Four and a half years after its last contract expired, the leader of Niagara County government's second-largest union said he was optimistic that a new offer will break the deadlock.
Edward McDonald, president of Local 182, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said he made the county a new offer during a June 19 session with a fact-finder assigned by the state Public Employment Relations Board.
McDonald said he gave the county until July 9 to accept the deal or make a counteroffer; otherwise, the union simply will send the fact-finder a position paper and take its chances with him.
"I don't anticipate another meeting," McDonald said.
County Manager Gregory D. Lewis had declared an impasse in talks last September, leading to state involvement that so far hasn't produced a deal.
McDonald wouldn't say what was in the offer, other than that he had yielded to Lewis' desire that the contract expire at the end of next year.
"We're so close, I don't want to jeopardize it," he said. "We think our proposal meets their needs."
Those needs primarily involve the county's goal of saving as much as possible on health insurance.
The Civil Service Employees Association and the Deputy Sheriffs Association both settled with the county this year, accepting an agreement that will run out Dec. 31, 2008, and include the county's single-carrier health plan.
McDonald described the health coverage structure in the AFSCME offer as the same as those the other unions have accepted.
But contract language remains in dispute.
Lewis wouldn't comment on the AFSCME offer and said that McDonald's decision to publicize it runs contrary to the usual confidentiality of talks.
He did list wages and health coverage as the primary issues. If no deal is reached before the fact-finder issues his report, the County Legislature and the union can vote on the terms in the report. If either side rejects it, the Legislature can impose a wage level on the union for one year but can't make any other changes in the old contract.
"I am an agent of the legislators, who are representatives of the 220,000 people [of the county]. It's like they're in the room with me," Lewis said.
McDonald said he first offered a contract that would run through 2009. "I tried to get another year just to get a little labor harmony," he said.
But Lewis said he opposes lengthy contracts because he considers frequent dialogue between the county and the unions as healthier.
"If you make them long, we don't have another opportunity to dialogue for five years," Lewis said.
The county also is bargaining with the Police Benevolent Association, which represents the Sheriff's Office's road patrol deputies, and the Probation Officers Association.
Lewis said a meeting is scheduled July 11 with James L. Briggs, negotiator for both unions, on the probation officers' contract. No meeting has been set on the deputies' contract.
"They chose to go away and review their health plan goals and get back to us," Lewis said.
Briggs did not return a call seeking comment.