By DAN GUZEWICH Staff writer

The county’s four unions will control whether County Executive Anthony J. Picente Jr.’s call for a wage freeze for all county workers next year becomes a reality.

If they reject the plan, then it is back to the drawing board as Picente assembles his 2011 budget, which is due by Oct. 5. The Republican county executive hopes to save as much as $3.5 million from his proposed wage freeze. A combination of property tax hikes and layoffs loom as alternatives.

Enactment of a wage freeze is not something the county executive can do on his own. Picente says he’s committed to keeping any tax increase as low as possible and capping salaries at this year’s levels is one step he’s pushing to reach this goal.

All four union contracts covering most of the 1,600-plus county positions expire at the end of this year. That means a wage freeze next year would have to be part of any new deal or at least a separate agreement. If there are no contracts in place Jan. 1 with a wage freeze or no separate freeze arrangement, unionized workers will receive automatic step increases that translate into higher pay. State law requires public employers to continue all terms, including automatic step movement, of an expired agreement until a new one is negotiated. The current agreements cover automatic step moves.

A way to get around this latter scenario would be for the unions to accept a wage freeze next year and then continue to negotiate separately a new contract.

On Friday, Picente sent letters to the four unions covering some 1,300 workers asking for a wage freeze next year. The letter was disclosed yesterday — one day before the first contract talks were to be held. The agreements cover a host of workers, ranging from Social Services caseworkers to DMV clerks and from snowplow operators to road patrol deputies.

The letter also suggested that there could be workforce reductions in the absence of a wage freeze.

Two of the unions, including the one that represents a majority of the unionized workers, were non-committal today when asked about Picente’s plan.

Gary Hickey, vice president/regional director of the United Public Service Employees Union, declined to comment. His union represents both the White Collar and Blue Collar units, which together account for more than 900 workers.

The first face-to-face talks between the county and both UPSEU units were scheduled for today. Hickey said he’d have a better sense of the situation after meeting with both committees.

Another round of meetings between the White and Blue Collar units and county is set for Sept. 28.

"We have yet to exchange proposals with the county and sheriff’s office," said Michael Simmons, president of the Oneida County Police Benevolent Association. "It is unfortunate that the county has raised its position with the press before we have even sat down to discuss the issues that are important to both sides, but it is not the PBA’s practice to negotiate benefits away from the negotiations table."
He said there is no date yet for a first meeting between the county and PBA, which represents road patrol deputies and 911 emergency dispatchers.

"We look forward to sitting down with the county and sheriff’s office and hopefully coming to an agreement that takes into consideration the interests of both the county and the hard-working members of the PBA," he said.

"You need them to agree to that," said Picente when asked about the unions and any wage freeze

County Personnel Commissioner John P. Talerico said initial contract meetings with unions typically are mostly about setting the ground rules for future negotiations and less about exchanging proposals and then discussing them.

As the unionized workers go, so go the non-unionized ones when it comes to pay increases. Thus, if the unions buy into a freeze, it will be extended to all other workers too.

"I’m guessing that’s a potential $2 million savings," said Majority Leader David J. Wood, R-28, Rome, when asked about Picente’s plan for a one-year wage freeze.

He recalls his days at Revere when employees accepted givebacks.

"But it was either that or lose your job. But that’s what the private sector does," he said. "In view of where we stand with the (county) budget, ... yeah you gotta look at everything."

Picente said possible savings to the county could be even larger than Wood’s estimate — something in the neighborhood of $3 to $3.5 million.

Minority Leader Patricia A. Hudak, D-29, Rome, said she’s doesn’t like to see anyone’s pay frozen, but she also understands that the county’s financial position is not a strong one right now.

"I think he brought up some valid points," she said of the county executive’s letter to the unions.

Hudak said if there is a wage freeze, it needs to apply to elected county officials, like county executive, sheriff, county comptroller and county clerk. County legislators haven’t had a raise since about 1994.

"If we’re going to ask them to feel the pain, then the electeds should too," she said. "It would be the right gesture," she said.

The Rome school district earlier this year saved about $500,000 for its 2010-11 budget by reducing scheduled raises via renegotiations of existing contracts with six unions plus private contract staffers. The agreements affected about 900 employees overall.

Raises that had been scheduled to be in the 3.5-3.75 percent range in many instances in 2010-11 were lowered to the 1.75-2.5 percent range depending on the contracts, while some central office administrators took no raises.

The district had asked the unions to reopen negotiations on already approved contracts to help reduce a funding gap in the proposed 2010-11 budget. The final $97.5 million budget that took effect July 1 eliminated some positions through attrition, but did not include layoffs.