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The Erie County Legislature, meeting in special session Thursday, unanimously approved a work agreement with the county’s largest bargaining unit.

The roughly 2,600 members of Civil Service Employees Association Local 815 had been working without a contract since 2007. The membership rejected four previous tentative agreements that were hammered out between the union leadership and county officials, the last one in February.

David A. Palmer, the county’s commissioner of personnel, said the newly approved contract moves all members of the union to a cheaper base medical plan that will help the county realize significant savings.

“The big savings in the contract is the movement from the Core plan to the Value plan,” in which current employees will pay from 7 to 7.5 percent of the cost of the coverage, and new employees will pay 15 percent.

County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said the contract will ultimately save county taxpayers hundreds of millions in health care costs over the course of the agreement.

The new agreement, which was ratified by union members on July 30, covers the years 2008 to 2016 and includes cost-saving modifications to the health insurance coverage.

The previous agreement rejected in February offered workers a 2 percent annual raises in 2014 and 2015. The contract approved Thursday by the Legislature extends the agreement to 2016 – when employees will receive a 2.5 percent pay hike.

Palmer said the agreement does not include any back pay but offers workers a bonus vacation day for each year of the expired contract.

“There are people who were on the payroll from 2008 up to the present time who got an extra nine days of vacation,” Palmer said.

There are other benefit reductions. For instance, acupuncture treatments, which were covered under the Core plan, will not be covered under the Value plan. In addition, inpatient deductibles will be higher, Palmer said. Also, the co-payments for visits to a physician and for prescription drugs will be raised by $5 under the new contract.

“The drug co-pays used to be $5, $10 and $15, now they’re $10, $15 and $20,” said Palmer.

“Up until this contract, there was a requirement for only five years of service at the time of retirement in order to be eligible for retiree health care benefits at the time of retirement. Needless to say, that’s not something the county could sustain,” Palmer said.

In previous negotiations, the administration recommended raising the bar to 15 years of service, but union officials argued that there were many employees who were just shy of 15 years of service.

Palmer said the agreed-upon threshhold came about in the most recent negotiations – that workers with 10 to 15 years of county service be eligible for retiree health care at 75 percent of the full benefit, while those with 15 or more years of service continue to receive the full benefit.

Following Thursday’s 11-0 vote in favor of the agreement, Legislature Chairman John J. Mills, R-Orchard Park, said that while lawmakers are generally pleased with the deal, because of the savings to county taxpayers, there also is concern that it extends only to 2016.

“After many years and attempts to settle the CSEA contract, we finally have an agreement in place and going forward I would hope the process is much more efficient,” said Mills.

Palmer said he believes the next round of negotiations will be simpler.

“The relief in my mind – and I think the union officials are in the same place – is that until we got this one done, everybody was always looking backwards because the contract expired in 2006. We are over that hump now, so we believe the next round of negotiations will be far more simple than what we just went through” said Palmer.

“There’s also a lot of unanswered questions about the effect the Affordable Care Act will have on future health care costs for the county,” he added.

“In 2018, there’s a kick-in of the luxury tax, or Cadillac tax. We want to make sure where we are plan-wise and how we’ll be affected by that. It would have been inappropriate, in my mind, to lock ourselves into a contract we may not be able to afford when the rest of the Affordable Care Act kicks in. I think the expiration at the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017 is the perfect opportunity to get ourselves situated for the Affordable Care Act,” Palmer said.

Poloncarz said in a statement that the new agreement marks the fifth successful contract negotiation conducted by his administration since he took office in 2012.

Agreements had previously been reached between his administration and CSEA Local 815 Erie County Corrections Officer Unit and Teamsters Local 264, both in 2012, as well as the Erie County Sheriff’s Police Benevolent Association in August 2013, and the New York State Nurses Association in September 2013.

Contracts that are still left to be negotiated include agreements with the librarians’ union, whose members have been working without a contract since 2006; the union covering Erie Community College faculty, the contract for which expired in 2009; and with the administrators’ union at ECC, who have been without a contract since August 2011.

email: hmcneil@buffnews.com