Contra Costa employee benefits fight on the horizon

Contra Costa County Tax Collector Bill Pollacek’s speech this morning at the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association’s monthly breakfast drew a crowd.

Not that Pollacek isn’t a scintillating speaker, if you like listening to the financial ruminations of an ex-banker. And he’s a favorite of the taxpayers’ group.

But that’s not why some folks showed up such Contra Costa County manager John Cullen or representatives from the offices of supervisors Susan Bonilla and Mary Piepho.

No question about it, they were checking up on Pollacek.

The tax collector has been a vocal critic of the county’s actions related to its $2.57 billion unfunded retiree health care liability. After considerable prodding from the Contra Costa County Grand Jury and others, the county has finally recognized it has a problem and the Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote Tuesday on the first steps toward paying down the debt.

But a part of the solution could require concessions from the county’s labor unions in the form of a freeze or cuts to retiree health care benefits. In the absence of these reductions, the county could be forced to dramatically cut services and lay off up to a fifth of its 7,000-member workforce in order to fund retiree health care benefits.

Pollacek sat on the county ad-hoc committee that developed the recommendations for how to resolve the huge unfunded liability.

But Pollacek has repeatedly and publicly blamed excessive union influence for the passage of generous benefits over the past four decades and supervisors’ past unwillingness to cut them when it became clear the county could go broke trying to pay them.

County supervisors and managers, however, fear that harsh rhetoric from Pollacek or others could poison the county’s already tenuous relationships with its labor unions.

Cullen and board Chairwoman Mary Piepho, at a meeting with the Contra Costa Times editorial board earlier this afternoon, emphasized the need for labor cooperation in order to avert massive countywide service cuts that would cost people their jobs.

The county will get its first indication next Tuesday as to the unions’ stance on the matter, although their leaders’ public statements sometimes differ starkly from their language during closed-door negotiations.

The Board of Supervisors will discuss the issue at 1 p.m. on Tuesday at the board’s chambers in Martinez. Click here for a link to the agenda.

I’d come early if you want a seat. This could be a packed house.

Lisa Vorderbrueggen