A proposed contract between Erie County and the union representing workers at the Holding Center seemed a decent proposal that offered some long-term relief for the taxpaying public. It has now been rejected by the union, but both sides should keep working toward this sort of agreement.
In return for raises and a lump-sum payment, the plan called for workers to contribute to their health insurance, especially retirees, and give back some paid time off, including the infamous "summer hours" that allow county workers to leave work a half-hour early in July and August and get paid for it.
The plan represented a sea change, ending free retiree health insurance for new hires and requiring active employees to contribute to their health insurance while they're working. That's now common in the private sector.
Of course, givebacks cost. Incentive for the unions is the prospect of a lump-sum payment county officials say will average $4,000 per worker, plus a more generous pay scale and six annual raises of 3 percent starting Jan. 1.
Teamsters Local 264 put it to a vote, and it was defeated 295-126. Eighty percent of the Holding Center's workers are sworn deputies, and the rest are civilian employees.
Nobody likes giving up anything in a job contract. But private sector unions have faced harsh recession realities, and the recession's impacts on taxpayers mandate similar steps, eventually, for public sector unions. Making benefits affordable for the county over the long term is a key factor in the county's fiscal recovery.
As with a recent nurses' contract, this deal did a decent job of putting jail employees more on par with workers in the area's private institutions while saving the county. And there was a plus, in the form of cash and raises, for the workers. The long-term retirement savings wouldn't have balanced the compensation increases until 2040, but they would then save money for area residents' children and grandchildren. In the short term, today's taxpayers still would pay the cost of a contract that will benefit those in later generations.
As negotiations resume, questions of whether the structural change is worth the generation or so it will take to pay for it, and what alternatives are left, will linger. If the raises were lower, the savings would catch up with the costs a lot faster, but getting union members -- who wanted a much higher percentage raise -- to agree now will be further in doubt. The other, less desirable alternative would be to go annually to the Erie County Legislature, the final arbiter for the Teamsters, to negotiate raises. But if the politically driven Legislature makes an annual settlement, county taxpayers might get nothing back.
The remaining part of this picture is whether the county control board, which could release several million dollars to promote government efficiency, would cover the approximately $2.4 million in union-member bonuses to address the five years they went without a raise.
County officials seem confident, but there are no guarantees. Moreover, the largest savings wouldn't come from work rule changes but from shared health insurance benefit costs -- and the future of those costs is further clouded by probable but uncertain federal changes in health care.
In concept the county issued a workable plan, but now it goes back to the table with the union. Both sides should keep at it, diligently. Workers have gone years without raises so some relief is due, and for taxpayers it's worth paying up front in order to gain significant savings later -- and to change a culture in which benefits simply have kept growing.