News Item:
Sheriff's deputies get bargaining chip after decade of asking07/01/2009
EVANSVILLE, IN – In a major policy shift foretold by last year's elections, the Vanderburgh County Commissioners voted 2-1 Tuesday for a contract establishing collective bargaining for sheriff's deputies.

Democrats Steve Melcher and Troy Tornatta voted for the three-year, 51-page contract between the county and bargaining agent the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 73. Republican Lloyd Winnecke voted against it.

The contract, which is effective today, states the current number of 106 deputy positions can be reduced by attrition only. Any reductions must be accompanied by a written show of "just cause" delivered to the FOP 120 days before action.

County Attorney Ted Ziemer Jr. named annexation and the accompanying expansion of city police service as a reason county officials might decide they need fewer deputies.

"The number would go down by attrition, not by just directly getting rid of (the deputy sheriffs)," Ziemer said. "But as 10 deputy sheriffs either died or retired or whatever, they wouldn't be replaced."

If the FOP disagreed that a reduction was being made for "just cause," Ziemer said, it could always go to court.

"But the county's not going to try to lower (the number of deputies) without a good reason," he said.

Craig Blessinger, Vanderburgh County Deputies Organization president, acknowledged the group "has been fighting annexation on all fronts."

"We're just trying to protect deputy jobs," Blessinger said. "We feel if our area of operation, or our territory, is taken away in terms of annexation, then there's a very good likelihood that we will lose deputy jobs."

The County Commissioners have no legal obligation to negotiate a union contract with the deputies, but collective bargaining has been an objective of the Deputies Organization for more than a decade. The group put forth its current contract proposal in 2004, with the intent that an agreement would be negotiated on its behalf by the FOP.

But adoption of the proposal has been stymied in recent years by a frequently changing cast of Republican county commissioners who argued—while the GOP maintained control of the three-member executive governing body—that the county should not be locked into keeping a certain number of deputies.

In November, the makeup of the commissioners changed in the deputies' favor when Melcher defeated Republican Commissioner Jeff Korb, giving Democrats the majority.

On Tuesday, Winnecke called the mandatory minimum staffing level a "deal breaker" for him.

"It seems to me it's counterintuitive to require a minimum number of deputies at a time when the city is eyeing its growth through annexation, thereby theoretically reducing the county's jurisdictional limits," he said.

But Tornatta recalled a recent ride-along he did with a deputy.

"Being extended sometimes is part of how these deputies do business, and even with annexation of the city into parts of the county, it will only make the protection and the ability for these deputies to do their job that much more efficient," he said. "So I vote yes."

Immediately after the vote, a group of deputies broke into applause.

THOMAS B. LANGHORNE. "Sheriff's deputies get bargaining chip after decade of asking." 7/1/2009.