By Dave Rogers

For The Record

With an offer to pay deputies certification pay withheld since June, Orange County and its law enforcers appear close to finally agreeing on a new work contract.

Or at least amendments that effectively update most of the employment rules under which the deputies work.

“The news story is going to be the week after next,” Sgt. Jimmy LeBouef, president of the Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Association, said, referring to the next scheduled meeting between the bargaining committees for the county and the union, set for 1:30 p.m. Aug. 7.

After Wednesday’s session — the eighth open-to-the-public bargaining session over three months — County Judge Stephen Brint Carlton said the two sides were the closest they have been to a new pact.

“I really think that both sides can come to an agreement on this without having to declare an impasse and go to arbitration,” he said.

“I think we’re going to get there.”

Members of the deputies association are meeting Monday (July 31) and could vote to accept all or none of the contractual changes.

The two sides last successfully negotiated a collective bargaining agreement in 2009.

That 28-page document defines conditions of employment for about 140 deputies, dispatchers and jail nurses.

It expired in 2013. But it remains in effect under a so-called “evergreen clause,” something both sides are leaving out of a new deal.

Wednesday’s key moment came when negotiators agreed to split the retiree health insurance benefits from other retiree benefits.

The county agreed to maintain its contributions to association members’ state retirement accounts and maintain current members’ retiree health insurance, but not for new hires.

Near the end of the hour-long meeting, Carlton said the county could make a one-time December payment to the deputies that would cover the pay for proficiency certifications the county stopped paying in June.

So far, association members have missed two months of certificate pay, collectively $50,000.

Certificate pay will be included in a new agreement, which would go into effect when signed. The term would be for two years, with an impasse in future bargaining settled by a five-person “citizen panel” agreed upon by both sides, its decisions subject to appeal to the district court.

Deputies’ salaries would be on the Sheriff’s Office pay matrix, with the union forgoing an offered 3.5 percent cost of living adjustment in favor of getting the same pay raises as non-association employees.

Carlton told union negotiators that with “a better financial situation than anticipated,” for the county, commissioners were hoping to give their 250 non-union employees a 4 percent raise in the next budget, which goes into effect Oct. 1.

Excluded from the negotiations since April has been the part of the CBA which affects Sheriff’s Office hiring, firing, discipline, etc.

Sheriff Keith Merritt and the union have had a long-standing impasse over the “just cause” provision that leaves the sheriff’s authority over his employees subject to arbitration. Merritt says he won’t sign a new agreement that includes “just cause” and the union says it won’t agree to a new pact without it.

Carlton and commissioners have maintained that the union’s negotiation with the sheriff should be in a separate agreement.

LeBouef was joined by League City attorney Greg Cagle and Ken Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association, on the union’s side of the table Wednesday.

The county’s bargaining committee is Carlton and Commissioner Jody Crump with help from outside attorney Bettye Lynn of Fort Worth. Crump took part via conference call as he was out of town Wednesday afternoon.