While Miami-Dade pay cuts proposed, most must be bargained out with unions
By Risa Polansky
As Miami-Dade must take more expenses to the chopping block to make up for lost property tax revenue after last week's vote to keep the 2010 tax rate flat, pay cuts have emerged as part of the solution.
Policymakers propose varying tactics, from 5% across-the-board wage cuts proposed by Mayor Carlos Alvarez to a sliding scale.
But with about a dozen unions representing more than 87% of all 29,027 fulltime employees, it's not so cut-and-dried. Commissioners can't flat-out decide union employees' salaries and benefits.
"When they're unionized, you have an obligation to bargain," said Assistant County Attorney Lee Kraftchick, chief of the Employment, Discrimination and Labor Section.
Still, commissioners would have the final say — after a state-mandated negotiation process.
Ideally, union contracts are settled before commissioners pass a budget so number crunchers can definitively plug in salaries.
"It's a difficult thing to resolve your entire budget without having some knowledge of what your employee cost is going to be. But the timing is not always perfect," Mr. Kraftchick said.
Less than two weeks before the final budget hearing, the administration and the unions have yet to reach agreements, though they're taking steps.
Some have declared impasse, meaning "further negotiations are not likely to produce an agreement," he said.
In that case, the county and the union can present their cases to a special magistrate "who is a fact-finder who comes in and holds hearings between the two parties and then issues recommendations," said Don Slesnick, Coral Gables mayor and a lawyer representing public employee unions, including one of the county's.
But, Mr. Slesnick stressed, the special master's recommendations "are not decisions."
"The final authority is the elected body," he said — the commission.
At an impasse, the county and union could also choose to skip the special magistrate and go straight to the commission, which would hear each side, then rule.
Already three have chosen that route, Mr. Kraftchick said.
Commissioners decided Tuesday to meet in an executive session today (9/10) to talk strategy with unions behind closed doors.
If the county and at least some unions reach agreements before the budget process closes, the outcome should set the tone for the whole budget.
Unions generally follow each other's lead.
If agreements remain unsettled by the start of the fiscal year, regardless of what the budget says "you maintain the status quo" until resolving the impasse, Mr. Kraftchick said.
Or, if the commission makes a decision and the administration and unions won't ratify it, the lawmakers' recommendation rules for a year before bargaining begins again.
Coral Gables went all last year without cementing union agreements, Mr. Slesnick said.
There, they finally agreed to keep pay flat.
If county commissioners pass a budget based on wage cuts that they later agree with the unions to change, they'll have to find money to fill the gap.
"If it's not provided for in the initial adopted budget, subsequent amendments would have to be made to reduce another appropriation because at that point that's all you'd have," county budget chief Jennifer Glazer-Moon said. "You couldn't increase revenue."
Budget committee Chair Katy Sorenson clarified that point at a public powwow with Commission Chair Dennis Moss Tuesday.
"What happens if we pass the budget with all these cuts, and then I assume all these unions are going to come in and plead for mercy — can we go back on our cuts?"
Assistant County Attorney Jess McCarty told them the commission will have to deal with each collective bargaining agreement separately.
If they approve agreements with terms different than those assumed in the budget, he said, "then other cuts will have to be made."
More layoffs could be in store depending on what commissioners decide on pay cuts, Ms. Sorenson said.
"Something's got to give. We have to balance our budget."