February 4th, 2010, 4:24 pm · posted by Jennifer Muir

(Updated 2/5/10 with a correction to employee contributions.)

After The Watchdog complained in a post yesterday that county officials were withholding the details of a tentative agreement with the sheriff’s deputy union, they rang us up and said they wanted to open up.

The county’s Human Resources Director Carl Crown explained this afternoon that he was reluctant to release a breakdown of the contract’s costs before county supervisors consider the contract on Tuesday. They’ve been negotiating with the union since August, he explained, through a period when the county continues fighting a legal battle with the union over its pension costs. So the deal is a bit delicate.

It contains a new pension tier — one that’s unique to Orange County law enforcement agencies — and for the first time since 2002 requires deputies to start sharing the costs of their retirements. If supervisors didn’t approve the deal, it would weaken the county’s negotiating position, Crown said.

But he said this afternoon that he’s confident the board will approve the agreement, which county number crunchers estimate will save the county nearly $4.5 million over the three-year agreement — a savings of about 2.15 percent in salary and employee benefits when compared to the county’s previous agreement with AOCDS. When you factor in savings to contract cities and other agencies that funnel money to the department, the overall savings climb to $6.18 million.

Less than a $500,000 of that savings will come from creating a new pension tier and other changes for new employees. But requiring deputies to start paying for a share of their retirement costs amounts to millions in savings.

The agreement, Crown explains, contains five main provisions that affect its price tag. Here’s a breakdown.

1. For the first time since 2002, deputies will contribute toward the cost of their retirement. By the end of the three-year contract, existing employees will contribute 5 percent of their pay toward their retirement costs. Crown says that concession will save the county $7.7 million over three years.

2. The agreement also establishes a second retirement tier for new employees — one that pushes back their retirement age to 55. (Currently, deputies can retire at age 50 with up to 90 percent of their salary, depending on how long they’ve worked.) And it requires new hires to contribute 6.6 percent of their compensation toward retirement costs.

When we asked pension watchdog Marcia Fritz about the proposal a couple weeks back, she was skeptical that pushing back the age would save much money and said that requiring deputies to share the costs of their pensions should be a bare minimum.

Additionally, the sheriff’s department isn’t hiring new deputies.

County number crunchers acknowledged low turnover when they estimated how much the pension changes would save: $434,000 over the course of three years. Three-fourths of that savings would come from requiring deputies to contribute toward their retirements.

Still, Crown says the savings will likely grow during better times.

“If you don’t get it now, try coming back to them when times are good,” he said.

3. Changes to the way the department calculates overtime will save an estimated $3 million over the course of the contract. Crown said that the county initially expected to save even more from the change, but to the credit Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and AOCDS, the department had already begun to reduce overtime costs.

Other county employee unions have already agreed to the same overtime changes, but Crown says this concession still marks a victory for the county because very few law enforcement agencies have done the same.

“You’re talking about people pulling down $30,000 to $40,000 a year (in overtime), and that would go right out of their pocket,” Crown said.

(A Register investigation in 2008 discovered the department spent $41.1 million on overtime a year earlier, pushing salaries of the majority of deputies to over $100,000 a year.)

Here’s the change: Today, deputies can collect overtime when the hours they’re paid each week exceed 40. That means an employee who calls in sick on Monday — and logged sick pay hours for that time — could collect over time for working extra hours later in the week. Under the new rules, employees can only collect overtime for the hours they actually worked. So if you call in sick on Monday and work two hours late on Friday, you get no overtime. Instead, you claim fewer sick hours.

4. The county has agreed to contribute more toward deputy health benefits, from $620 per month now to $745 this year. Eventually, by 2012, the county’s contribution would climb to $845 per month. The change amounts to a $4.1 million increase in county costs.

The deputy union manages the health plan, and the previous three-year contract didn’t contain increases to health contributions. Crown said that rising healthcare costs were driving down the health plan’s reserves fast.

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