A lawsuit filed against the county by its own attorneys is entering its second year, with the Board of Supervisors continuing to pour money into its defense, while criticizing its lawyers for not bending at a time of financial crisis.
The attorneys say the intransigence is coming from county management, not employees.
The outcome of the lawsuit could have broad implications, according to both management and labor.
Supervisors last week agreed to spend $108,000 to fight litigation brought last June by the Deputy County Counsel Association and the San Luis Obispo Government Attorneys Union. That is on top of $100,000 already spent.
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The money will go to an outside law firm hired by the county, Renne Sloan Holtzman Sakai LLP, which has been helping the county with its labor negotiations.
There are more than 2,400 county employees, nearly 90 percent of whom are represented by 16 bargaining units.
Some of the other bargaining units are making concessions on such issues as a second tier of pension benefits and the ratio of employer and employee contributions to pension costs.
“All nonunion employees and all elected officials have shared 50/50 in the increased pension costs that have occurred since 2007,” according to an email sent to The Tribune from County Administrative Officer Jim Grant.
In addition, bargaining units representing 1,900 employees “have agreed to sharing of the pension cost increases that have occurred since 2007.”
However, the DCCA, which represents the county’s 10 civil attorneys, and SLOGAU, which represents its 30 prosecutors, say the unions do not have to bargain with the county over sharing pension costs.
The dispute has been going on for three years, resulting each time in the county declaring “impasse,” a legal term that means, roughly, the two sides cannot agree. In such a case, management can impose terms — its “last, best and final offer” — for one year. The two unions have been working without a contract since 2008.
Adam Hill, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, called out the DCCA and SLOGAU last week for not being as cooperative as other unions at a time of financial crisis. He said the attorney unions’ attitude was “disappointing,” and noted that they are “among the highest-paid employees in the county.”
The unions have a different take.
Both unions were “very disappointed” in Hill’s comments, said Steve Silver of Silver, Hadden & Silver, which is representing the attorneys. The unions’ members understand federal and state law regarding public employee pensions, he said.
Other associations have gone along with management “because they do not have an understanding of what is at stake regarding their members’ rights as public employees and members of the pension plan, which is unfortunate for their members,” he wrote in an email to The Tribune.
Silver added that the DCCA and SLOGAU have made concessions and it is county management that is balking.
“The county has not offered to compromise in any regard on the pension issue and has consistently rejected the DCCA’s and SLOGAU’s proposal to contribute to the county’s budget through a portion of their members’ salary in lieu of taking a permanent and (ir)revocable hit to the members’ pension contributions,” Silver wrote.
“The county’s proposal to have employees pay for obligations that are designated in the pension plan, plan documents, and its funding policies as the ‘employer’s obligation’ are not proper subjects of negotiation,” he wrote.
The issue goes beyond these two unions, both sides agree, although neither can predict with certainty what would happen if the employer or, conversely, the employees won in court. It is theoretically possible that other unions and agreements could be affected.
County official Grant said if SLOGAU and DCCA prevail, “that would prevent the county from bargaining with them over increased pension contributions and might require the county to compensate their members for past contributions that the county required them to make.”
In addition, “it is possible that other bargaining units would seek to roll back prior increases in the employee share of pension rates and refuse to bargain over any additional increases that may be required,” he wrote.
He said the county’s General Fund would have to absorb $15 million to $20 million annually “if the county had to roll back pension cost sharing that has been negotiated or imposed in response to pension cost increases that have occurred since 2007.”
Union representative Silver painted an equally grim picture of what could happen to employees should the county prevail.
“If the county is correct that it may require employees to pay a portion of what is designated in the plan documents as the ‘legal obligation’ of the county, employees could be required to pay for all of the cost of their pension allowance,” he wrote.
“This would be unprecedented with respect to most public employee pension plans, whether those are defined contribution plans or defined benefit plans,” Silver wrote.
About 60 percent of the county’s operating budget goes to personnel costs.