County officials and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) representative officially entered into collective bargaining negotiations Wednesday, after years of letting the contract stay the way it is.

"From our standpoint, (the lapse in bargaining) was useful," said County Commissioner David Itzen, who was not in attendance. "They understand the financial problems at the county. We didn't have anything to give them, so there wasn't much point in bargaining."

The county still has nothing to offer andndash; in fact, is anticipating a $3 million shortfall for fiscal year 2012-2013 that starts July 1 andndash; but negotiations could involve almost anything.

The first meeting of the new negotiation process, which is permitted to be last 150 days, was held primarily to collect information from the county regarding employees, pay scales, health insurance and other details.

The meeting was delayed over an hour as union representatives discussed whether the public should be allowed to view the proceedings. The county has traditionally allowed public access andndash; and even placed a notice in the newspaper as such andndash; but the union wanted to close the meeting to the public. Either side can object to opening the meeting to the public, at which point, state law says, it can be closed.

The only member of the public, Greg Empson, left. Ultimately, the press was permitted to stay.

"It's silly to keep the public out," Itzen said. "That worries me a little bit. They're (meetings) a little like watching paint dry. And the public knows quite well our situation."

The group then launched into a discussion regarding a new health care plan the union would like to implement, much to the surprise of the county's legal counsel there, who stated the union had not gone through all the proper channels for county approval, said county labor relations attorney Steven Schuback.

"That is completely contrary to the information I have," he said. "We never opened collective bargaining to go over that. We're open to bargaining insurance and changing plans, but we're not in a position to sign."

"We were talking to the appropriate people at the county and figured out how to move workers to this insurance, and now you say, 'No, no, no?" said SEIU representative Norma Martinez. "We were almost done with it."

County attorney Jerry Herbage said he knew the union was working on something related to the health plan, but he was unwilling to bind the county to anything he hasn't even seen. Additionally, any proposed changes must go through the county's insurance committee, and the union's documentation has yet to do so.

"You're moving way too fast," Herbage said. "You can just sent us a andhellip; document and expect us to sign it. I could not in a million years recommend what was there. This was a one-pager that doesn't say anything. We didn't see anything until you gave us this, and this is woefully inadequate. You didn't go through the usual channels; this is unusual to say the best."

Martinez repeatedly said the union had a "different idea of how things went down," yet they were willing to abide by the county's methodology.

Contract expires

The current contract, last modified in 2008, expires every June. If both sides choose not to enter into negotiations, it rolls over to the next year, which has been the case for four years.

Martinez said she'd been in discussions with county officials regarding a new health plan the union is interested in and she wanted the county to sign off on it.

But, health insurance, Schuback said, has so many variables andndash; among them coverage for same-sex couples, retired and working employees andndash; and have to comply with statutes along the way. Employees that were spun off with their departments to non-profit agencies this year and last but choose to stay with SEIU's existing health plan also have to be addressed.

"A lot of insurance companies offer one agreement to one agency, then another to another," Schubeck said of the union's research into different plans. "A lot has to do with the size (of the agency). And a lot of times, smaller agencies get short-changed."

He noted that insurance rates have escalated by double digits annually over the past several years, and they are often the driving factor behind bargaining.

Other elements andndash; possible federal bailouts in light of the elimination of OandC timber land money, a county budget that won't be done until mid-2013, an audit the county might get at the end of February and what the new board to be sworn in Jan. 7 wants to do andndash; will affect everything, as well.

"The county commissioners have the legal authority to require layoffs, decreases in expenditures," Herbage said. "Without additional revenue, we're looking at a 65 percent cut in our general fund. We're missing $3 million of a $5 million budget. You do the math."

"We have to cut $3 million from the budget," said County Commissioner Bill Waddle. "If each employee costs $75,000, with pay, training, insurance, see how many times $75,000 goes into $3 million before you go home and get sick."

Schubeck said he has "a lot of homework to do" before he can advise the county what to do.

"We have to bargain that stuff before you can change it," he said. "Basically they jumped the gun on insurance. That's fine; they just forgot we have to bargain all the aspects. We need to cross all the 't's and dot all the 'i's on this."

Other meetings are scheduled into the new year; some, notably labor negotiations, will be closed to the public and media.