Posted on 23 March 2012.
Larry gives the big bird to fellow supervisors, employees
“[Mono County employee] salaries are like the housing market,” stated Mono County Supervisor Larry Johnston this week. “They need an adjustment. It’s time for the adjustment to be made.” He likened the issue to a pendulum having swung too far to one side.
It’s something Johnston has been saying since he took office in 2010, but it seems that few agree and on Tuesday his consistent veto of employee contracts came to a head.
Inside a boardroom packed with County employees and very few members of the public, as Johnston attempted to filibuster his way through several portions of the afternoon agenda dealing with at-will employment contract amendments and renewals, the mood became tense.
“The benefits alone on some of these contracts are [worth] over $50,000,” Johnston railed. “Elsewhere, $50,000 would be a living wage. The Board has divorced itself from the rest of the world and the economy.”
The issue was raised by Johnston when he took office. He pointed out that the at-will employee contracts did not allow for any decreases in pay, only increases. Johnston began to push for new wording in the contracts that would allow for decreases if necessary. He has also been pushing for a slow phase out of car allowances and changes to employee merit pay.
“We started trying to create a negotiating tool,” explained Supervisor Tim Hansen on Wednesday of the suggested decrease in salary language. “Right now our only option in hard times would be to lay people off.”
The remaining Board members and County staff, however, do not seem to agree.
“We’ve held tight long enough and it’s going to be okay. I’m seeing a light at the end of the tunnel” said Supervisor Vikki Bauer in regard to the County’s financial health. “I want to put a lid on this. We need to honor contracts and let employees focus on their work.”
She pointed out that the County had just added $500,000 to its reserve, but Johnston noted that the money was a one-time windfall from the settlement of the property tax dispute with Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. The County’s reserve is approximately $1.7 million now, down from $6.5 million a few years ago, according to Johnston.
“We accomplish a lot with at-will employees,” added Supervisor Hap Hazard. “What they save us in problems is phenomenal. It is important that employees feel secure.”
“I don’t want to lose the talent we have in the County,” said Supervisor Byng Hunt. “We can’t ignore our employees. They’ve had frozen salaries for the past two years.”
The County’s Chief Administrative Officer, Jim Arkens agreed, “I am firmly behind our at-will employees.” He added that these employees had “stepped up and saved the County at least $1 million.”
When asked to break down that $1 million savings, Arkens explained he was referring to the cost savings that have come from several department heads consolidating positions. For example, Arkens not only serves as the CAO, but he is also the County’s HR Director and Public Works Director, which saves the County approximately $450,000 in salaries and benefits that it would have to spend if it filled these positions individually. The contract amendments on the table at Tuesday’s Board meeting for Salcido, Tiede and Sherman each save the County about $200,000. The combination of those four contracts make up the $1 million saving Arkens was referencing.
The decrease language that Johnston has been requesting has been put into the contracts of two new management employees, but Arkens doesn’t think it is a feasible option.
“We need to negotiate at the time of a crisis, but we’re not in crisis mode,” he said in a follow-up phone call on Wednesday. “It’s not the time to slash and burn.”
Arkens added that the County at-will employees have taken the same cuts as the unions. Plus, he said, the union contracts don’t have the decrease in pay language either.
“I like flexibility too, but let’s treat everyone the same,” Arkens said.
While Johnston agreed that contracts could be revisited during tough financial times, his point was part of a bigger picture.
“This isn’t about employee performance,” Johnston said. “I am not proposing draconian decreases to anyone’s salary, I just want to remain in a reserved position until we are sure of our welfare. We serve the public and the public does not like outrageous salaries for public employees.”
Examples of Johnston’s opinion of outrageous salary were the contracts before the Board on Tuesday. Two contracts were being amended to give the employees connected to them a raise in pay because they had taken on additional duties. A third contract amendment for the Director of Social and Mental Health Services was tabled until further closed session discussions were completed.
Rita Sherman went from Director of Risk Management to Director of Facilities and Risk Management. Lynda Salcido went from Director of Public Health to Director of Public Health and Interim EMS Chief.
