Contract negotiations between Waldo County commissioners and a union representing county clerks and secretaries have been called off after the union dropped the county employees from its membership rolls.

The county support staff bargaining unit, which spans several county departments, was formed in 2007 when 11 clerical employees voted to join the Maine State Employees Association, the state’s branch of the Service Employees International Union. The newly-formed union inked its first contract with the county in 2009 after two years of negotiations.

That contract expired in December 2010. Negotiations for a new contract started a month before the expiration, but stalled in February 2011, at which point the county made its final offer.

Commissioner William Shorey said he had just finished negotiating a three-year contract with the Sheriff’s deputies bargaining unit at that time, settling on annual raises of 3 percent and a signing bonus of $250 per employee. He offered the same to the support staff in what he described as a last-ditch effort to resolve those contract negotiations fairly.

“This was a final-offer deal,” said Shorey. “This wasn’t anything that was going to be negotiated.”

The support staff rejected the deal, the county nixed a counter offer, and talks went to mediation.

According to four support staff employees from the District Attorney’s Office and Registry of Deeds who spoke with VillageSoup on Sept. 15, the problem with the county’s final offer was a last-minute reclassification of clerks in the Registry of Probate office, effectively giving those staffers an additional raise. The employees who spoke with VillageSoup said that change wasn’t adequately explained and was troublesome because it seemed to favor one department.

Shorey confirmed the reclassification was part of the county’s final proposal, but said, “In their opinion [at the Registry of Probate], the people they have are a lot more than clerks. It’s a lot more complicated.”

Register of Probate Sharon Peavey was the only department head with subordinates in the union who served on the commissioners’ side of the negotiating table, but Shorey said the makeup of the team was based solely upon who volunteered, and he rejected the idea that this was a factor in the proposed reclassification.

“At some point you [the county employees] have to stop worrying about all the other departments and think about yourself,” Shorey said.

Several other deals were proposed in mediation, but Shorey said the 3-percent raises were no longer an option at that point.

Negotiations were set to go to fact finding in late August when MSEA dropped the support staff bargaining unit.

Speaking on Sept. 16, MSEA spokesman Tom Farkas confirmed that the union had disclaimed interest in the county support staff, but declined to give a specific reason, saying only that the union had done so in accordance with the Maine Labor Relations Board’s rules and procedures.

As a result of the breakdown in negotiations, Shorey said, the county commissioners had opted to treat support staff like other non-union county employees, giving them a 1-percent raise this year and an additional 2-percent raise effective at the beginning of 2012. The support staff members also had their out-of-pocket contribution to their health insurance coverage upped to the level of non-union employees.

“That was the fairest way I could make a decision,” Shorey said.

Both parties have claimed publicly their goal was to come up with a solution that was fair to everyone, and with the details of the negotiations left behind closed doors, the fairness of the deal will likely remain open to interpretation.

Deb McAllian, the county’s victim-witness advocate, Carla Rogerson of the District Attorney’s Office and others maintain that their group was treated disrespectfully by the county commissioners and met with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude at every turn.

“The rhyme or reason was never part of any discussion,” said McAllian. “My interpretation of what negotiations are was totally blown out of the water.”

As a consequence, she said, some staff members worry that they will be fired or subject to reprisals from the commissioners, whom they feel hold all the power.

Several members of the former support staff bargaining unit are currently in talks with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents employees of the Waldo County Regional Communications Center.

Not all of the support staff members were unhappy with the outcome of the negotiations.

On Sept. 15, the commissioners received a letter from Sheriff’s Office secretaries Kathy Cunningham and Brenda Dakin thanking the commissioners and expressing their appreciation for the way the dissolution of the union was handled by the county.

Deputy Register of Probate Judy Nealley, one of four employees on the negotiating team for the support staff, also accepted the resolution.

“In light of the way negotiations ended, I’m OK with the direction it has gone,” she said.

Other support staffers speculated that a split has developed between those who feel they have strong department heads to represent their interests and those whose department heads don’t wield as much influence, or in the case of the state-employed district attorney, are not employed by the county.

For their part, the commissioners seemed dumbfounded that the support staff had turned down the offer modeled on the deputies’ contract.

“It’s tough times out there on the street, and if you can turn down an offer like that, you’re not being practical,” said Commissioner Amy Fowler. “… This is the taxpayers’ money and I’m trying to employ the best people I possibly can, but if I have to spend years negotiating, in the end who’s losing?”

Wages for county support staff, excluding cost-of-living increases, range from $12.98 per hour for a new hire in the lowest wage classification, to $19.89 per hour for a worker in the highest classification with 20 years experience.

“I’m not saying we don’t get a fair wage,” said McAllian, “and we have great insurance … We made the decision [not to take the county’s original offer] for the right reasons. We wanted it to be fair and equitable to everybody.”