Saying their members are struggling to pay their mortgages and feed their families, county employees asked the Ocean County Board of Freeholders to give them "a fair raise," at the freeholders' meeting in Toms River on Wednesday.
"This is a great county to live in," said Tom Weipz of Bayville, a member of the contract negotiating team for the Communication Workers of America Local 1038, which represents employees in the county's parks, security and roads departments. "We all work hard. But we have members who are falling behind on their mortgages. We have members who are working two and even three jobs.
"We're here to ask for a raise. Not an astronomical amount, but a fair raise," Weipz said.
The contract with the union, which represents 450 county employees, expired March 31, 2011, county administrator Carl Block said. A contract proposal was voted on and rejected by the union's members, and is now in the fact-finding stages, Block said. The fact-finder is set to meet with representatives of the union and the county on Oct. 31, he said.
The county has offered a raise of 1.5 percent per year for three years, but Bob Baxter, a shop steward in the security department, said that raise amounts to 25 cents per hour, while at the same time employees are being asked to make significant give-backs on health insurance and other benefits.
"We know the economy is bad," Baxter said, but county employees are going backward financially, he and others said.
Shawn Ludwig, local bargaining unit vice president with CWA, said the employees "understand the economic conditions.
"We're not looking for a big fight," Ludwig said. "Take a look at these men and women who serve the county proudly. We're stuck at a number that doesn't work for anyone."
The freeholders replied with praise for the work and the commitment of the employees, but noted the economic situation combined with the state-imposed 2 percent cap on budget growth has put the county between a rock and a hard place.
"We are struggling with these issues," Freeholder Director Gerry P. Little said.
Freeholder John Bartlett, liaison to the parks department, noted that while the 1.5 percent offered was modest, it was the same amount agreed to by the county's other unions.
Bartlett also said even a small increase for county employees draws the ire of taxpayers.
Some people have criticized county officials, Bartlett said, for choosing to reduce the workforce through attrition rather than layoffs.
"We've cut 200 jobs," Bartlett said, "but I have had people ask me, 'How many did you fire?' When I said none, the response was, 'then you didn't cut jobs.' "
"So, yes, you haven’t been offered a generous contract," Bartlett said. "We don’t have the money to do that. ... Many of you if not all of you have gone backward in your take-home pay. But you have the commitment from this board of freeholders that you will have a job tomorrow and that paycheck won't bounce."
After the meeting, Block said the 2 percent cap is a serious constraint, noting that if the county were to give every employee a 2 percent raise, it doesn't leave much if any room for other areas of the budget to increase.
"Gas prices this year are a great example," he said.
The decline in property values in the county has cost it $10 billion in ratables, which negatively impacts revenue from property taxes, Block said, and that money doesn't get replaced. Lost revenue makes it difficult to afford to do anything, he said.
"They have a hard job and we know that," Weipz said after the meeting.
"This is just about trying to get working-class people a little more money," Ludwig said.