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Snap, Snap Goes the Gjerde

Back in October of 2017, a labor consulting outfit called Koff and Associates was given $100k to do study of county wages and salaries to compare them to other jurisdictions. 

If you're wondering why the leadership wouldn't know by now that Mendo employees have been leaving county employment for many years for cash-greener pastures to the south and even north in Humboldt, well, we don’t call it Amnesia County for no reason. 

The findings of Koff’s hundred thou boondoggle were contracted to be released in the summer of 2018, in time for them to be considered, and perhaps even factored in to, the 2018-2019 budget. 

In September Koff wasn’t ready. But in a preliminary report Koff told the County that on average Mendo was about 7% “below market” on salaries. So an arbitrary county-designed “placeholder” of $5 million was plucked out of mid-air and written into the budget for salary increases — which, of course, have yet to be granted. The Koff study was pushed out to June of 2019, too late to be considered in the 2018 budget.

Of course, any pay increase that exceeds that “placeholder” in the budget would be a problem, so Official Mendo would be much happier with Koff if Koff & Associates magically concluded that a pay raise of, oh, I dunno, say, maybe around $5 million — ? — would be really nice. But of course, the County’s expensive consultant would never stoop to bending their recommendations to suit Official Mendo’s placeholder. Would they?

The County’s largest union, Services Employees International local 1021 with around 800 members, disagreed with the 7% figure last year, saying they were about 15% below market.

Meanwhile, Official Mendo, including the Supervisors themselves, pushed through large salary increases for themselves, with no pesky delays of the hundred grand study type. The CEO’s Office and the Board’s own budget units were magically not included in the partial run-down of departments which are overruning their budgets — of course not, their big raises were already IN the budget. The budget became like the famous ink blot psycho-test — the numbers saying whatever management said they said. So being conveniently pre-budgeted the Board and top officials approved their own raises.

In September of last year SEIU President Kort Petersen told the Supes, “County staff has watched as most department heads and managers received 20 percent to 30 percent increases over the last year while the review of their wage rates has stalled.”

The raise the Supes “bravely” gave themselves last year — Sheriff Allman even praised the Board for “putting up with the BS” of a few complaining citizens — raised their salaries from about $62k to about $85k, plus comparable benefit and pension increases — a raise of roughly 37%.

(The sordid history of how Supervisors David Colfax and Kendall Smith pushed through grotesque raises for themselves to $68k then refused to even take 10% pay cuts like the line employees and their fellow Supes did is a depressing tale already told.)

Also setting a bad example, the Board gave CEO Carmel Angelo a four year phased in auto-raise from her already lofty $180k to $220k (a 22% increase) by 2022. Most Departments heads got comparable raises, or new ones were hired at much more than their predecessors.

The “optics,” not to mention the budget numbers, are not pretty.

In recent weeks, CEO Angelo frequently likes to say that new expenditures — e.g., raises for line workers — would require “money we don’t have.”

Last Tuesday, SEIU rep Patrick Hickey spent several minutes denouncing the Koff study in rather technical terms, but claiming it unfairly asserted that the County’s generous benefit package somehow compensated for their below market salaries, and that “it is unfair to use a different process and procedure for front-line county employees than you used for yourselves, department heads and elected officers.” 

Hickey added that the Koff study cherry-picked numbers during the comparison to make it look like Mendo’s salaries are sorta comparable to neighboring jurisdictions, which meant management “put your thumb on the scale.” Hickey also said there were several outright errors in the report.

County Human Resources Director (also a recipient of a big raise) Heidi Dunham told the Board several times that labor issues are so “complicated” that they require the services of an attorney for “meet and confer,” and “grievances,” and “consultation” and “mediation” and “arbitration” and administrative hearings and court proceeding. 

There were no complications of any sort when management launched its raid on county coffers.

Supervisor Haschak at first was skeptical of using outside negotiators to work out fair compensation with county workers, but he was no match for the glib Ms. Dunham who easily parried Haschak’s questions, concluding that hiring an in-house labor attorney would cost about $190k a year, more than the additional $150k (bringing the total to $300k) the Board was being asked to hand over to the outside attorney.

