The Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District and the Teamsters union entered into mediation Friday in hopes of coming to an agreement on retirement benefits for employees — and avoiding a strike.

The next mediation session is scheduled for Wednesday

MTD issued a statement Thursday morning that said while the benefit package for active employees is unchanged, the retirement age of employees must be raised as a cost-saving measure. It is asking that the full retirement health benefits begin at age 65, instead of 62 as is currently required.

“Asking employees to wait for this retirement benefit is very reasonable given the financial condition of the district and the current state of the economy,” the statement read.

The agency said it has successfully completed negotiations with supervisors of the same union for the same offer.

“MTD is not requesting wage reductions,” the statement read. “In fact, the offer includes an increase to health insurance contribution to help offset the rising cost of the Teamsters health insurance plan. … Given the current economic climate, MTD will find it very difficult to provide drivers with a better deal than their co-workers.”

Teamsters Local 186 represents more than 150 drivers, service workers and supervisors for the Santa Barbara MTD, and Bill Elder is the CEO of the group.

Negotiations have been going on for about a year, said Elder, who added that there were about 100 proposals, from both sides, that now have been whittled down.

He called the retirement age reduction “an erosion of benefits for the ones who need it most.”

“It may not seem like much on the surface,” he said, “but it’s a benefit they’ve had for a long time.”

Elder said workers have to work for 20 years before they can qualify for the benefit, and said the group is also taking issue with the amount of out-of-pocket health costs the members are required to pay.

“We’re going into the negotiations with an open mind,” he said. “We’re hopeful we can reach a resolution, but at this point we haven’t haven’t heard a plan that will work for our members.”

If a strike does occur, MTD has a temporary service plan that will provide limited service, and the agency said it will work to provide notice to the community of a possible strike.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

Lara Cooper, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @laraanncooper

— Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.