Budget Chaos: Dane County Rushes New Labor Contracts

MacIver News Service | September 21, 2012

[Madison, Wisc…] In what were likely the shortest negotiations in their history, the Dane County Board and its employees’ unions reached a contract agreement Thursday night less than 48 hours after the negotiations were announced to the public.

Ordinarily, contract negotiations, even in Dane County, involve months of wrangling over wages, benefits, and layoffs. Negotiations in 2010 began in the fall, and an agreement was reached in January 2011 only after union leaders saw state reforms on the horizon.

Those reforms, called Act 10, limited government unions’ bargaining authority to wage increases within the rate of inflation. Last Friday, a Dane County judge, Juan Colas, struck down the law on the grounds it was unconstitutional. The State of Wisconsin is already in the process of undoing that decision.

With this temporary reprieve, Dane County jumped to extend the union contracts through 2015. This enthusiasm, in addition to the brevity of the negotiations, left some questioning whether the county negotiated the contracts in good faith on behalf of its taxpayers.

“It can take up to a year to negotiate these deals, either this has been in the works for some time or there are major giveaways to the Unions to speed up the process,” said Luke Hilgemann, Americans for Prosperity Foundation Wisconsin State Director.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi issued a statement following Thursday night’s meeting, saying the contract provides the county financial flexibility and security to its employees.

“This agreement proves again you can protect both taxpayers and the people who go to work for them everyday and plow roads, care for kids, and keep our community great,” Parisi said. “In Dane County we believe in using the right tools for the right job, and the Dane County Way has saved nearly $4 million dollars in the last two years of my administration.”

The contract included wage reductions up to 1.9 percent and employee participation in an unpaid voluntary leave program if needed to preserve core services. Parisi said this will save $5 million in 2015. The board approved the contracts on a 29-8 vote. The union members must still ratify the contract.

Governor Walker’s administration, in response to Dane County’s move, reiterated the strengths of Act 10 and the cost saving tools it provides to local governments. His office estimates the reforms have already led to a billion dollars in savings around the state. Also, the law requires discussions of employee compensation take place in the open. Contract negotiations between government officials and unions always takes place behind closed doors and are not subject to open meetings laws.

Representative Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) fears the contracts will cause Dane County to pressure the state for more funds to meet its obligations.

“The failure of Dane County to utilize the long term cost savings tools of Act 10 will eventually lead to a significant fiscal crisis,” Nass said. “The consequences of that crisis should be Dane County’s alone.”

The MacIver News Service attempted to contact Board of Supervisors Chair Scott McDonell, but that call was not returned.