MARTINEZ -- Contra Costa supervisors are preparing to impose an employment contract on county prosecutors after two years of failed labor negotiations -- a move that has deputy district attorneys discussing an unprecedented strike.
The attorneys, tired of being the lowest-paid prosecutors per capita in the Bay Area, say this is the first time in memory they've considering striking.
The proposed one-year contract that supervisors will vote on at Tuesday's board meeting calls for a 5.24 percent wage cut, effective Sept. 1, and would make the attorneys 100 percent responsible for the employee share of contributions to retirement benefits.
For its part, the county says its hands are tied by the ongoing budget crisis. The prosecutors' compensation cuts are higher than for other employee unions because the county has missed deadline after deadline in implementing that unit's wage reductions, supervisor Karen Mitchoff said.
"You are overworked and underpaid? Welcome to the club," Mitchoff said. "All of our county employees are working harder with less take-home pay. The bottom line is we don't have the money."
In 2006, the District Attorney's Office had more than 100 permanent, full-time prosecutors. Today, there are around 70 covering the same workload in the county of more than 1 million residents.
Seven experienced prosecutors have left in the past six months, some for neighboring counties in anticipation of more cuts to their
"It is undisputed that attorneys in the office do not fare as well as comparable attorneys in nearby jurisdictions," an arbitrator wrote in a different report recently ordered by the county.
Prosecutors' salaries range from about $70,000 to $150,000 annually, according to Bay Area News Group's public salary database.
"A strike is the last possible thing we prosecutors would want to do. It's our job to keep the community safe by locking up dangerous criminals, but we are at a point where our office is so understaffed and has lost so many experienced attorneys, that pubic safety is at risk," said a longtime prosecutor who asked not to be named, fearing retaliation. "Striking to rectify this horrible predicament that we prosecutors have been put in by the county may be the only way to keep the community safer in the long run."
Union leadership says that in recent contract negotiations, the county reported that it needed to reach $636,000 in savings from the bargaining unit, an overall 4.42 percent compensation reduction. The contract that supervisors will vote on calls for an annual $1 million in savings, which union leaders say results in a permanent compensation reduction of around 10 percent.
Probation officers and sheriff's deputies took 2.54 percent and 3 percent wage cuts, respectively.
"The county's position is we're treating every employee union the same," said deputy District Attorney Mary Knox, the union's treasurer and negotiator. "That's not true."
Mitchoff said that workers are being treated the same and that the prosecutors can't compare themselves to workers tied to the public safety pension system.
"It's not comparing apples and apples," Mitchoff said. "The DAs do not participate in public safety retirement, so they are not paying as much into retirement as public safety workers."
The prosecutors' union has been working under a contract that expired in 2010, and has not seen a cost-of-living increase in five years.
Deputy district attorney John Cope is among those wearing multiple hats as a result of the declining workforce. He heads the homicide unit but is prosecuting the six defendants in the infamous Richmond High School gang rape case because most everyone else who was qualified to handle it has jumped ship, Cope said.
Most of the defense attorneys opposing him in the case are being paid by the county's conflict panel of private attorneys, which has not seen any cut to its hourly wage, Cope said.
"I have to do this in my spare time, on the side, because this office has been dismantled," Cope said. "That's hundreds and thousands of unpaid overtime hours."
District Attorney Mark Peterson said he understands the prosecutors' frustrations. When asked how he'd handle a strike, he said, "Whew! I don't know.
"It would be very difficult if not impossible to staff all the courtrooms," Peterson said. "It could result in criminals going free."
Mitchoff said she hopes that the prosecutors will ride out the financial crisis because she's confident there will be money for raises once the contract is over.
"I obviously hope they don't strike, but if they do we will have to deal with it," she said.
Contact Malaika Fraley at 925-234-1684. Follow her at Twitter.com/malaikafraley.