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Sheriff's office layoffs likely to be halted

Jackson County won a bargaining dispute that could spell relief for 66 employees of the Sheriff's Department who received pink slips in February.

"This means we should be able to rescind all or most of the layoff notices," Commissioner Don Skundrick said Friday.

The county and the bargaining unit representing sheriff's employees were locked in a dispute over wages that went into binding arbitration. On Friday the arbitrator ruled in favor of the county.

The county's accepted offer has no salary increases for 2011 and 2012, with a 2013 salary increase of up to 2 percent based on the consumer price index.

The Jackson County Sheriff's Employees' Association, which has about 145 members, proposed retroactive pay increases for 2011 through 2013 based on the CPI for each year — 2.1 percent and 3.6 percent for 2011 and 2012, respectively. They also asked for monthly increases to health insurance premiums for 2011-2013.

The county had said the union's proposal would have cost about $3.2 million, but union officials dispute that, saying an exact amount couldn't be calculated because the 2013 CPI hasn't yet been calculated.

In any case, the higher level of raises sought by the union would have led to dozens of layoffs for its newer members

The potential cost of the raises combined with reductions in state and federal revenue, local property tax revenues, and $4 million in state-mandated retirement payments to put the county in a financial bind. Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters had said the layoffs would have meant cuts to patrol, search & rescue, air rescue, SWAT, court security and jail employees.

"We respect the arbitrator's decision," said JCSEA president Ben Fazio. "The only negative impact from this is it's an immediate financial hardship for our members in lost earnings. It put us behind immediately."

Fazio added the decision means increased costs toward health insurance for union members in the coming months. He said the new contract will put pay and benefits for Jackson County sheriff's deputies behind Deschutes, Douglas and Lane counties, which are comparable communities in terms of size.

"I don't see how our department's going to recover from this for a long time," Fazio said.

According to documents provided by the county, the outcome of negotiations will result in a starting pay rate of about $23.63 per hour — $35.29 when benefits are included.

That would be lower than Deschutes and Lane counties, but higher than Douglas County, according to the documents. They list starting pay and benefits for deputies in Deschutes, Douglas and Lane counties at $36.96, $30.27 and $39.02 respectively.

County officials said they expect all of the layoff notices will be rescinded.

"I think it's pretty definite," said Deputy County Administrator Harvey Bragg, adding it was never certain which way the arbitrator would rule. "We didn't really have an idea one way or the other. I think that this is good news, certainly for the 66 people who don't get laid of."

While the news is good in the short term, there are no guarantees, however, that layoffs won't be necessary later this year after the county budget for 2013-14 is built, said county Administrator Danny Jordan.

"Pretty much every (department's) budget we're looking at, we're cutting back," Jordan said. "We're going to have to make reductions in the Sheriff's Office, too."

Jordan said he is shifting $1 million in general fund dollars into the sheriff's budget for the next year, but said that would not be enough to keep up with increasing costs, especially a sharp rise in costs for the Public Employees Retirement System.

He said it's possible any reduction in positions in the Sheriff's Office could be limited to vacancies.

"We don't want to lay anyone off if we don't have to," Jordan said.

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at rpfeil@mailtribune.com.