Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

It appears leaders with the Groveland Community Services District will bring some hired help to the table as they push for cuts to employee compensation in the coming year.

The GCSD Board of Directors decided 4-1 Thursday to seek special legal counsel for the labor negotiations that are set to begin soon.

The district will invite multiple legal firms that specialize in labor law to submit a proposal to provide legal advice as the district negotiates a new contract with Operating Engineers Local No. 3, the union that represents district workers.

"I don't want the process to start until we have a counsel on board," said Director Virgil McVicker, who proposed bringing in legal help.

The move came about a month after McVicker suggested changing terms of the employee contract before it is up at the end of June. Multiple directors, including McVicker and board President Steve Perreira, have been calling for cuts to health and pension benefits as the district and other public entities face large long-term liabilities for employees and retirees.

That discussion ended after district staff, legal counsel and representation with the Operating Engineers said the move would lead to a quick lawsuit. But the board created a special committee to begin negotiating early, and the union sent a letter to the district stating it is ready to start discussing the next contract.

McVicker said the legal counsel can advise the district in the discussions, and he said waiting to hire the attorney can prevent early mistakes.

"You can make some very serious errors that have a negative consequence to your agreement," he said.

Not everyone at GCSD sees it that way. Director John Armstrong questioned why they can't start before hiring an attorney, and have the person look over the terms before a final agreement is in place.

"As long as you don't set anything in stone, we can start negotiating without an attorney," Armstrong said before voting against the proposal.

Mike Eggener, business representative for Local No. 3, also questioned the move. Last month, he said, it appeared the board wanted to "fast track" talks.

"We're being told now we have to wait for an attorney," Eggener said. "We're willing to work and sit down and negotiate. It's a two-way street."

GCSD is among several local public agencies trying to rework employee benefits to chip into long-term liabilities.

The Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors held multiple workshops last year on pension and health care costs, and last month voted to update the board's goals to deal with the issue.

Tuolumne Utilities District also earlier this year moved a package forward that cuts into future employee compensation.

GCSD last year took a major step in dealing with long-term pension obligations within the district's Fire Department by contracting the department personnel out to Cal Fire.