county board meeting
The Dane County Board holds a meeting in this 2008 file photo. STEVE APPS - State Journal

While Republicans attacked a ruling that overturned parts of the state law limiting collective bargaining, pro-labor Dane County government leaders scrambled to use the court action to extend the lives of its employee unions.

County administrators were negotiating with workers Wednesday night on contracts that could keep its unions alive through 2015. The County Board was poised to vote on the pact tonight.

"We have a window here, and we're going to take advantage of it," said County Board Chairman Scott McDonell.

A spokesman for Gov. Scott Walker said it was unfortunate that the county wasn't using the cost-cutting "tools" provided by Act 10, which in 2011 all but ended public employee union rights in the state.

On Friday, portions of the law were ruled unconstitutional by Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas. State officials asked Colas to delay enforcement of that ruling until after appeals can be heard by higher courts, but it may be days or weeks before he decides on that request.

As long as the ruling is in force, McDonell said, local governments can negotiate new binding contracts with employee unions.

Before Act 10 took effect, the county and the unions signed a three-year pact that ends in 2013 and a one-year deal for 2014.

"In Dane County we use the right tool for the right job, and County Executive (Joe) Parisi believes those tools are communication, collaboration, and cooperation," said Parisi's chief of staff, Josh Wescott.

Unions previously agreed to a series of concessions that will save $2 million next year alone, Wescott said.

Employees voted for the contract concessions, union officials have said, to help the county in tough times and to prevent Act 10 from dissolving their organization.

The law ends most legal union rights for bargaining units only after their existing contracts have expired.

Twenty-two of the 37 County Board members were listed on a letter supporting negotiation of new contracts.

"Dane County has a history of tough but fair bargaining which respects the voice of our employees," they said in the letter released Wednesday by board staff.

Veteran conservative board member Dave Wiganowsky, who didn't sign the letter, said the new contracts were a way for liberals to repay unions for political support at election time, and they would unnecessarily tie the county's hands when money grows short.

"They may end up killing programs so that we can repay their political favors," Wiganowsky said.

McDonell said the county always has the option of layoffs or furloughs, but for now the budget reserve has been growing.

American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 65 and the county were working on an agreement Wednesday night, said Arlyn Halverson, president of Local 65, which represents about 200 of the county's blue-collar workers.

"We're working on it right now. It's close, but it's not finished," Halverson said.

He wouldn't disclose proposed terms, but said he expected the pact would have advantages for both sides.

A spokeswoman for state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, who plans to appeal Colas' decision, said he wouldn't comment on Dane County's move.

Walker's spokesman, Cullen Werwie, said Dane County stood in contrast to other local governments that recognized the value of Act 10.

"While we are confident the law will be upheld, if the current ruling on Act 10 stands, it would result in public employee layoffs, increased debt for local units of government and school districts, and it could return us to a system where a handful of special interests control huge portions of our government budgets," Werwie said.

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