Berks commissioners call for pay freeze to close budget gap, avoid tax increase

Berks commissioners propose pay freeze for county employees

READING, Pa. - The upcoming year may come at a cost to employees who work for Berks County. The commissioners are trying to find ways to reduce next year's budget spending by millions of dollars, and one of those ways would be through a one-year pay freeze for employees.

The commissioners' meeting on Thursday focused on the county's $12 million deficit. Since May, they have been looking at several options and have come up with two strategies, said Commissioner Christian Leinbach.

"The first one we voted on today and that was to fund the unfunded liability for our county pension. Approximately $63 million. Aabout $30 million is coming out of our funding balance, and then we're floating a bond for about $32.6 million," said Leinbach, a Republican.

Ultimately, Leinbach said, that would save the county more than $4 million.

The second, and more controversial strategy, involves a one-year pay freeze for all county employees. Currently, county officials are in talks with all six unions:  PSSU, Teamsters, AFSCHME, the Detectives Union, UFCW and SEIU.

The commissioners would have to reopen two of the unions' contracts in order to implement the payroll changes, said Leinbach, adding that the other four unions do not have contracts at this time.

"We haven't agreed to anything of the kind," said Tom Herman, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 668.

SEIU members believe the county does a disservice to its citizens when it attempts to balance a budget on the backs of its employees, Herman said.

"Our contract has expired. We're bargaining under the status quo of the relationship we had in the last contract," said Herman.

All six unions would have to agree to the payroll freeze in order for it to be implemented in 2013. If that happens, the county would save about $2.5 million, Leinbach said.

If the unions do not agree to the one-year payroll freeze, "Then I think they need to answer to the taxpayers," said Leinbach, who explained that county taxes would more than likely go up if the unions do not agree to the payroll freeze.

It is unknown at this time when the unions are expected to come to their decision.

"This county accepted block granting, which cut their funding by over 10 percent. There's a time where you can't give anymore and still be able to afford to feed your families. We're there," said Herman.

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