Island County workers protest new hires
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
March 2, 2010 · Updated 3:54 PM
Members of the largest union of Island County workers sent a complaint letter to county commissioners and filed a grievance in a separate matter last week.
The workers' main concern is that commissioners decided to use increased revenues from fee increases to hire a new person instead of restoring current employees' wages first. Also, they feel the commissioners are violating an agreement by giving some employees more hours than others.
Vinnie O'Connor, a staff representative for Local 1845, said the morale of the 161 county employees has plummeted as they feel the commissioners are spending money freely after union members agreed to cut their own hours to help balance the county's budget.
"Your actions have sent us a clear message that you wish to exploit the cheaper labor costs that have been leveraged through the recent economic hardships," the letter states.
The members of the union unanimously voted to send the letter to the commissioners.
During the budget cutting emergency last year, county officials asked unionized employees to move to a less expensive health care plan. Instead, Local 1845 agreed to reduce their hours by 2.5 hours a week, which amounts to about a 6 percent pay reduction; the decision also saved a number of employees from layoffs.
On top of that, this will be the third year that county employees haven't received cost-of-living increases.
Last year, the commissioners twice raised permits fees in the planning department. Before 2007, the planning department was self-financed, with fees funding the department. Essentially, developers and landowners were paying the county government's costs of regulating development and land-use.
But after the housing bubble burst, the department was subsidized by current expense funds. About $400,000 of the fund — which supports law and justice and several general government departments — went to the planning department in 2009.
In 2008 and 2009, the commissioners laid off nearly half the staff in the land-use and building permits centers and increased permit fees in an attempt to balance the department's budget. But builders started complaining when the staff reductions led to long delays in permit processing. At least one developer said he would rather pay more in fees than have to delay projects by months.
And so the commissioners increased permit fees again last December. A handful of developers complained, but Planning Director Bob Pederson promised that the extra money would be used to maintain or improve the time it takes to process applications.
So far this year, the revenues from permit fees are up. Pederson said there's no longer a backlog of building permits. They take about six to eight weeks to process, he said, which is "pretty standard." But the county still isn't processing land-use permits in a timely manner. They are taking up to six months to finish, though the county codes states they should be done in 120 days at maximum.
As a result, the commissioners chose to use the extra money from permit fees to hire a new associate planner and replace an assistant planner who is leaving. According to O'Connor, the new position is above entry-level pay grade and the replacement position is at an even higher pay level.
O'Connor said the timing of the new hires, coupled with a lack of communication from the board, left a bad taste in the workers' mouths.
"It looks like we made a sacrifice and they took the money and spend it in other areas," he said. "The appearance of this action is what is causing a morale problem."
Technically, the commissioners could have indirectly used the increased fee revenue to restore some of the hours of the Local 1845 employees. Budget Director Elaine Marlow said the planning department will receive about $200,000 in current expense funds this year; the planning department could simply give the money back and use fee revenue instead.
On the other hand, the builders would inevitably be upset that the extra fees they are paying aren't being used to fix the permit backlog.
"The building industry is a huge economic driver in the county," Marlow said. "All along, the commissioners have said their goal is to improve capacity to get the permits out the door in a timely manner."
In a related matter, O'Connor said the union filed a grievance with the county for allegedly breaking the agreement with the union. He said some union members have been restored to full time, while most are forced to abide by the 2.5-hour reduction.
"It's causing a lot of strife between employees," he said.
Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.