Jackson County officials and the sheriff employees' bargaining group have been at odds over a contract for almost a year after the county balked at an initial wage and benefits package offer estimated to cost $7 million over a three-year period.

Jackson County officials and the sheriff employees' bargaining group have been at odds over a contract for almost a year after the county balked at an initial wage and benefits package offer estimated to cost $7 million over a three-year period.

The Jackson County Sheriff's Employees Association has since proposed a substantially lower offer, but is still asking for more than county officials consider reasonable.

"We still think $3.5 million is exorbitant, considering the fact we pay more in salaries and wages than other comparable counties," County Administrator Danny Jordan said.

A summary prepared by the association calculates its latest offer would cost only $1.4 million, roughly $2 million less than the county's calculations.

Ben Fazio, a patrol deputy who is president of the association, said the county's numbers don't present a full picture of the offer and take an unfair swipe at deputies who already have stressful jobs.

"My members are going to feel betrayed because they (county officials) are painting us as greedy public employees," he said.

The county and the association are in a 30-day cooling-off period in arbitration.

The county's counter-proposal would increase the cost of the salary and benefits package by $500,000 over three years, offering no wage increases in the first two years, then bumping wages up by 2 percent in 2013.

Jordan said the county believes deputies and other Sheriff's Department employees are hard-working and have stressful jobs.

"We appreciate their effort," he said. "This is not meant to be an attack on them."

He said the county's calculations are a response to a wage and benefits package that was offered by the association in April 2011.

The county decided to present its estimates of the fiscal impact from the proposal to the general public.

"I'm saying let the people decide for themselves," Jordan said.

The county compared pay and benefits for deputies elsewhere and found Jackson County's already were higher than the average in Deschutes, Douglas and Linn counties.

"If we were behind the curve, we would be more than happy to put more money on the table," Jordan said.

He said the county takes a conservative estimate in its calculations because of the cumulative effects of salary increases and unknowns such as the consumer price index.

The association has asked for salary increases for each year ranging from zero percent to a 4 percent cap, depending on the consumer price index. Jordan said the county calculated the impacts of the association's offer on the maximum possible rate because it is still unknown. The latest consumer price index stands at 3.6 percent.

The county based its calculations on 149 full-time positions for the sheriff's department, though 14 positions are currently open but could be filled. The association uses 135 positions for its calculations.

In comparison with other counties, the starting wage for Jackson County deputies is 8.3 percent higher. For the highest-level criminal deputies, the wage also is 8.3 percent higher.

A newly hired Jackson County deputy receives a base wage of $23.17 an hour, but the entire benefits package brings that number to $35.82.

Top-paid deputies receive $32.53 an hour as a base, but $48.04 when the entire benefits package is included.

Starting corrections deputies earn 6.6 percent more than the average of the three counties, while the highest-level corrections deputy gets 6.4 more.

Starting records clerks receive 6.8 percent more in salary. The highest-level records clerks receive only slightly more — .38 percent — compared with the other three counties.

The association's latest offer asks for $1,441 a month for each employee for health insurance for the 2011 year starting in October 2011. The county's health contribution would rise to $1,744 a month by 2013 under the offer. In addition, the county would pick up 50 percent of the costs of an insurance plan if it went above the county's base contribution.

By contrast, Jordan said, the insurance plan for managers at the county costs $850 a month.

The county's proposal to the association offers $1,395 with no 50/50 split above that amount.

Fazio said Douglas County sheriff's employees have been in negotiations for three years, so the salaries for that county have skewed the average wages downward for the comparable counties.

"We told them up front that we're slightly ahead of comparable counties," Fazio said. "Douglas County has been out of contract for three years. As a result, they have wages from four years ago. That skews the number."

Fazio said the association has been fair in asking the county to provide a cost-of-living increase that could be anywhere from nothing to 4 percent, depending on the Consumer Price Index.

"We're not looking for raises," he said. "All we're wanting to do is keep up. We just want to stay with the cost of living."

Fazio said the association has proposed a fair offer, despite the estimates by the county.

"It's about fun with numbers," he said. "Anybody can play with statistics one way or another."

He said deputies and other employees are not getting rich working for the county, but did go into the job expecting that their health insurance and retirement would help compensate them for an extremely stressful job.

The sheriff has a difficult time getting new employees because so many are weeded out during the application process, Fazio said. The sheriff needs to have a salary and benefits package that can attract good recruits, he said.

"We have seen, across the country, agencies struggle to get qualified people," he said.

In some cases, police agencies have lessened their qualifications, but Fazio said the sheriff has decided not to go that route.

"We have a responsibility to hire and retain the best people," he said.

Jordan said the association's offer would strain the county's budget.

"It's certainly difficult to pay for this," he said. "If we did, it would give us some hard choices to make."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email dmann@mailtribune.com.