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Pasco County officials give county workers grim outlook for budget year

SHADY HILLS — With a vote to unionize county employees coming up this summer, top Pasco officials Tuesday evening told workers to expect another year of layoffs, no raises — and not to expect the union necessarily to make it better.

"They cannot guarantee you employment. They cannot guarantee you raises," County Administrator John Gallagher told hundreds of workers assembled for a special meeting at Bishop McLaughlin High School. "Just remember that."

Gallagher and his top aides held the meeting in anticipation of another difficult budget year. Taxable property values have sunk low enough to generate a $17.6 million deficit in the general fund and firefighting fund if tax rates stay the same next year.

Last month, the Teamsters filed for an election with the Public Employees Relations Commission, the state organization that oversees public employee unions, after getting enough signed statements from interested Pasco workers. An election will likely be held this summer, officials said.

Tuesday's presentation included a look at the projected shortfalls as well as the restrictions commissioners have in moving money around the various funds. Workers arrived straight from their jobs, most of them still in suits or uniforms.

Officials were short on many details since departments have just started putting together proposed budgets for next year. Commissioners won't get the proposed countywide budget until July.

But Gallagher said the most likely thing for employees to expect is a third straight year with no raises. He said other cost-cutting measures, including furloughs, are on the table, though he deemed them less likely.

Gallagher also told workers that officials would be "coming around and telling you the facts" about unionizing. "The county is not anti-union," he said. "We want to be good to our employees."

Hernando County employees voted last March to have the Teamsters Union represent them, citing concerns about job security during the early days of the county's revenue shortfall predictions.

Talks began in April, and the Teamsters agreed to forgo pay raises for workers in the current year's contract. Hernando and union officials reached an agreement on 10 furlough days for union workers to help the county reduce payroll costs. The contract also contained a defined layoff and recall procedure and gave priority to seniority.

On Tuesday, in Pasco, workers had a chance to ask their own questions, most of them submitted anonymously on cards.

One of them: Had Gallagher and commissioners received raises last year?

"I did not," said Gallagher.

He said he and County Attorney Jeff Steinsnyder had sent letters to commissioners, saying they would not take raises even though they are allowed in their contracts. Commissioners' salaries are set by the state based on county population.

Gallagher told employees he was optimistic things would look up after next year. For one, financial firm T. Rowe Price, which has bought land in Land O'Lakes, told county officials recently that they expect to start construction soon.

"That they are willing to move forward really encourages me," he said.

Officials will ask Pasco commissioners today to set aside another $21,000 to Ford & Harrison for its assistance on a Teamsters Local No. 79 petition to unionize 1,020 county employees.

County officials say they need Ford & Harrison's help for upcoming hearings and an election. Last month, officials issued a $1,000 purchase order with the firm to conduct a training course for managers.

Last year in Pasco, a revenue shortfall forced officials early on to contemplate eliminating 260 positions. In the end, commissioners put off the harshest cuts by agreeing to raise the property tax rate for the first time since 2001. Twenty-six county workers lost their jobs. Many others took pay cuts.

But commissioners have already said they may not have that option in their back pocket this year.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Pasco County officials give county workers grim outlook for budget year 04/13/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 13, 2010 9:00pm]
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