The Ellis County Commission voted 2-1 Monday to opt out of the Public Employer-Employee Relations Act, effectively ending its annual negotiations with four collective bargaining groups representing service employees in public works, sheriff’s department, EMS and the courthouse.

Commissioners instead spoke in favor of implementing a new wage and benefit committee to represent both union and non-union employees. Commission Chairperson Barbara Wasinger initiated the discussion and spoke in favor of ending negotiations. She noted only 28 percent of the county’s 197 full-time employees are union members.

“What has concerned me for a few years is that a large number of our employees do not have formal mechanism to voice their opinions,” Wasinger said in a prepared statement. “It is not my intention to ‘strip’ anyone of their rights, and as a practical matter, all of our employees have protections under civil service law, whether or not they belong to a union.”

Wasinger said the county strives to be a “good and fair” employer, and proposed the creation of the new wage and benefit committee. She asked the commission to discuss the structure of that committee next month.

Commissioner Marcy McClelland was the dissenting vote. She said she was surprised by the low rate of union participation, but also indicated she wanted to continue hearing feedback from employees and residents.

“I was rather surprised at the number that were not belonging to the union, but yet were enjoying the benefits. I don’t think this is a fair way to do things,” she said. “I quite frankly had several phone calls from different people … telling me they wanted the union. Some of them didn’t say what they wanted, so I’m open to suggestions. I’m here to listen to what’s going on.”

McClelland said after the meeting she was hoping to table the vote to provide more time for public input.

The county’s vote follows shortly behind a Hays City Commission decision to also opt out of PEERA late last week. Despite the timing, commissioner Dean Haselhorst said the county was not acting because of the city’s decision.

“First and foremost, we’re not following the city’s decision. We’re discussing this because the system we have now needs fixed,” he said. “Whether we have a union or not, we value our employees and their voices.”

Haselhorst said any new employee benefit committee should represent a cross-section of county departments and employees, including employees covered by the four unions.

Commission chambers were almost full for Monday’s meeting, as several employees and union representatives attended to ask the commission to continue negotiations — or at least to postpone the vote. Several union members said, despite low membership numbers, the bargaining groups strive to look out for the interest of many employees.

“Even with the low (membership) numbers, we represent everyone. Not once have we ever came to the bargaining table asking for a dime for union members and a nickel for non-union members,” said Melvin Kinderknecht, a county public works employee with a local chapter of the Service Employees International Union. “We represent everyone. This year’s contract shows that we helped as many co-workers as we could, union members or not.”

Other employees who spoke at Monday’s meeting addressed the concern of low membership numbers. It is a state requirement for active unions to have 50-percent eligible membership within the local agency. Sheriff’s department employee Wilmer Dinkel said it’s possible younger employees don’t realize the importance of labor unions because they never had to work without them.

“I would probably be closer to retirement than a lot of people. I could probably just sit back and say, ‘OK, I’m not going to get concerned about this issue,’ ” Dinkel said. “But looking into the future for my fellow co-workers that I am concerned about, I beg you people to stay with the program that is there now so that everybody can have a voice. I know these people who are out here are not members ... and I agree they’re letting a handful, 50 members or so on, carry the weight and the burden.”

Dinkel also expressed concern about what could happen to employees in the future as the county’s leadership structure changes and new commissioners are elected. Union representatives also noted the collective bargaining organizations provide a process to help reduce potential grievance filings and prevent employees from striking.

Chuck White, also a union member with the sheriff’s office, noted union dues could be difficult for some employees to afford. He said his dues, year to date, total approximately $950.

“That is a house payment for some of these employees or some of these people just coming on with the county. That’s something we’re considering on our side if some changes can be made there,” said White, who spoke in favor of continuing negotiations.

He also noted he lives in McClelland’s district, and specifically asked her to vote in favor of tabling the vote.

While state employees are required to be covered under PEERA, local governments can choose whether to participate in labor union negotiations, according to state law. Ellis County was one of only four counties in Kansas currently negotiating with bargaining units.

The county has been covered by PEERA since 1972.