It looks as though the holidays will come and go this year without a furlough for Santa Barbara County employees.

Furloughs, or required unpaid days off, were enforced last year at about this time in an effort to save the county money and prevent layoffs.

However, this year Santa Barbara County’s largest employee union has been at the negotiating table with the county for months without any sign of compromise.

Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 620, which represents approximately 1,800 county employees, recently rejected a possible furlough proposal on a majority vote.

When asked if his union had essentially voted for layoffs with its vote, Local 620 member and county chapter secretary Mick Robinson answered, “as far as we knew, we were voting for layoffs either way.”

The county’s proposal to the membership included a pay cut for 132.4 hours — more than three weeks — but unlike last year, there would be a no-layoff guarantee only until Dec. 31, according to Robinson.

“Without some guarantees, they could get rid of all of us,” Robinson said. “We are still willing to work with the county, but we want some sort of proposal that protects the membership in the process.”

Last year, over the holidays many county employee unions agreed to a 64-hour pay cut and approximately two weeks of unpaid leave.

Wage reductions, deferrals or freezes of previously negotiated salaries and benefits were also implemented last year for a combined savings to county government of approximately $10.1 million.

“Our membership has shown that it’s willing to sacrifice for its fellow members and for the sake of the county, but it has to be mutually beneficial,” Robinson added.

According to Robinson, the county was asking for a $7.2 million salary sacrifice, and in exchange, the saved funding would be used in an attempt to save Local 620 jobs.

Another branch of the SEIU, Local 721, represents 450 county employees who work mostly in social services, probation and courts.

Their negotiation team is still in discussion with the county, but union members have some reservations, according to Favel Jens, a Local 721 representative.

“The overwhelming (concern) is our union members don’t see any sense of urgency from the county” regarding a fiscal emergency, Jens said. “We’ve seen managers hired, promotions given, new

positions created and filled … We believe in shared sacrifice, from the top on down.”

The county has been experiencing and anticipates flat or declining discretionary revenue, while costs continue to increase.

This year’s budget was balanced with the use of staff and program cuts combined with some finagling of funds, however in the 2010-2011 budget, the county has an estimated $17 million hole to fill.

That budget gap is expected only to widen over the next four years, until the county finds itself in a

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$45 million hole in July 2013.

However, as Jens said, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors has not made any drastic cuts and continues to fund building projects and long-range planning programs.

Jens also added that it cost the county money to furlough Local 721’s social service employees.

“For social services, the furlough doesn’t work well,” agreed Kathy Gallagher, director of the county Social Services Department. “We ended up paying overtime to staff” in January because of the work backlog caused by having two weeks off.

Local 721 is now working with the county to brainstorm money-saving ideas and to get clarity on its questions, Jens said.

County spokesman William Boyer said the Human Resources Department will continue to negotiate with both local chapters of SEIU 620 and 721, in addition to the Engineers and Technicians Association (ETA), the Union of American Physicians and Dentists (UAPD) and public safety unions.

 “Cost savings and cost reductions is a general topic of discussion,” Boyer said. “The county is interested in talking with all of the unions and seeing if there’s some way to work proactively with all of the unions to reduce personnel costs.”

Furloughs, he added, are just one way to reduce costs and although it has been “a valuable tool,” it is not the only fix for the budget.

There are still six months left in the current budget year in which to apply cost-cutting measures such as furloughs, salary freezes or layoffs, Boyer said.

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