Strained labor talks spark debate over Island County budget

The Island County Deputy Sheriff’s Guild claims that county officials don’t understand their own budget and demands that they retain an outside budget expert before any labor negotiations continue.

The 33 commissioned deputies who comprise the guild have worked without a contract since 2008 in what has been a contentious process involving two lawsuits brought by the guild.

The contract was submitted for a hearing before a neutral arbitrator.

The guild sent “a strongly worded letter” to the county’s labor contract negotiators earlier this month, criticizing the county officials for claiming they were broke while sitting on a “massive” reserve fund, according to a guild press release.

In response, the Island County Board of Commissioners sent a statement to the South Whidbey Record disputing assertions made in a letter written by Jim Cline, attorney for the guild.

“The claims made in Mr. Cline’s letter are untrue, distorted, or greatly exaggerated. His letter creates an inaccurate public perception of the status of the negotiations, rather than a serious proposal to the county,” the commissioners’ release states.

The guild’s skepticism about the state of the budget comes after the commissioners removed the law-and-justice levy proposal from November’s ballot.

The measure would have funded additional deputies in the office.

Commissioner Jill Johnson, the new member on the board, led the charge to cancel the levy after realizing that the county has a large reserve fund that’s growing each year.

“The recommended standards for local governments are for about 5 to 15 percent reserves and not more than about 16 percent,” Cline claimed. “The county has reserves in excess of 45 percent and will likely hit over 50 percent by the end of this year.”

In August, the commissioners reported that the reserve fund is at $9 million, which is 41 percent of the county’s $22-million operating budget. Revenues outpaced expenditures by $1.6 million in 2011, $1.9 million in 2012 and this year’s projection is for a minimum of $1.5 million.

County officials decided that the excess funds should be used to fill in the budget gaps before the county asks for more funds from the citizens. They said a levy may still be necessary someday.

Cline claims the county is insisting on freezing deputy wages, which would leave it “unable to compete successfully against other law enforcement agencies that are now ramping up hiring and filling their own vacant positions.”

Sheriff Mark Brown said he can’t discuss the guild letter or labor negotiations.

But he explained that he lost 10 deputies and three corrections officers during budget cuts in 2008 and 2009. The commissioners restored four deputies and a jailer in the 2014 budget.

Guild President Darren Crownover, a longtime deputy, said in the press release that he’s glad the sheriff is hiring four new deputies, though he added the office probably needs six more to be properly staffed.

He’s not happy with county officials’ oversight of labor relations.

“The guild decided it was time to be direct with the commissioners and tell them that we see no point in further meetings until they get their house in order,” he said.

The guild hired Stan Finkelstein, the former director of the Association of Washington Cities, to assess the county’s budget records.

Cline claimed his work with Finkelstein convinced him that the county “does not know what it’s doing.”

Cline claimed that the county withheld financial documents that caused arbitration to be delayed.

Bob Braun, the county’s contracted labor negotiator, blames the delay on Cline.

“Unfortunately, Mr. Cline’s litigation tactics have delayed the arbitration again and again. I believe this method of bargaining is costing the union and the taxpayers a lot of money that would be better spent on wages and benefits for our deputies,” he said in the press release.

The commissioners declined to discuss any of the specific allegations in Cline’s letter due to the ongoing negotiations and lawsuits.


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