In the face of the unrelenting recession and a looming budget shortfall, King County Executive Dow Constantine on Tuesday proposed to eliminate next year's automatic cost-of-living raises for most of the 85 percent of county workers who are represented by unions.

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In the face of the unrelenting recession and a looming budget shortfall, King County Executive Dow Constantine on Tuesday proposed to eliminate next year’s automatic cost-of-living raises for most of the 85 percent of county workers who are represented by unions.

Under his plan, union members would lose their guaranteed inflation-based raises next year but would still be eligible for experience-based step increases.

Union leaders said they would bargain in good faith over compensation changes but that they don’t believe union wages are the source of the budget problems.

Constantine said he and his appointees would be doing their part. He said he will give back his automatic pay increase again next year, and that he will freeze the wages of 155 appointees in leadership positions and leave 200 vacant positions unfilled. Appointees will receive neither step nor cost-of-living raises.

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Pending the outcome of negotiations with labor unions, Labor Relations Director Patti Cole-Tindall said Constantine has not frozen the pay of lower-level non-union workers.

The county faces a $60 million shortfall next year.

If union members join other employees in a freeze on cost-of-living adjustments, it would save the county $9.4 million, according to county figures.

The announcement follows many years of automatic cost-of-living increases, Constantine said, “but the public expects us to recognize the realities of this economy. …

“Any sacrifice that is made needs to be made across the board from top to bottom of this government. That’s why today we’re going to lead by example to help contain the costs of government.”

Constantine was joined at a news conference by Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, Assessor Lloyd Hara, Elections Director Sherril Huff and Metropolitan King County Council Chairman Bob Ferguson, who said they, like Constantine, won’t take raises next year and won’t give raises to their nonunion employees.

Salaries for Superior and District Court judges have been frozen by a state commission since 2008. Sheriff Sue Rahr hasn’t announced whether she will freeze nonunion employees’ pay because several managers are on vacation, said her spokesman, Sgt. John Urquhart.

“Dow is finally showing some leadership,” said County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, who has pushed for a more aggressive labor policy. ” … It’s designed to send a message to labor that management is making sacrifices and finding efficiencies. It is calling out to our county’s labor force to make concessions as well.”

The council discussed proposed changes in labor policy behind closed doors Monday and will resume that discussion Wednesday.

Contracts with most county unions guarantee an annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) amounting to 90 percent of inflation, with a minimum pay raise of 2 percent and a cap of 6 percent. Most workers got the minimum 2 percent raise this year after the county’s inflation index showed a drop of 1.7 percent.

Two union leaders said an inadequate tax structure — not union contracts — is the primary cause of the county’s recurring budget problems.

“Well, the budget deficit is $60 million. If labor’s COLA counted for $59 million, we might be the problem, but we’re not the problem,” said Coalition of Unions co-chair Dustin Frederick

Frederick said the 2- to 6-percent COLA range, negotiated in the early-1990s after a period of steep inflation, was intended to protect workers and the county. From then until this year, he said, employees received “an overall net loss of 1.52 percent” relative to inflation.

“If they want to take away the floor and take away the cap, I suspect labor would agree to that,” Frederick said.

Sheriff’s deputies currently receive a 5 percent pay increase per year regardless of inflation.

Frederick and union coalition co-chair Behnaz Nelson said union members have already made concessions in the form of a two-week unpaid furlough last year and higher health-care deductibles and co-payments, which are expected to save the county $36 million over three years.

Constantine’s announcement came six days before the County Council is scheduled to vote on whether to put on the November ballot a sales-tax increase of 0.2 cent per $1 purchase.

Ferguson, a sponsor of the tax measure, said he fully supports the pay freeze and that it “definitely” will increase the chances voters will authorize the tax.

“Voters will support what they view as a fair proposal,” he said. “We’re not taxing our way out of the problem. We’re making additional cuts, and the employees are making an appreciable financial sacrifice.”

Council members on Monday voted 5-4, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed, to move the tax proposal from the Budget and Fiscal Management Committee to the full council. A Republican-sponsored sales-tax proposal did not advance, nor did an ordinance that would have asked voters to tax themselves to replace the aging Youth Services Center courthouse in Seattle.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or

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