Dave Rogers / For The Record

(updated Sept. 19, 2017 to add that deputies’ voting continues through Sept. 29)

Orange County and its Sheriff’s deputies reached a tentative agreement Saturday on key amendments to end four years of bickering over their collective bargaining agreement.

The measures, if OK’d by votes of the full membership of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office Employees Association, would reinstitute certificate pay for deputies beginning Oct. 1, and repay them – plus some – for certificate pay halted in June.

But it includes no provision for a cost-of-living-adjustment or pay raise.

A little over a month ago, in the next-to-last meeting between the two groups, the deputies demanded a 7 percent raise.

Sgt. Jimmy LeBouef, president of the lawman’s union, said Tuesday that deputies would have until Sept. 29 to cast their votes, with a majority of the approximately 120 member votes needed to pass.

County Judge Stephen Brint Carlton was so confident Saturday’s numbers would be OK’d by both sides he had County Auditor Pennee Schmitt build the new certificate pay into the 2017-18 budget, which was expected to be finalized at Tuesday’s commissioners’ court meeting.

Deputies, represented by union attorney Greg Cagle and about 10 of their members, caucused four times during the two-hour-plus session in response to offers made by Carlton, the lone county rep at the meeting.

They were offered and rejected a 5 percent COLA.

To take it would have required them to adopt a couple of reductions in benefits that the county’s non-union employees have had to accept since 2013, when the union first began trying to negotiate a new CBA.

“We’re exactly where we were in 2013,” Cagle said when the day was done.

Then he chuckled.

“I mean literally. Exactly there. Probably a $200 difference,” he said.

“When it [negotiations] fell apart in 2013, it was over how much of a pay cut the employees were willing to take. So at the end of the day, four years later, there’s not going to be a pay cut. It’s going to be pretty much a push.

“Obviously, no raise for sheriff’s office employees. But also, no decrease in their pay.”

The sticking point for the deputies in pretty much all the 11 open-to-the-public negotiating sessions since April is the sliding scale for retiree health insurance the county instituted a year ago as part of the 2016-17 budget.

Previously, county employees were allowed to count some prior state employment (teaching, law enforcement) onto their county service and enjoy full lifelong retiree health insurance with as few as eight years of county employment.

The 2016 change pays 25 percent of benefits after eight years, 50 percent after 12, 75 percent after 16 and 100 percent only after 20 years of county employment.

Though the deputies’ 2009 CBA expired in 2013, it contained a so-called “evergreen” clause that said its terms continued in place until a replacement contract is signed.

The deputies are rejecting the sliding scale. So much so they filed a grievance, for which an arbitrator is expected to issue a ruling soon.

The county maintains that the CBA is an agreement between a boss and employees and retirees are not employees.

The other benefit cut is a switch from a 40 percent employee contribution for dependent healthcare insurance premiums to a 60 percent employee contribution.

The union has offered to make that switch throughout this year’s negotiations, but took that off the table in its final counter-offers.

“I’m happy that we were able to come to an agreement, that we’re able to have an extension of our existing contract,” Carlton said.

“I’m a little surprised that they didn’t take the 5 percent with the dependent healthcare split. The 5 percent is about $450,000, whereas the dependent healthcare split would cost them about $120,000 to $140,000. I was kind of surprised they didn’t accept that.”

LeBouef explained the union elders made the decision with the younger deputies and jailers in mind.

“People on the bottom of the pay scale generally have family members to add on their insurance, and if it flip-flopped, they’d be making $400 less per check,” the sergeant said.

“The younger people would be taking a huge paycut. To be able to attract those people here and keep them here, we thought it was the thing to do.”

The package of amendments proposed Saturday would replace the corresponding points in the CBA but leave the sliding scale to be settled by the arbitrator and completely leave unaddressed the “just cause” clause, which has created a stalemate between Sheriff Keith Merritt and his deputies.

Merritt, a third-term sheriff who signed the 2009 agreement with “just cause” in it, says it means he can’t get rid of “bad apples” in his department because it robs him of the ability to hire and fire at will.

He vows never to sign another agreement that includes “just cause.”

Saturday’s agreement would not only repay deputies for the four months of certification pay lost after Carlton pointed out the old CBA did not require the county to pay. Carlton agreed to pay the deputies 150 percent of their certificate pay during the 2017-18 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, and 100 percent the next year.

The tentative agreement would be for a two-year duration with a five-member citizen board to rule on disputes. Other changes include having the deputies adopt the same overtime, holiday and disaster pay policies as other county employees.

Union members, who averaged more than $60,000 in earnings in 2015-16, the latest figures available on the Orange County website, were paid double time for all hours worked during the recent Hurricane Harvey disaster.

Other county employees were paid their regular salary for 40 hours, then time-and-a-half for hours past that.