About 65% of the county’s $590.8 million operating budget goes for salary and wages, a figure that could increase as government negotiators undertake what Human Resources Director William Brilhante calls “the perfect storm” of collective bargaining, with contracts for all 10 of the county’s bargaining units ending June 30.
Brilhante, addressing the County Council Finance Committee during a special session Wednesday on the budget, said union negotiators seem to understand that state and county governments are in tough financial straits and, by and large, they aren’t asking for some of the big increases they’ve asked for in the past.
Brilhante said the unions’ sensitivity to the economy is “refreshing.”
“The process has been much more civil,” he said. “Both the employer and the employees’ groups are very mindful of the current situation.”
Still, he said, even the single-digit increases they want are more than the government representatives currently at the table think they can afford.
“Our proposals are 0% raises, status quo going forward,” Brilhante said. “We’re pretty steadfast in that.”
While some might decry the fact that so much of the county budget is locked in for employees’ salaries and wages, it actually makes sense, said Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung. He said the government can’t use business as a model.
“This thing might be a red herring, the percentage we devote to salary and wages,” Chung said. “The county is a service organization. … For better or worse our most important resource is our employees.”
The county’s approximately 2,400 union workers generally operate under four-year contracts, but that may be reduced to two years as collective bargaining continues in the midst of an uncertain economy. Each county has one vote in the process and the governor has four. Big raises aren’t as likely this year simply because this year the state is hurting, too, Brilhante said.
“Salary and wages continue to increase, increase, increase,” Brilhante said. “There’s only so much we can do as a county jurisdiction about that.”
The County Council does have a say, however, Brilhante said.
Each county council as well as the state Legislature in the case of unions also representing state employees, has to ratify contracts that are settled by negotiators or decided in arbitration. If just one of those bodies rejects the contract, it is returned for more work.
Council members have historically simply approved the contracts, with some under the impression their role was ministerial.
There’s another reason as well, said Finance Committee Chairman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder.
“It’s political suicide you’re basically looking at,” opposing the unions, he said, citing repercussions he himself experienced during political campaigns. “This has to be a shared sacrifice going forward. Everyone has to understand that times are hard and this is what you do when times are hard.”