WATCHDOG REPORT

Fresno County leaders' voluntary pay cuts end July 1

The Fresno BeeJune 22, 2013 

Fresno County's elected leaders have taken voluntary pay cuts in recent years to show solidarity with the rank and file during hard times. Their good will, however, appears to have run out.

On July 1, when the new budget year begins, salaries of the county's 11 elected officials — from members of the Board of Supervisors to the sheriff and district attorney — will be fully restored, according to personnel records obtained by The Bee. Most officials already have seen an increase.

The district attorney is making her full $166,492 annually. The sheriff is getting her $163,626. And the supervisors will soon earn their full pay of at least $107,000.

Meanwhile, most of the county's work force remains stuck with the pay cuts that were put in place to help improve the county's bottom line. Just this month, the Board of Supervisors voted to continue a nearly two-year salary reduction, averaging 9% pay cuts, for the county's largest employee union.

Elected leaders defend the pay arrangement. They note that top officials have been making concessions longer than most county workers and they say they've taken their share of pain. Labor advocates, though, say that as long as most employees are seeing reductions, so should the bosses.

"This is outrageous that the elected leaders of Fresno County are enjoying their full salary while their employees are suffering as much as a 15% pay cut," said Tom Abshere, director of the local 4,200-person chapter of Service Employees International Union. "This is poor leadership. They are not leading by example."

The salaries of elected officials and their pay increases, unlike the wages of other employees, are tied to specific benchmarks or set in advance — instead of being routinely negotiated. Reductions are purely voluntary.

According to personnel records, most officials began taking voluntary pay cuts and declining raises in 2009 as the county's financial picture dimmed with the weak economy. The concessions have continued intermittently and have amounted to roughly 2% to 7% of income, depending on the employee and the year.

Coroner David Hadden, who has said he can make more money by retiring and collecting a pension than by working, is the only official in office for more than a year who has not given up any pay.

The others have shown varying levels of sacrifice.

Of the six elected department heads, District Attorney Elizabeth Egan and Sheriff Margaret Mims were first to stop making concessions. In June of last year, both accepted the 3% pay raise they had foregone five months earlier. In January, they both got another 3% raise.

Egan did not return phone calls requesting comment.

Mims said she took the money because the county's finances were improving and she believes she's done what she's needed to do: On top of turning down a raise for part of last year, she fulfilled a pledge of giving 2% of her wages to a nonprofit that invests in local law enforcement.

"When the budget turned out to be OK, I let (my concession) expire," she said.

Since last June, Auditor Vicki Crow, Assessor Paul Dictos and Registrar of Voters Brandi Orth also have allowed or plan to allow pay hikes of 6% to take effect, according to personnel records.

The story is similar for the Board of Supervisors. Henry Perea and Phil Larson called an end to their voluntary 7% pay cut last June, records show. Debbie Poochigian stopped a similar reduction in January and Judy Case this month.

Supervisor Andreas Borgeas, who has been serving on the board only since January, takes home the full $107,273 of annual pay that he is entitled to receive.

Board chairman Perea, who makes $120,682 a year in his leadership post, said he's not taking a reduction because he believes the county's finances are strong enough to begin rescinding pay cuts for everyone.

"We're not in the same situation anymore. We should be restoring wages and benefits for employees," he said.

Perea cast this month's only vote against the continuation of salary reductions for SEIU employees, who make up about two-thirds of the county work force.

Pay reductions were imposed on SEIU employees in late 2011 when county managers and union representatives failed to negotiate a labor deal. The cuts prompted a three-day work strike last year.

Employees remain eligible for annual merit pay increases, but few — if any — have recovered from their 2011 hits.

Supervisor Poochigian said she reinstated her full salary this year at the recommendation of colleagues.

"As the vice chair and chair (of the board), I took the pay cuts, and when it came around this year to decide, I asked what the leaders of the board were doing and I made my decision after getting that information," Poochigian said.

Elected officials also point out that they haven't enjoyed as many raises in recent years as their employees.

In the five years before SEIU salaries were cut, most union employees saw a cumulative pay hike of at least 20%, personnel records show. County supervisors, by contrast, saw their salaries climb about 15% during the same period.

County policy ties the pay hikes of supervisors, and their timing, to increases of Superior Court judges.

The elected department heads, whose wages are set in advance of their terms — with scheduled cost-of-living increases — have seen smaller raises in recent years than the supervisors.

Whether elected officials have seen smaller pay hikes recently doesn't justify a 9% cut for workers, say union members.

"They don't understand the hardships that we're going through," said Marie Cortez, an office assistant in the county's child support office, where salaries start just above $20,000 a year. "And I wonder, do they even care?"

 

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6679, kalexander@fresnobee.com or @KurtisInValley on Twitter.

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