Supervisor Ted Williams noticed that $300k was a sizable 6% of the $5 million placeholder, adding, “I see that where bargaining units have outside counsel and it escalates and now we have outside counsel to negotiate. I would like to de-escalate. Ultimately we are taking from the available funds that could go to employees. I would rather see that $300,000 go to the employees in a negotiation with those same employees. We know how much we can afford, it has to be a Board decision. The question is how to equitably divide it. I would like to see us collaborate, rather than negotiate.” 

An uncharacteristically peevish Supervisor Dan Gjerde chipped in, basically blaming the union for the problems: “I would like to see de-escalation. Unfortunately there are some people who don't live in Mendocino County that seem to want to escalate everything. We heard some comments on the last agenda item that were way off mark. The complaint we've heard, and it's totally valid from most county employees, is they are not paid in a competitive way compared to their counterparts in other counties. I'm a leader who's actually taken a reduction in pay acknowledging that…..”

We’ll pause here for weeping and lamentations for Hair Shirt Dan, unsung martyr-leader.

“Although that's [Gjerde’s sacrifice] never been acknowledged by SEIU publicly for some strange reason. But the reason for the Koff study was to determine if the County of Mendocino is underpaying in salary or underpaying in benefits or both? And what this study shows is that in spite of the quibbling, the benefits are roughly comparable to the other agencies, they are very close. And they are more out of market on salary. And that the focus of negotiations should be what the employees have told me: on salary, not on additional benefits. Instead of acknowledging the success of the Koff study we hear more whining. I think until the bargaining groups get negotiators on their behalf who are focusing on accepting wins when they get a win instead of complaining and turning every victory into a defeat, these negotiations unfortunately will last longer than they need to last, cost the taxpayers and the employees more than they should cost and there will be, unfortunately, money wasted that could go to compensation. And it is the choice of the negotiators and the decisions of the negoatiators that are leading to that outcome.”

For the record, Supervisor Gjerde voted no on last year’s giant 37-plus-% Supes salary raise, saying it was too high and should be pegged to the not-quite-so big raises the then-Board (with lame ducks Georgeanne Croskey and do-nothing Dan Hamburg joining Supervisor Carre Brown and John McCowen) gave to the Department heads. Gjerde calculated that the Supes salary should be around $74k — a 19% raise — not $85k, and announced that he wouldn’t take the extra $11k. He has not suffered “a reduction in pay” as he disingenuously claimed and for which he now feels so unappreciated. Talk about whining.

Haschak thought the SEIU concerns were legitimate and should be taken seriously. He pointed out that Mr. Hickey lives in Mendocino County and is not trying to “amp up” the negotiations.

CEO Angelo summarized her version of the County’s troubled and costly history of outside labor negotiators, concluding that the County just can’t do “major labor negotiations,” adding that the expensive outside attorney was fine and necessary.

Supervisor John McCowen thought the outside attorney was worth it when spread across eight bargaining units. He agreed that the SEIU complaints should be looked into and said that the County could save more money in other outside attorney costs other than labor negotiations. Besides, McCowen said, it’s too late to change direction now. (Never mind that no one in county officialdom has brought up the question of what alternatives are available previously. The Board allows these “no-choice” propositions to arise all the time, avoiding major decisions until the last minute when they have no option but approve whatever crazy expendisture is presented to them.)

Haschak said given the present (Board-created fait accompli) situation the outside attorney was ok, but that in the long-term the county should do its own negotiations. (Of course no one will raise this subject again until the next big bill comes due.)

The board then voted 4-1 to approve the additional $150k for the outside attorney-negotiator bringing their contract up to $300k. Nobody asked if the added $150k was in the budget.

Williams was on the short end of the 4-1 vote, sensibly arguing for a cooperative less costly approach to negotiations.

As usual, this entire discussion was conducted totally in the dark. The Board gets no regular departmental reports on staffing levels, staff shortages, budget status, labor issues and negotiations, productivity, backlogs, cost drivers, project status… And no discussion of the difference between general fund staff versus state and federally funded staff. In other words, everybody — especially management setting a very bad example — is basing their salary demands solely on what other people elsewhere get, not on whether services are being provided efficiently or managed properly.

If this wasn’t serious taxpayer money being thrown away so irresponsibly, we’d write it all off with, “These people really deserve each other.”

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