March 6, 2009 Volume 110 Number 5

AFSCME 88 offers wage freeze to prevent Multnomah County layoffs

Multnomah County’s largest union is proposing to freeze wages at current levels for a year, in response to worries about job and service cuts from a looming budget shortfall. The county is facing as many as 300 or more layoffs, depending on the final budget estimates.

Members of American Federation of State County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 88 who work at the county will vote March 9 whether to approve a contract amendment that would cancel a cost-of-living adjustment and step increases. Workers are in the middle of a four-year collective bargaining agreement that was ratified in July 2007.

Multnomah County is facing a projected $36.5 million general fund shortfall in fiscal year 2010 (which runs July 2009 to June 2010). That represents about a tenth of the total budget.

Local 88 president Becky Steward said a wage freeze — spread out among the 2,700 county workers represented by the local — could save the equivalent of 70 to 100 jobs.

“It’s, ‘Let’s all take a small hit so no one person takes a huge hit,’” Steward said. “We’re showing solidarity by all of us taking a hit so all of us can continue to stay employed and provide services.”

The deal comes with conditions: Management has to take the wage freeze, too, and the money saved by the wage freeze on Local 88 members has to go to maintain jobs and services performed by members. The county can’t use the savings for new projects.

Odds are, county managers wouldn’t have money left over anyway. Even with the pay freeze, job cuts are still likely. Steward predicts two rounds of layoffs: one in July in programs the county pays for with its own general fund money, and a second in September in county programs funded by state dollars.

Cuts are likeliest at the Department of Human Services, which runs programs in mental health, aging and disability, developmental disability, and drug and alcohol treatment.

The county general fund pays for everything from rural sheriffs patrols and parole and probation services to animal control, restaurant inspections, and alcohol and drug treatment. Its sources of revenue include a share of property tax, a 1.45 percent business income tax, a car rental tax, and a share of state Lottery proceeds. Oregon’s property tax revenue will continue to rise even if property values drop, because Oregon ballot measures have resulted in “assessed values” that are far under real market values. But the county’s business income tax is down dramatically, reflecting falling business incomes. That tax, which raised $66 million in 2008, is projected to bring in $46 million this year.

That means a tight fiscal belt just got cinched tighter. Steward said the county has cut staff every year but one for the last nine years. Local 88 is down 425 represented positions since 2001.

Local 88’s wage freeze proposal came after the union created a task force to look at how to deal with the crisis. Two other options were considered — reducing hours and mandatory furloughs. About 650 members took part in an online survey; nearly two-thirds said they’d be willing to take a pay freeze. And that was the measure county leaders said would be easiest to implement.

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