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Fairfax Employees' Union Starts Contest to Save Money

Facing a massive county budget shortfall next year, Fairfax County's employee union is sponsoring an unusual contest to find the best idea to save taxpayer money.

The Everybody Wins contest (no connection to the reading mentor program of the same name) will award $500 to the Fairfax employee with the best idea, and the Fairfax County Government Employees Union has pledged $5,000 in seed money to the county to institute the idea.

"These are the folks who are on the front lines of public services," said Karen Conchar, the president of the Fairfax union and an engineer at the Department of Public Works and Environmental Services. "They know exactly how taxpayer dollars are spent and where there could be savings."

Fairfax County officials announced in July that they are expecting a $315.6 million shortfall in 2011, which could mean significant cuts and the consolidation of more than 50 county agencies. Salary budgets are expected to be cut at least 3 percent, and overtime funding is set to be slashed as much as 50 percent for most departments. The value of nonresidential property is expected to fall by 18 percent.

Since September, the Fairfax employees union has held workshops to brainstorm budget ideas and, so far, has received about 50 entries for the contest, said Andy Bonior, a union spokesman.

The workshops also have allowed employees to discuss their budget priorities, which will be presented to the Fairfax County supervisors. About 400 workers have joined the growing government workers union, where the SEIU-affiliated group has fought proposals to eliminate jobs and contributed to political campaigns.

Virginia is by no means labor friendly and the Fairfax union has faced criticism from Republicans and some business leaders who say its part of a larger effort to repeal laws that have secured the state's reputation as one of the most business-friendly in the country. The commonwealth is one of 22 "right to work" states, where employees are not required join their company union. And Virginia is one of only two states that ban collective bargaining in contract negotiations for public employees.

Still, the union says its on the county's side, with the Everybody Wins contest as another sign of its pro-government allegiances.

"A lot of the old ideas about unions fighting with employers -- that just doesn't fly here in this area", Conchar said. "Most of the people we represent really like their jobs, and for many of them their only frustration is that they wish they could do them better."

Two ideas thrown around so far: a sharing program for the county for pipe-scoping cameras and the elimination of "mileage minimums," some which require 5,000 miles per year, for county-owned vehicles.

The Fairfax employees union is an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 5-VA. The contest is open to all general county employees, grades S32 and below. Entries can be submitted online at the union's Web site or sent by mail by midnight Oct. 30. Entries will be judged by a panel who will consider its practicality, sustainability and appeal to employees, among other things.

By Derek Kravitz  |  October 16, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Fairfax County Board of Supervisors  
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