GREELEY — The Nov. 8 election will decide if Weld County is once again alone in bucking state rule, but only if voters figure out whether a yes means no, or a no means yes.
Some say the ballot language for Issue 1A is confusing. But according to Weld County Commissioner Chairman Scott James, to change Weld’s home rule charter — whether its adding or removing items — voters have to say “yes.”
To cut through any confusion: a yes on 1A means public sector unions will not be allowed to represent county employees. A no on 1A means the county will be required to allow union representation of its employees.
When home rule matters
For years, leaders in other counties across Colorado have poked fun at Weld for its status as a home rule county.
Most don’t understand why a county would want to incorporate as home rule, as the perks of such designation are not many. Counties by design are simply the enforcement arm of state policy.
A home rule county can make limited decisions for itself, in the case of Weld that includes an additional elected body called the County Council, which sets the salaries of its elected officials and handles any appointments for vacated seats.
But after the 2022 legislative session, there may be a bit of jealousy hanging in the air for Weld’s decision to take that step nearly 47 years ago.
Senate Bill 22-230, signed into law on May 27 by Gov. Jared Polis, requires counties with a population of more than 7,500 residents — 42 of the state’s 64 counties — to allow their employees to unionize, a piece of law that will cost county governments millions in expenditures.
At the last minute, former Weld County Commissioner, and current State Senator Barbara Kirkmeyer, negotiated language in SB-230 that somewhat exempted home rule counties from the requirement.
Pitkin is the only other home rule county in Colorado, but its commissioners have not expressed interest in avoiding unionization of its employees.
A legislative dictate
Under the bill, legislators took the position that “collective bargaining for county employees is a matter of statewide concern that affects public safety and general welfare.”
The bill dictates much of what the county must offer under those agreements should employees decide to organize. However, Kirkmeyer was able to get bipartisan support to amend the bill so that nothing in the bill may “restrict, duplicate, or usurp any responsibility or authority granted to the county commissioners of any county” under the “state constitution, home rule charter or other state law.”
That one sentence allowed Weld County to ask voters if the county itself can develop a personnel system free of the requirement to engage in collective bargaining.
If 1A passes, according to the ballot language, it will be “against public policy for the county to collectively bargain with county employees.” In other words, no union. Further, “the county is under no obligation to recognize or negotiate with, for the purpose of collective bargaining, any collective bargaining unit of county employees.”
A yes means no to unions
“To take advantage of what was written into the legislation we must amend the home rule charter,” James said. “Ultimately, to amend the charter voters must say yes they are willing to amend the charter.”
James spent many hours in Denver during debate over the bill working to stop the idea, he said. This was the closest it got, and now its up to Weld voters if they want the county to be forced into union contracts.
“If it passes, Weld County will be out there on an island again,” James said. “Statutory counties are bound by it.”
James said collective bargaining is just not necessary. The county already offers lucrative salary and benefit packages. The average benefits package per employee is $28,000, James said.
Weld County’s Director of Finance and Administration Don Warden estimated that the annual cost to the county to collectively bargain with employees would be between $43 and $60 million dollars.
James is hearing whispers that if 1A fails, some departments are already gearing up to organize. He said if the county is forced to negotiate, all current benefits and pay would be off the table and county would start negotiations all over.
“Collective bargaining will force the county to reallocate funds from necessary projects to a program that largely duplicates protections already in place,” James said. “We feel like we have an outstanding relationship with our employees, and we are already well above on our compensation and benefits.”
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