10:00 PM PDT on Tuesday, April 5, 2011

By IMRAN GHORI
The Press-Enterprise

San Bernardino County supervisors reduced health and retirement benefits for about 550 mostly management employees Tuesday as part of a first step toward reining in a $122.5 million budget deficit.

The plan, approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors, will save the county $5.1 million and help control rising pension costs, County CEO Greg Devereaux said.

Rising retirement costs are the main cause of the budget gap, which is $46.2 million in the next fiscal year and $122.5 million over five years, he said.

For now, the benefit cuts apply only to employees referred to as “exempt” because they are not represented by unions and can be fired at any time. The board can also unilaterally impose the changes on those employees because of that status.

Devereaux said he plans to seek the same concessions from the rest of the county’s 19,000 employees who are represented by unions. It would need to negotiate any contract changes with those groups.

The county has not yet begun negotiating with the San Bernardino Public Employees Associations and the San Bernardino County Safety Employees Benefit Association, which represent the largest groups of employees. The unions, which agreed to give up or delay pay raises the last couple of years, have voiced reluctance to accept further cuts.

A provision of the ordinance states it will only take effect on June 18 if other employees agree to the same concessions or are cut by an equivalent amount.

Devereaux, who said the county likely will need to lay off employees and cut services, described it as a matter of fairness.

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