BROOKSVILLE — If the overwhelming vote against a proposed contract didn't send a strong enough message to the county administration, members of Teamsters Local 79 spelled it out clearly on Wednesday.
Employees who work for the County Commission are tired of the big, red target on their backs.
"The employees aren't stupid,'' said Teamsters bargaining team member Chris Soto. "They see what's going on in this county. They see the County Commission ending impact fees. They see the spending on the dredge."
"It seems that one core group is always asked to take the hit.''
"They wonder how important they are as they watch the county throw money in a hole out in the gulf,'' Teamsters business agent Steve Mosely told members of the administration bargaining team as the two sides came back to the table Wednesday to see if a compromise can be reached.
"We should take the hit for everyone else?'' asked Dan Oliver, another Teamster on the bargaining team.
Teamsters team member Paul Wieczorek reminded the county's chief negotiator, Cheryl Marsden, when employee sentiments turned.
The Teamsters had worked side by side with the county staff to craft a contract that would reduce expenses to make up for the shortfall in the 2011-12 budget.
When, the day after the budget was approved, the county's constitutional officers decided they would not ask their employees to take the same benefit cuts that the Teamsters were trying to sell to their members, "that changed the playing field,'' Wieczorek said.
"That's a given. We all understand that,'' said Marsden, the county's director of administrative services. "The question today is: Is there any room for movement or not?''
In mid November, two Teamsters bargaining units voted 313-46 against the proposed contract. The union bargains for 422 of the 518 employees controlled by the County Commission.
When they filled out their ballots, employees were asked what issues most drove their votes.
"The biggest issue was insurance,'' Mosely said. "Furloughs and (unpaid) holidays were mentioned as well.''
The proposed contract cut the amount the county would contribute for employees' health insurance, in addition to collapsing one insurance option. Instead of offering a plan for single employees, one for an employee plus one other person and a third for families, the proposal dropped the employee-plus-one option.
"People can just not afford it,'' Mosely said.
He said that was especially true of the family plan.
The county had proposed dropping the contribution for that plan by $110 a month. With 47 percent of the county's employees making $15 an hour or less, they cannot take that hit, Mosely said.
On top of that, Teamsters team members pointed out that insurance premiums increased approximately 10 percent and, due to a change at the state level, all public employees now must contribute 3 percent toward their retirement. All of that came on top of several years without raises, they said.
Marsden tried to split the difference in the hit on the family insurance plan, but "splitting it still puts us in the hole,'' Wieczorek said.
After a couple of private caucuses by the teams, Mosely came with a proposal for Marsden to take back to the County Commission.
He asked that the current contribution toward health insurance remain the same, with three tiers of coverage, that furlough days and unpaid holidays be taken off the table, and that the county pay for the increase in health insurance premiums.
Marsden pushed for some concession, but Mosely said he couldn't see the employees approving a contract with the cuts in benefits.
"As far as we're concerned, that's about as low as we can go at this point, not knowing where the dollars are going to be,'' Mosely said.
The county is expected to have a better picture of its financial situation after the annual auditing begins next month. Marsden also agreed to take the proposal to commissioners in an executive session later in January.
The Teamsters aren't the only county employees who have balked at the reduced benefits package. Several weeks ago, Hernando County Fire Rescue workers voted down their contract proposal 78-0.
Marsden said county administration will be going back to the bargaining table with the firefighters next week.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.