Sgt. Jimmy LeBouef, president of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office Employee’s Association, listens as attorney Bettye Lynn poses a question during a grievance hearing Tuesday at the Orange County Administration Building.

By Dave Rogers

For The Record

For the first time since Sept. 1 of last year, Orange County and its sheriff deputies’ union are scheduled to meet today to see if they can hammer out a replacement for a collective bargaining agreement that expired in 2013.

Bargaining is set to begin at 9 a.m. Wednesday in the Commissioners’ Courtroom, both sides say.

“I’m always hopeful,” said Jimmy LeBouef, president of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office Employees’ Association.

“I think it’s certainly in the county’s best interest, certainly in the taxpayers’ best interest for the county to come to an agreement with us.”

The two sides were actually scheduled to begin bargaining Tuesday, according to a commissioners’ court agenda posted by the county late last week.

But before they could try to bargain, they first had to have a grievance hearing before arbitrator Norman Bennett of McKinney.

LeBouef’s association filed a grievance against the county last fall after commissioners voted to reduce the county’s contribution to future retirees’ health care.

Previously, the county had paid 100 percent of the lifetime health insurance cost for a retiring employee who had worked at least eight years for the county and a total of 20 for it and other state and federal agencies, such as law enforcement or schools. That was changed so the county will only pay 100 percent for 20-year county employees and on a sliding scale down to 25 percent of costs for eight-year employees.

“They’re saying that commissioners’ court doesn’t have the authority to alter retirement benefits for union members,” County Judge Stephen Brint Carlton said.

So Tuesday, the courtroom played host to the hearing.

LeBouef and Carlton each spent more than two hours being questioned by the attorneys for each side, with Gregory Cagle of Houston representing the union and Bettye Lynn of Fort Worth representing the county.

Carlton guessed it will be 60-90 days before Bennett rules on the grievance. Both sides will have several weeks to submit legal briefs to Bennett; each side will have several more weeks to review and respond to the other’s briefs and then Bennett will have a period to consider his final ruling.

A collective bargaining agreement (CBA for short) defines conditions of employment – wages, working hours and conditions, overtime, vacations and benefit – and procedures for dispute resolution.

Orange County last signed a CBA with its deputies in 2009, before any member of the current commissioners’ court was seated, and it expired in the fall of 2013.

Only Precinct 4 Commissioner Jody Crump was in office then.

The CBA covers deputies, dispatchers and jail nurses, but not secretarial or administrative, about 140 people in all, says Christy Khoury, county treasurer.

With negotiations for a replacement contract unsuccessful, the old one has been in force since.

Carl Thibodeaux, former county judge from 1996-2015, said negotiations on a new CBA never got anywhere because the union had no reason to change the old one.

“The key problem during negotiations was the so-called ‘evergreen clause,’ Thibodeaux said. “The evergreen clause never expired, so the contract they’re under now can stay in effect forever.

“Counsel for the court advised us the evergreen clause was illegal. The union claimed the evergreen clause was legal.”

The county filed suit against the union and the standoff has continued.

Cagle, the attorney for the deputies’ union, says his side was willing to negotiate and had offered to give up 11 percent of its pay and benefits package.

Much of that had to do with agreeing to a change the county made in 2013 on how it handles health insurance for employees’ dependents. Before the 2014 budget was passed, the county paid 60 percent of its employees’ health insurance cost for dependents, but that was switched to 40 percent.

Cagle said rather than accept those concessions by the union, the county brought suit.

Carlton, the current county judge, points out that the CBA is a three-legged agreement with commissioners’ court working with the union on pay and benefits while the county sheriff, Keith Merritt, must agree with the CBA’s work conditions and dispute resolution.

Merritt says he wants the “just cause” portion of the CBA eliminated. That blocks him from firing a deputy at will.

“The sheriff wants to be able to hire and fire at will,” Carlton said. “’Just cause’ and ‘no cause’ are like pro-life. It’s one or the other, there’s no middle ground.”

While Carlton has taken up Thibodeaux’s concern with the “evergreen” clause and Merritt is adamant about getting rid of “just cause,” LeBouef says “maintenance of standards” is a sticking point for the union.

“Maintenance of standards says as long as we’re under contract [with 2009 CBA] you can change everybody else, but it does not affect us. Recently they changed the medical benefits for retirees,” he said prior to Tuesday’s grievance hearing.