Clark County labor talks may be outsourced

Madore wants opinion of auditor’s office, hoping to free up county HR department

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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Clark County’s labor negotiations could be farmed to an outside consulting group, a county commissioner says, as a way of saving money.

The idea comes despite questions from other county officials, who are uncertain how to judge whether the human resources department is operating efficiently, and whether outside help is needed to keep costs down.

Commissioner David Madore has suggested the auditor’s office look into the possibility of outsourcing labor negotiations, he said, because he wants to give the county’s human resources department more breathing room to do other work. As one of its duties, the department assists with the semiannual negotiations between the county and its various unions.

Madore has questioned the number of human resources employees. In past years, the county has added to the department’s rolls while cutting hours, and positions, elsewhere in the county, he said.

“Rather than simply keep adding staff, it is prudent to ask how we can lighten (the department’s) load so we can potentially do more with less,” Madore wrote in an email. “(My) goal is to equip our HR staff with the best resources available, so they can focus on doing what they do best.”

Madore did not comment on whether the proposed cost-saving plan, with its reliance on outside consultants, would ultimately result in layoffs.

The HR department’s director, Francine Reis, said there were reasons why new positions were added. Most of them are filled by people who were hired before the recession, she said.

Following the county’s absorption of the Southwest Washington Health District in 2003, the department began taking on new functions and responsibilities. These included fulfilling public records requests and taking an increased role helping the county meet its diversity goals.

The number of employees peaked in 2008, when the department had 19 full-time employees budgeted. Currently, the department has the equivalent of 17½ full-time employees budgeted, though not all those positions are filled, with hopes of filling a few more hours in the future.

The county has contracted with outside labor consultants in the past and does so on a case-by-case basis.

“We do, at times, use outside negotiators,” Reis said. “The reasons (for that) are varied.”

But Madore is looking at the long term. Earlier in the month, he sought an analysis on which other Washington counties regularly outsourced their labor negotiations.

The information he received showed, by and large, those counties were much smaller than Clark County, which has more than 400,000 residents. The largest county on the list, Whatcom County, has roughly half the population of Clark County, and it pays its labor consultant $53,364 a year. The nine other counties have fewer than 80,000 residents each.

Because of the size of Clark County, there are several bargaining units at play. There are 13 in total, most of which have contracts expiring in 2015. Only the Medical Examiner’s Unit, ILWU Local 8, has a contract that expires at the end of the year. The Corrections Deputy Guild and Deputy Sheriff Guild have contracts that expired in 2012. They’re operating under the terms of the old contracts.

In a Facebook post, Madore said more information was “needed before reaching a conclusion” on how to move forward.

For the auditor’s office — which has the ability to audit the human resources department — that may be easier said than done.

County Auditor Greg Kimsey said his office had entered into discussions with commissioners about conducting a performance audit of the human resources department. Those discussions, though, have yet to yield any work. One reason, Kimsey said, is that he doesn’t know where to begin.

“At this point, no one has been able to specify what the audit’s objectives are,” Kimsey said. “No one has suggested what any of the performance measures are.”

The objective of a performance audit is to measure a department’s mission against its outcomes.

That would be difficult to do with the human resources department, he said, without having a clear idea of what he’s supposed to investigate. With guidance from commissioners, he said, his office may try to give it a shot.

“We said, if it was possible to determine the scope of a performance audit,” Kimsey said, “we’d add it to our work plan.”