County offer passes on narrow margin


PORT CHARLOTTE -- A 24-vote margin Thursday ended a contract dispute between Charlotte County and a local union, with the union voting 144-120 in favor of the contract.

For the roughly 490 county employees affiliated with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, the vote gives a cost-of-living increase and a merit-based addition to wages, known as pay-for-performance.

The vote ends a dispute between the county and the union, which had threatened impasse after rejecting a county contract in September. Union negotiators had feared that pay-for-performance reviews would vary between supervisors under the contract.

The modified contract voted on Thursday revamped the merit-based system, by linking supervisor evaluations to a specific merit increase. For example, an average employee evaluation was attached to a fixed 2-percent merit increase, and moved up along a fixed increase. Decade-long county employees also received an hourly 15-cent addition.

In addition, the contract guaranteed a 2.2 percent cost-of-living increase. The increase came just one year after the county paid $2 million in extra wages after a wage study revealed the need for a 3 percent wage increase.

However, after all votes were counted Thursday, the final vote was largely denounced in a room of roughly two dozen union members. Steve MacDonald, union chairman, said the contract passed because of a decreased turnout among actual union members, or about 32 percent of the "bargaining unit."

"No matter which way you look at it, we did not have the numbers to overcome the non-union vote," MacDonald said.

It was an about-face from the union's original hope: pay-for-performance -- developed out of a wage reopener -- requiring the union to revisit its wages and benefits one year after signing a three-year contract. The union had sought a stepped pay plan based on experience, which was dissolved during negotiation and replaced with pay-for-performance.

The union represents about 493 nonsupervisory employees out of the county's roughly 1,000 employees. About 200 unionized fire fighters and paramedics in 2002 face pay-for-performance next year, and a union president said his group will reject the system.

The remaining 400 of the county's nonunionized workers, mostly supervisory and administrative staff, already receive the pay-for-performance clause, after the Charlotte County Commission approved the change June 10.

"Human nature dictates some work better than others," said Christopher Andersch, a 17-year employee with maintenance and operations who supported the contract on Thursday. Andersch said the merit-pay made sense for those who worked hard.

"At times, it doesn't seem fair that someone who is overachieving doesn't get nothing," Andersch said.


By ALLYSON GONZALEZ

Staff Writer