The St. Joseph County Commission voted Tuesday to approve union agreements that reduce staff time to 35 hours a week amid anticipated budget shortfalls. Impacts from the pandemic shutdown and recession earlier this year have reduced available funds through major sources that include revenue sharing with the State of Michigan, and commissioners have been discussing the option of hours reduction over the course of the summer.
The reduction affects all union and nonunion hourly employees. It will not affect employee health plans, and employees will continue to accrue retirement benefits and leave. The biggest questions yet to resolve in the Letters of Understanding (LOUs) that detail govern the agreements are those that pertain to how state funding affects the operation of some of the county’s courts.
In July, after considering other options that included a monthly, full-day furlough for all employees, commissioners directed County Administrator Teresa Doehring to proceed with negotiating with the various employee bargaining units for the hours reduction option because it provided for the most aggressive reduction in expenditures. Doehring previously said that many employees preferred the furlough days over the reduction of hours due to the greater impact that the reduction will have on available work hours as well as on their incomes.
Doehring had hoped to make the reduction effective September 8 but anticipates finalization of outstanding details will take longer than that. The reduction will be in place through December 31, 2020, at which time the commission can revisit the effect of the reduction as well as any potential changes in the county’s funding picture.
Although some of the agreements still have details to be finalized, Doehring has drafted agreements with those units, including the general employees’ unit of the American Federal, State, County, and Municipal Employees Union (AFSCME), as well as Circuit, Family, Probate, and District Courts. Commissioners approved each unit’s agreement separately. The union and the judges in each court must still approve each agreement.
Not all employees are affected by the reduction to 35 hours. Exempt departments include the Sheriff’s Department and the County Road Commission, which have their own budget pools. Also exempt are some employees whose positions are funded by the State of Michigan, grants, or other outside sources and thus do not affect, and are not affected by, the general fund budgetary shortfalls that necessitate the reduction.
Doehring said there are “still quite a few steps do go through before these are official,” but said she would notify commissioners when the LOUs are finalized. She acknowledged that the process “can be disconcerting” for employees, but said, “our goal is to get information out” and ensure as smooth a transition as possible.
In their comments near the end of Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting, several commissioners said the decision to reduce hours was not easy but was the right thing to do. Second District Commissioner Kathy Pangle said she was glad it wasn’t necessary to “do anything more drastic,” but that it was necessary to be prepared.
First District Commissioner Allen Balog attributed the budget shortfall to the pandemic shutdown earlier this year by Executive Order of the Governor. Fourth District Commissioner Daniel Czajkowski said when the Federal government doesn’t provide help, the state takes action, and then it falls to local bodies to make adjustments. To employees, he said, “we wanted to have the least effect on everybody.” He said the hours reduction may be helping to save jobs or prevent more extreme action.
Fifth District Commissioner Ken Malone said he wanted departments to continue to look at cutting other, non-staff budgets. He said, “hopefully, in the near future, we will be able to make changes in that way instead.”
Third District Commissioner and Board of Commissioners Chair Dennis Allen said, “as a commission, we have to be prepared for the worst and hope for the best, and that’s what we’re doing. We can’t wait to the last minute” to address a budget shortfall. He thanked Doehring and Finance Director Angie Steinman for their effort in negotiating the LOUs. He also thanked the employees affected by the reduction “for being patient and understanding, and for knowing that if we can, we will reverse course and go back to 40 hours.”
In Other County Commission Business:
- Commissioners approved a grant in the amount of $55,201 from the Michigan Veterans Affairs agency that helps fund various veterans’ support activities, including the county’s Veterans Services Officer position, an animal support program, office rent, housing, and utility costs. Although the county receives the grant each year, the amount is slightly lower than usual due to budget reductions by the grantor.
- An intergovernmental agreement with the multi-county Southwest Michigan Workforce Development Board and a set of biannual bylaws revisions for the same agency were also approved. The agreement continues a relationship with the Michigan Works! Program, which passes funds through Kalamazoo County that are then distributed to the other participant counties for workforce development programs.
- During citizen comments at Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting, several members of the public responded to comments between Tim Carls and commissioners at a previous meeting late last month.Two speakers voiced support for Carls’ concerns about the county’s budget and concern over the tenor of commissioner remarks.
- Carls, who is the unchallenged Republican nominee for Florence Township Supervisor, also spoke again Tuesday. He said he “definitely enjoyed” all of the commissioners’ comments, and said he met with Doehring, who explained budget issues to him. He said he “got a lot out of” his meeting with Doehring. Carls also asked County Clerk Lindsay Oswald to provide him “something in writing saying so” if she could not secure an audit for the County Road Commission.
Dave Vago is a staff writer and columnist for Watershed Voice. A Philadelphia native with roots in Three Rivers, Vago is a planning consultant to history and community development organizations and is the former Executive Director of the Three Rivers DDA/Main Street program.