Constantine Proposes Salary Freeze, Ditching Automatic Cost-of-Living Increases

By Erica C. Barnett July 13, 2010

At a press briefing in a county office building downtown this afternoon, King County Executive Dow Constantine announced he was freezing the wages of all county staff under the direct control of the executive—about 155 people, including Constantine himself—and asking most other county workers to accept a salary freeze in 2011. Constantine also said he would propose eliminating 200 county positions that are currently vacant.

"Any sacrifice needs to be made across the board, from top to bottom," Constantine said. "That's why, today, we're going to lead by example. ... I'm also urging our partners in labor to join us in containing these costs by forgoing a cost-of-living increase in 2011."

The county faces a $140 million budget shortfall over the next two years.

King County Council chair Bob Ferguson said he was asking legislative department staffers to accept a hiring freeze as well, and handed Constantine a check for $3,721—the amount of the cost-of-living increase Ferguson received this year, which Ferguson said had been destined for a college fund for his two young children.

Nonunionized employees, of course, are the easy part. What will be harder is renegotiating the contracts of the county's thousands of union-represented employees, who currently receive an automatic cost-of-living increase of 2 to 6 percent a year (as Constantine noted in his statement).

Currently, COLAs are open to renegotiation in 63 of the county's 73 union contracts. Convincing the unions to set COLAs aside will require substantial political skill; essentially, Constantine must convince the unions that the losses they'll sustain if they don't make sacrifices outweigh the immediate cost of losing an automatic annual pay increase.

In the best-case scenario, Constantine said—that is, if all the county's unionized workers agreed to no cost-of-living increase in 2011—the county would save about $9.4 million. If a 0.2-percent countywide sales-tax increase also passes in November, the county would still face a $10-to-$15-million shortfall in 2011.

In the worst-case scenario, in which unions don't make concessions and voters don't pass a sales-tax increase, Constantine added, county employees would face "hundreds of layoffs."

Constantine said he was "optimistic" that the transit union (ATU Local 587)—whose full-time members, in particular, have shown little inclination t0 bargain away its generous wages, benefits, and annual pay increases—would agree to his proposed concession.
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