Photo: Sgt. Jimmy LeBouef is president of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office Employees Association.

By Dave Rogers

For The Record

Orange County deputy sheriffs have now gone a month without the certificate pay many of them said they couldn’t do without and after two months of bargaining, the county seems no nearer to a contract with the deputies’ union.

In fact, the deputies have filed two new grievances against the county in the past month.

One thing new occurred last week: the county’s bargaining committee headed by County Judge Stephen Brint Carlton met with the union lawyer and president in a meeting unannounced to the press.

County Commissioner Jody Crump, left, County Judge Stephen Brint Carlton, attorney Bettye Lynn and Sheriff Keith Merritt, third from right, represent Orange County in recent contract talks with negotiators representing the Orange County Sheriff’s Office Employees Association.

Since April, Carlton had notified media outlets in advance each time a grievance hearing or negotiating conference aimed at a new collective bargaining agreement was held.

Sgt. Jimmy LeBouef, president of the Orange County Sheriff’s Employees Association, said Friday that the scheduled June 30 CBA negotiating session was canceled because the two sides had met Thursday, June 29.

They met to go over one grievance filed by the union and notify the county of its intent to file another, LeBouef said. And while gathered Thursday, he said, they talked about the CBA.

“The county made a new offer,” LeBouef said. “We’ll present that offer to the association membership at our next meeting (the week of July 10-14) and see what they think.”

LeBouef didn’t sound impressed.

“It didn’t seem like a lot of change on the county’s part,” he said. “But their offer will be considered by the union body.”

Carlton could not be reached at his office Friday. County offices were closed Monday and Tuesday to observe the Fourth of July holiday.

The deputies have now filed three grievances against the county since the 2016-17 budget year began last October, two in the past month.

They all assert the county did not follow the requirements of the existing CBA, which was signed in 2009. It was  scheduled to expire in 2013, but remains in effect until a new CBA is agreed upon and signed.

The Sheriff’s Office includes about one fourth of all Orange County employees, but its payroll costs total nearly half — $7.7 million of a total $16.5 million – of all county payroll between Oct. 1, 2016 and May 31, 2017, according to the latest monthly financial report on the county website.

And this is despite the fact their pay has been frozen since 2013 because of the absence of a new CBA.

The Sheriff’s Office employees pay scale posted on the county website shows entry-level salaries of $31,948 for dispatchers, $35,068 for corrections officers, $47,569 for deputies.

Those employees have been making an extra $300,000 per year, combined, for proficiency certifications, essentially continuing education credits.

Those certifications ranged from $1,400 per year to $2,700 per year each, and some deputies are being paid for as many as five different certifications, union negotiators said.

County commissioners voted at the end of May to stop certificate pay, with Carlton and commissioners Barry Burton and Jody Crump prevailing 3-2.

Carlton cited a 2013 opinion by the County Attorney that the county is not required to pay since the 2009 CBA only lists certificate pay through 2012. The same three men voted in March to continue paying the money only if deputies returned to the bargaining table and worked toward a new agreement.

“It’s important to remind people we’ve always offered to pay certificate pay as long as there’s a contract that requires us to pay it,” Carlton said.

The judge and all the county commissioners have made it clear that they intend to include certificate pay in a new CBA.

It’s also clear that the deputies, represented by LeBouef and Houston attorney Greg Cagle, don’t feel the county is making good faith efforts to give deputies the deal they want.

Before negotiations could begin in April, an arbitrator was called in to hear the union’s first grievance, that it was illegal for the county to enforce on the deputies the same sliding scale for retirement benefits that was adopted for other county employees last fall.

The drawn-out arbitration process drags on without a result on that grievance.

The union filed a second grievance after the vote to stop issuing certificate pay. The deputies hold the county is legally bound to continue the payments.

Initial verbal arguments were the purpose of Thursday’s meeting, LeBouef said.

“The first step is verbal, where parties try to seek agreement before going to written, longer points,” he said.”

But at that same meeting, deputies filed a third grievance, having to do with county offices being closed on June 22-23 because of storm threats posed by Tropical Storm Cindy.

While full-time county employees were paid for that day and a half they didn’t work, deputies, who weren’t allowed to leave work, say they should receive disaster pay for their June 22-23 shifts.

Commissioners Court will hold its weekly meeting today (Wednesday, July 5) at 2 p.m. at the County Administration Building, 123 S. 6th Street. Top agenda items include discussion and possible action regarding pay scales for county employees.