The Director of Facilities and Risk Management costs the County approximately $205,990 per year of which $126,000 is salary, $27,594 is the employer’s portion of PERS, and $52,396 is the cost of benefits. According to the agenda, it is a $5,979 annual cost increase over her existing contract.
The Director of Public Health and Interim EMS Chief costs the County approximately $206,428 of which $126,000 is salary, $27,594 is the employer’s portion of PERS, and $52,834 is the cost of benefits. This contract is an annual increase of $15,592 over the existing contract. This amendment is temporary until the EMS position is filled.
Arkens made it clear that the two women had not requested the raises, but that by giving these two women increases for the extra work they are now doing, and not filling the management positions they are covering, the County is saving a large sum of money — approximately $381,068.
Aggregation of contracts
Five other employee contracts were on Tuesday’s Board agenda. These five were simply renewals with no change in pay, but they raised another set of related issues among the Board.
County employee contracts are renewed at different times throughout the year. On Tuesday’s agenda, prior to the approval of these five contracts, was a discussion regarding the aggregation of employment renewals, with the idea being to approve all at-will employee contracts at one time in the year, rather than stringing them out.
“The idea is to do all the contracts at one time so that we don’t have to be bashed throughout the year,” Arkens, an at-will employee himself, said on Wednesday.
“It’s damaging to individuals to have to sit and listen to this,” Hazard said on Tuesday.
Supervisors Johnston and Hansen saw the issue a bit differently.
“Approving contracts that are not due until November is unconscionable,” Johnston said on Tuesday.
“You’re trying to put a lid on Larry’s opinion,” Hansen added. “While listening to him might get annoying, I agree [with him].”
Johnston agreed on Wednesday that an aggregation of contracts was indeed a ploy to keep him quiet. “It only allows me to talk once a year, like yesterday [Tuesday] rather than throughout the year.”
Even with the two supervisor’s objections, the rest of the Board decided to move forward with the renewal of the five contracts on the agenda. The contract expiration dates ranged from April to November 2012.
While the majority of the department heads present at the meeting did not speak up, Finance Director Brian Muir’s patience with Johnston seemed to wear thin as the Board reviewed his contract, which was not set to expire until November. Johnston made a point to state that, according to the salary survey the Board had reviewed that tallied 23 counties, Muir was being paid $2,000 more per month than an average Auditor/Controller.
Muir pointed out that the survey covered the salaries of Auditor/Controllers, but that he had many other additional responsibilities and titles, including Treasurer/Tax Collector. “I’m not complaining about my pay, but I am not afraid to say that I earn it,” Muir said testily.
The County’s Assistant District Attorney Tim Kendall also spoke via teleconference from Bridgeport.
“At-will employees don’t have civil servant protection and in turn are able to negotiate their contracts,” Kendall said. “Other labor units didn’t give up that protection. It costs more to get rid of them then any perks you give at-will employees.”
Former County CAO and current Mammoth Lakes Town Manager Dave Wilbrecht spoke out as a citizen.
“You are not in dire straits,” Wilbrecht said. “The employees are doing your arms and legs work and you can’t find this caliber of employee in town. It is tough to incentivize people to come here. Don’t beat up your best team, it will come back to haunt you.”
Wilbrecht added that before the end of 2010, the County had a “wonderful Board.” But then things changed.
“There is a lot of angst now, which is why I took the offer with the Town,” he said. “Now people are afraid that if someone has a bad cold their contracts won’t be renewed.”
When asked on Wednesday if he thought Wibrecht’s comments were directed at him specifically, Johnston said that was how he took it.
“It was inappropriate for him to say I was the reason he left the County,” Johnston said.
“We need to be a little more respectful of all of our employees,” Arkens concluded on Wednesday. “We don’t need to trash them repeatedly. A lot of our management team could retire tomorrow. They continue doing it [working for the County] because they love it.”
Arkens added that Johnston used to be an at-will employee for the County prior to his election to the Board.
All contracts on Tuesday’s agenda were approved with a 4-1 vote.