getting very much done," Dean said.

The county's public hospital, including the emergency room, will continue to operate, and satellite health clinics will also remain open, said Health Care Agency Director Pierre Durand.

"We will be open for services," he said. "We can always bill a week later."

Although a strike by SEIU workers is the most immediate threat, the county's talks with a union representing 750 sheriff's deputies have also stalled. The deputies are prohibited from striking, but many of them have built up comp time that they can take on demand, Sheriff Bob Brooks said.

Brooks said he hopes it does not come to that.

"I'll be glad when this is all settled," he said. "It is a very tense time for everyone."

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Times staff writer Margaret Talev contributed to this story.

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