By Michael Howell
At a budget meeting on Tuesday, July 9, the Ravalli County Commissioners decided to eliminate five driver/operator positions and two secretarial positions in the Road Department. They plan on creating a new job description for an administrative assistant position for which the current two office staff members who are being laid off could apply.
Prior to approval of the lay-offs the Commission agreed to accept one recently tendered resignation as one of the five positions, meaning only four driver/operators will be given notice. The Commissioners agreed to send the notices on July 18 giving three weeks notice that their employment will end on August 8.
According to unofficial minutes of the meeting, “Commissioner Iman noted that this decision is not a personnel decision, and the positions that would receive the reduction in work force notices will be based upon the Union Contract with the Road employees. Commissioner Iman noted this decision is not a ‘fun’ decision to make and he would like to give as much notice as possible to the affected positions… Commissioner Burrows noted for the record, the budget issue is due to the $700,000 shortfall in SRS (Secure Rural Schools) monies for the 2014 FY budget.”
Congress instituted a phase out of the SRS funding in 2009, reducing the funding annually over a four-year period before discontinuing it. Once the funding expired Congress agreed to fund it for another year and Ravalli County received about $700,000 in FY 2013. This year funding has not yet been re-authorized and the Commissioners decided to cut back on the Road Department work force. SRS funds are not used for salaries or regular operations at the Road Department. The money is placed in an investment fund and drawn upon to fund or provide matching funds for individual road projects. SRS funds were used, for instance, on the Black Lane bridge replacement project this past year. There is currently about $1.65 million in the county’s SRS investment account.
At a meeting on July 17, union members and representatives met with Commissioner Ron Stoltz and Deputy County Attorney Howard Recht in a contract negotiation meeting and asked for a voice in the lay-off plan. Union representative Jay Reardon told Stoltz that he understood that they could not stop the lay-offs, but that under the contract they could negotiate certain aspects of the lay-offs such as timing and benefits. He asked Stoltz if the Commission had considered any other options and suggested a few.
Recht said that the commission could not respond to speculations and asked if the union had any “concrete proposals” that could be taken to the Board. After a recess caucus, the union presented a request for a delay in the lay-offs till September 9 and a six-month extension of health benefits to the personnel being laid off.
Stoltz told the Bitterroot Star the next day that he would pass the union’s request on to the Commission and they would either put it on an agenda or not. He said personally he had trouble with the idea of spending more money on health benefits when the reduction in force was being implemented due to lack of money. He did not mention that the notices were being sent out that day, but according to Reardon, four employees received notice on the 18th.
“We think their decision is premature,” said Reardon. “SRS funding doesn’t generally arrive at the county until January.” He said that the union had been in touch with Senators Baucus and Tester and that both were of the opinion that the county’s reaction was premature.
Reardon said that the union was looking into the process that was used to make the decision on July 9. He said there is a question as to whether the decision was properly noticed.
“We had no idea they were going to make a decision like this at that meeting,” said Reardon.
“I think it’s a real disservice to the citizens of Ravalli County,” said Reardon. He said the Road Department had already reduced its work force by six positions through attrition in the last few years and these lay-offs will bring that number to 10.
Reardon said that he felt like the Commissioners were trying to hamstring the Road Department and make it ineffective and then use that as an excuse to privatize road work in the county. He said a contract had already been put out to bid for a paving project on Store Lane.
“They think they can save money through private contracting,” said Reardon, “but I believe they are wrong.” He said the Road Department did an estimate of the cost for the project if done in-house.
“It will be interesting to see what the bids are like when they open them,” he said.
“We want to work with the commissioners,” said Reardon. “We want to keep a positive outlook. We will keep trying to work with the commissioners.”
In the meantime, it appears the layoffs are already a done deal.