BROOKSVILLE — Contract talks between county officials and the Teamsters union stalled Wednesday as the county declared an impasse.
Standard give-and-take negotiations "have morphed into opinion,'' Cheryl Marsden, the county's chief negotiator, said after the teams had spent about three hours at the table. "We're not making headway here.''
That means the county is now at impasse with all of its unionized employees, including the two bargaining units representing Hernando County Fire Rescue personnel.
The reason has been consistent: money.
Marsden told Teamsters team members that there simply wasn't enough money to cover increased health insurance premiums or to make promises that all county-employed workers would get raises in the future if any of them did.
Earlier this week, the County Commission learned that the $2.5 million shortfall it had expected in the 2012-13 budget had already grown to about $5 million and could increase even more.
Commissioner Dave Russell asked George Zoettlein, the county's budget manager, about the impact of recent state funding changes, falling property values and other changes in the county's financial situation. Zoettlein confirmed that the chasm between revenues and expenses continues to deepen.
The latest hits have come from changes by the Florida Legislature in the county's share for Medicaid and from the recent news that the county owes about $300,000 more than it expected for the incarceration of juveniles at the detention center in Marion County.
On Wednesday, Ron Pianta, interim county administrator, told the Teamsters about those drawdowns on revenue. He also reminded them that the county might be on the hook for repaying county employees the 3 percent of their salary that employees paid during the past year for their retirement. That expense has been challenged in court.
Medical costs for jail inmates are also a growing issue, he said.
"These are big-number issues,'' Pianta said.
Compensating county employees for the $28-per-pay-period increase in their health insurance costs would run up the county's expenses by more than $400,000, Marsden said.
Teamsters business agent John Sholtes said that number wasn't right because it included employees not in the union. But Pianta said the county treats all employees equally and had to consider the overall impact of increasing benefits.
The Teamsters represent about 400 of the 742 employees who work for the commission. When talks began late in April on a contract that was to have taken effect Oct. 1, an emphasis was placed on cordial negotiations.
By the end of Wednesday's session, exchanges grew tense, especially after Sholtes presented a proposal to use a portion of the county's $6 million fleet replacement money to pay employees for the increase in health insurance premiums.
"There's a big pile of money there,'' Sholtes said, hinting that the union also knew of other places in the county budget where money was available.
He provided a written report of how much the county had stockpiled in the fleet fund. He also suggested that major truck and equipment purchases — including two $400,000 fire trucks — could be paid for by taking out a loan.
He said the county was being unreasonable by not agreeing to spend some of the fund on employees.
The county negotiating team immediately called a private caucus.
Marsden restarted the session by asking Sholtes where else the union thought there was more money. He refused, saying, "It's just kind of silly in my opinion that we have to tell you where your money is.''
"Not just silly,'' Pianta replied, "but presumptuous as well.''
Assistant public works director Steve Whitaker explained why the replacement fund was created and how as much as $2 million of it would be spent during the coming year on much-needed new equipment. The fund actually doesn't have enough in it now to meet the county's needs, he said.
Taking out a loan to pay for equipment would just be dragging out the expense, Whitaker said.
"We're not looking for the full $6 million,'' Sholtes said, "just a sliver.''
Pianta explained that the county had to make wise decisions on how to spend taxpayer money, had to meet its obligations to follow proper accounting rules and maintain the county's credit rating.
Taking money from that fund would be "a major policy change'' that only the commission could authorize, he said.
"This is not the appropriate place at this time to fund benefits,'' Pianta said. "We have to make sure we are fiscally sound.''
He said the fleet replacement program and a new program to use a centralized fund to keep information technology equipment up to date are the direction the county has decided to go in funding its capital needs.
Sholtes said he was more concerned about the human factor.
"It's about taking care of our employees,'' he said.
Pianta repeated that the county's charge is to make wise decisions about how to spend taxpayer money.
Minutes later, the county formally declared an impasse.
The arguments over the remaining contract items — wages and health insurance — will now be made before a special magistrate, who will make a recommendation. The commission has the final say.
The teams did agree that, even as they go through the process with the magistrate, they will continue to talk about health insurance options.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.