Union voices concerns to Delta County Board

ESCANABA – An informational picket regarding Delta County union employees and county administration practices led to discussion of these concerns at Tuesday’s Delta County Board of Commissioners meeting.

Members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 2755, along with several supporting local union groups and community members, gathered as part of the informational picket Tuesday, voicing their concerns over what they believe are unfair labor and hiring practices.

AFSCME represents the interests of employees in the Delta County Courthouse, Public Health – Delta & Menominee Counties, Delta County Airport, and Michigan State University Extension office.

The group picketed in front of the courthouse from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., prior to attending the county board of commissioners meeting.

“We want to make the community, taxpayers, and voters aware that they need to be more diligent about seeing how the board is spending our tax dollars,” said Christine Pepin, president of AFSCME Local 2755, during the picket. “We have suffered over the last three years. The Local 2755 has lost 18 of 78 jobs through elimination and lay-offs. On Nov. 8, six of the remaining eight housekeepers and maintenance staff were laid off. That’s for the courthouse, the airport, the health department, and MSU Extension.”

Pepin, who also addressed the county board during public comment at the meeting in addition to several other community members, noted county employees have made concessions and are operating under a wage freeze, but questioned what concessions administration and board members have made.

“We were told by the board that everybody was going to share the pain. They were going to take less meeting money, no raises for anybody, yet the administrator went from $68,000 in 2010 to $86,000 in 2012-13,” she said, while acknowledging additional administration staff who received raises.

Other concerns she voiced included gender specific job postings, changing job descriptions, jobs that require special training not offered to union members, and jobs offered to family members of administration. She also spoke on how the county will lose revenue since the Department of Human Services and Pathways Community Mental Health have now vacated the Delta County Service Center.

“DHS and Pathways are long-time tenants at the county service center… but DHS has since pulled out and Pathways is now moved out,” said Pepin. “That’s nearly half a million dollars in revenue loss to the county. Are you telling me the board couldn’t negotiate some kind of deal with them to keep them on as tenants?”

Several board members responded to the concerns voiced by Pepin and other community members who addressed the board.

“These layoffs are going to happen but I think that they can be mitigated,” said Board Chairman Tom Elegeert. He said Administrator Nora Viau is working on a plan to share with the board so they can have the best outcome possible.

Commissioner Dave Moyle said he is always willing to hear concerns from citizens and county employees, and will try to get answers to any of their questions.

Commissioner Dave Rivard said he believes Delta County is in a “fairly decent” position financially, but noted money is tightening up and government is pushing responsibilities onto the county, requiring them to pick up costs.

One of his primary concerns is the loss of Pathways and DHS from the service center, which he said amounts to approximately $550,000 in revenue, and about what should be done with this space.

“We’re thinking about filling it with some folks out of this building (the courthouse) and that’s fine,” he said. “I think that makes sense in some cases but there’s a cost to do that also, so hopefully this board will take a serious look at that.”

However, Rivard suggested the board and administration look at putting expenses on hold, since he believes the board must take a serious look at the budget.

“We’re in negotiation with at least two of our unions right now and I think it’s a little bit unfortunate that we’ve hired an attorney to help do the negotiations,” he said. “That’s expensive. I’m not trying to make a judgment on whether it’s needed or not, but I think we’ve done it for years without it and it’s expensive.”

Following the meeting, Administrator Nora Viau addressed some of the concerns brought up during the meeting.

Viau pointed to a list of known relatives who work for the county as evidence of several relative relationships of county employees, and alluded to a couple of grievances filed against the county since 2009 regarding updated job descriptions and qualifications that were claimed to have violated contracts. However, these grievances were denied following arbitration.

On the topic of wages, Viau said prior to the hiring of an administration secretary in May 2010, the board had already created a new job description which set salary amounts for that employee each year.

“I know they keep referring to myself as well, that I got raises, and yes, I did,” said Viau, adding the contract had been negotiated by two former county board members. “I was paid according to that contract. That was approved by the board…and they extended my contract two years but there was no raise in it.”

She said administration is not the only area where there have been raises. The board recently approved a raise for the equalization and building and zoning assistant, an AFSCME union position, since the employee needed to receive a certification within three years of their hire, which put them in a different pay scale level.

Despite Viau’s responses, Pepin and others remain concerned about how the county operates.

“Our main goal today is to make the community, Delta County residents, aware that we need to keep an eye on the people we voted into that office,” she said. “If not, this county’s going to get run into the ground and the employees right along with it. We’re not asking for anybody’s job. We’re not saying to fire anybody. We just want a level playing field.”