Curry County’s Service Employees International Union (SEIU) members will vote today whether to go on strike Aug. 15, but a new offer from the county for a $1,000 one-time bonus might keep them at work.

The union and the Board of County Commissioners both meet today (Aug. 8) to discuss their separate negotiations. The press is not permitted to attend such discussions.

SEIU members — they include almost everyone except the sheriff, elected officials and department heads — are fighting against a pay freeze enacted without their input by the county board, on a 2-1 vote with Commissioner Court Boice voting against it.

And the county, in a final offer, has offered each union employee a $1,000, one-time “signing bonus” to keep the existing contract in place until next year, said County Administrator Clark Schroeder.

He said the county prefers a one-time “bonus” because it would be less expensive in the long run.

“The concern from the county is, we’re not generating any more money from property taxes, and if you continually add to base salaries and don’t get more revenue, you’re going to have to lay off people, Schroeder said. “At some point, you reach a breaking point.”

Commissioner Sue Gold said she “really hopes it will be resolved,” but declined to comment whether commissioners will back down.

“This did not need to happen, Boice said of the discord. “They just ask for a simple recognition and …”

The board hired Bend attorney Bruce Bischof to represent the county in the negotiations. Gold said the three commissioners have provided input to him regarding the county’s stance.

“I’m trying to do what’s right,” Gold said. “I do know we’re making an effort; I can tell you that. I hope both sides are willing to make an effort.”

“We’ve been bargaining with the county to settle this contract since February,” the SEIU local bargaining unit said in an email to the Pilot late Tuesday. “Last week was the first time the county even made an offer to us. The offer did not meet member needs. We do not believe this is in the spirit of good faith bargaining, and it’s not meeting the members where we are.”

The union said last year was the first time Curry County workers received a raise in nine years.

“We don’t just serve Curry County; we are members of the community and love being a part of the county. But we are also the lowest-paid county workers in the state. We hope the county will engage in the bargaining process and settle a fair contract.”

Schroeder, who was hired in June in the midst of negotiations, said he isn’t directly involved at this point.

“Bruce has been carrying the torch in this,” Schroeder said. “I’m just kind of on the sidelines and getting experience in getting involved in negotiations.”

Tick-tock; tick-tock

The clock ticks ever closer, however.

If the two entities can’t reach an agreement, departments directly affected by a strike include the parks, juvenile, clerks, district attorney, assessors and taxation, finance, community development and planning, facilities and maintenance — all of whom would be left with their department head or elected official to do the work.

It worries County Assessor and Tax Collector Jim Kolen, who notified special districts Monday that his department is approaching a critical point in the year and, that if employees strike, it is likely property tax collections will be impacted.

If no money is collected, no money can be distributed to schools, fire, libraries and the numerous other districts in the county.

“Beginning in August, the Assessor’s and Taxation offices enter an intense period of preparation for the assessment and tax rolls,” Kolen said. “(State law) requires the assessment roll be turned over to the tax collector in a timely enough (manner) for tax statements to be mailed to property owners by Oct. 25 each year. Due to this preparation and already reduced staffing levels, we do not schedule employee vacation time from Sept. 1 through Nov. 15, as we are all-hands-on-deck preparing and extending the assessment and tax rolls and then collecting and turning over property tax payments to the taxing districts.

“Should SEIU strike,” Kolen continued, “this office’s ability to prepare and mail tax statements by October 25 will be compromised, and property tax collections and distribution to your district may be delayed indefinitely.”

Kolen noted that this year, county commissioners excluded department heads and elected officials from participating in discussions or strategies involving negotiations since they began. The only time they were allowed to attend a meeting — in an executive session contested by Boice July 17 — was to share with the board what might happen with each department if a strike is called.

Essentially, they said, county operations would come to a grinding halt. That much is expressed in posters in office windows declaring “Without us, there is no Curry County.”

“County managers have received no information regarding strike management or resources that will be available to departments to assist in planning for continuation of services, or lack thereof, in the event of a strike,” Kolen said. “Most county managers have no experience dealing with strike-like conditions and are very concerned that an unresolved contract might lead to the permanent loss of our trained and talented employees.”

Filling in the gaps

Some of them admitted to getting nervous about the potential repercussions of a dramatically reduced workforce, even if a strike is short.

The treasurer, clerk and assessor’s office are all involved in real estate transactions. Builders would not be able to obtain permits. Liens could not be filed. Deeds could go unrecorded. Bills would not be paid — at least not on time.

And once a strike is over, the backlog of work would remain.

Tax collection, however, is among the highest priority for many; without revenue, bills don’t get paid.

“It will shut us down,” Kolen said, adding that a strike would leave him and the deputy assessor to do the work of almost eight people.

When asked what the top priority for those two people would be, he paused.

“Really, all we’d be capable of doing is answering phones,” he said. “All the other people in the office are trained to do the jobs they do. Some I’ve done before, some I have not.”

Kolen noted it takes three to six months to train an entry-level employee to work somewhat independently, and even then, they’ll run into situations they’ve never had to address.

Treasurer Deb Crumley is next in the tax collection and distribution line.

“I’m not sure who will process tax payments,” she said. “Money will not come to me to turn over to the districts; the districts will not be getting their money in a timely fashion. And I will be out of compliance.”

Crumley has the first 10 business days of every month in which to get funds to special districts.

“How do I do that?” she said. “I can’t take tax payments, turn them over to myself and then pay the districts; I could get in trouble. I don’t know how that’s going to pan out. It’s kind of unknown.”

The unknown has created tension in the offices, too, she said.

“Oh, man; huge — huge,” Crumley said. “We talk about work, but we don’t talk about union. It’s awful. I’m telling friends it has nothing to do with our friendship, but there is that tension.”

During a strike

Kolen doesn’t see commissioners acquiescing to union demands, he said.

“I’m hoping they’re not (willing to shut county services down),” Kolen said. “I’m hoping they’d find more value in their employees. But we’re getting absolutely no information whatsoever out of the commissioner’s office about what’s happening. I think I could get information out of the commissioners, if all their discussions didn’t take place in executive session.”

He and others are concerned — particularly if a strike is lengthy — that employees will give up and leave.

Kolen said he could ask if qualified people from other counties might be willing to help in the interim.

“But there’s no way they would cross a picket line,” Kolen said. “And they’re in the same position Curry County is in this time of year. They’ not going to give those people up.”

Next in line could be the Oregon Department of Revenue, but that agency typically provides oversight and doesn’t know the specifics of certain jobs.

“And neither would they cross picket lines,” Kolen said. “Anyone else who might help us would cost Curry County more than what we pay our employees. There you have it. SEIU employees are pretty much fighting for their lives.”

Reach Jane Stebbins at jstebbins@currypilot.com .

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