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Children's Services Workers Prepare To Vote On New Contract.

Resolution of a long-running labor dispute in Franklin County could come later this week when unionized workers at Franklin County Children's Services vote on a tentative contract. For more than three years the 500 union workers at Franklin County Children's Services have been working under terms of an expired wage and benefit pact.  This week, a series of ratification votes is scheduled on a new three year agreement that gives workers raises in each of the next three years. Children's Services spokeswoman Debbie Armstrong says the new pact took 14 months to negotiate. "There was, several months ago a fact-finders report that came forward but that wasn't agreed upon. Says Armstrong. "And so wwe had to go back to the negotiation table just to come up with an agreement that all sides would agree to." If approved, workers would receive a 2 percent raise  this year, one and half percent next year and 1 percent in 2013.    Union staff would also pay an additional 65 dollars per month next year in health care premiums. Armstrong says the agency has had what she called "a large number of retirees" leave the agency in the past several years when no new contract was in place. Armstrong says that makes retention more critical. "In making sure that we're able to maintain employees in the very competitive field of child welfare. You know, child welfare is such a unique field and we have staff who have to have very specialized skills to deal with the very, very diffcult issues of child abuse and neglect." Armstrong says currently each of the unionized social workers handles between 15 and 17 cases. Lisa Zellner of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, the union which represents Children's Services employees, declined  a taped interview for this story saying she did not want to influence contract voting later this week.  Zellner says the first meeting on Wednesday will be informational. The cost of the three year contract will total $2,800,000.  Franklin County Children's Services has a current operating budget of $174,000,000 million, primarily funded by a county-wide property tax levy. The agency has imposed a hiring freeze for the coming year in anticipation of budget cuts from both state and federal governments.  Armstrong says the agency is stretching its budget when demand for services is constant. "Our referrals have increased significantly with more families calling in needing help in many different areas. And so our referrals are up. But, fortunately our placements have been down recently." Armstrong says Children's Services is able to link families with more community resources recently and keep more children with their family or with family relatives. Tom Borgerding WOSU News