By Marcy Stamper

Okanogan County and eight of nine unions are still in mediation, with the employees represented by the Teamsters contending that higher health insurance costs have amounted to a salary cut while the county commissioners say the employees chose more expensive coverage. The sheriffs’ deputies and courthouse staff also have not settled their contracts.

The Teamsters representatives and attorney Rocky Jackson, who is handling the negotiations for the county, will meet with the state mediator again at the end of the month, according to Paul Parmley, business representative for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

“We’ve had a hard time coming to an agreement — we’re holding a harder line this year,” said County Commissioner Ray Campbell. “We cut lots of services when balancing the budget.”

Insurance coverage has been of particular concern because, while salaries in Okanogan County have lagged behind other counties in the state, the county has historically provided high-quality coverage that compensated for the gap, said Parmley.

Part of the sticking point is the difference between very-high-quality coverage for the employee only, with extra costs for family members, and a less-generous plan offered for a set price, regardless of the number of family members, said Parmley.

Because the Teamsters represent so many employees who are the head of a household, asking the workers to pay extra to cover family members was “prohibitive,” Parmley said.

Although the unions have questioned the cost of paying Jackson for his services, the commissioners said that having the county’s administrative services director or chief civil deputy handle the negotiations put those employees in an awkward position, since they work side by side with the employees whose salaries and contracts were under discussion.

The two staffers were relieved when the commissioners told them of their decision, according to County Commissioner Jim DeTro.

“I felt we had their blessing,” said Campbell.

“If everyone is operating above-board and honestly, and all figures and budgets are on the table, I don’t understand how it would create an awkward situation,” said Parmley. Negotiating with a county employee who is familiar with day-to-day operations was advantageous, since Jackson has had to spend time gathering information, he said.

Administrative services director Nan Kallunki, who handled union negotiations for the past five years (in addition to other responsibilities), resigned last month to take a job with Whatcom County. The commissioners are still evaluating whether they will fill her position or cover it with current staff.

“It’s hard to justify paying employees extra, because taxpayers are not getting a raise,” said Campbell, who acknowledged that their harder line had not been well received. In the long run, he expects this approach will save the county money.

“If we had a budget that was arbitrary and had all kinds of money, I think a lot of our employees deserve raises,” said DeTro. Workers still receive raises for seniority, he said.

“We’re not trying to hoard money — we’re just trying to protect the county,” said Campbell.

“We’re trying to keep jobs,” said County Commissioner Sheilah Kennedy.