Fresno County is grappling with an 18-month-long upper-management brain drain, as 11 of its best and brightest have either retired or left for other jobs.
Next out the door is Howard Himes, the county's director of social services, who is headed to Napa County, where he will head its Health and Human Services Agency. His last day is today.
Himes is a perfect example of Fresno County's employment dilemma. He was paid $126,000 annually to oversee a staff of 2,460 and manage a $580 million budget.
Napa County recruited him from Fresno County, and will pay him $192,000. He will oversee a staff of more than 400 and an $89 million annual budget.
Fresno County couldn't compete with the offer, officials said. In the meantime, they say there's no way to fill the county's social services post at Himes' salary. The job's demands require a higher salary to attract qualified applicants.
The struggle isn't lost on some supervisors, who know that being fiscally prudent is critical, but also know that Fresno County must remain job market competitive.
If it doesn't, officials say, at best it will continue to hire people, only to see them pilfered by rival counties that pay more. At worst, cut-rate hires could be poor leaders, which can translate into poor service to taxpayers.
Now is the time, some supervisors say, to look at ways to both attract and keep quality upper-level employees.
"Fresno County is on an unsustainable path," Supervisor Andreas Borgeas said. "We must reverse this talent drain or Fresno County risks undermining its entire market competitiveness."
Supervisor Judy Case said the problem runs much deeper than top-level management. She said many midlevel managers have left after years of stagnant pay. Many of those positions weren't filled, leading to a "flattening of the organization," she said.
"At some point, you have to have leadership," Case said.
Borgeas said that stemming the brain drain will be a priority for him as board chair, a position he will hold in 2014.
He'll almost immediately be tested: County Counsel Kevin Briggs' last day is Jan. 31. His departure will leave the county with six key positions unfilled.
Others are Himes' social services position; public defender; director of internal services/chief information officer; behavior health medical director; and public health director.
The public health director position is being rehired as two jobs: public health director and county health officer.
Briggs' job was one that was studied by county officials in a recent salary survey, and the findings weren't encouraging.
His $154,454 annual salary is lowest in the entire San Joaquin Valley — even lower than smaller adjacent counties such as Tulare, Kings, Madera and Merced. Comparably sized Kern County pays nearly $204,000 annually, and San Joaquin County pays more than $240,000.
Ed Moreno, Fresno County's public health director, abruptly resigned in May, only to be hired in June as Monterey County's health officer. His Fresno pay was around $185,000. In Monterey, he's earning close to $220,000.
Dr. Robert Oldham, Fresno County's behavior health medical director and interim county public health officer, left Fresno to become Placer County's public health officer. Fresno paid him just under $200,000. Placer County will pay him $246,000.
Another challenge is that many of Fresno County's top lieutenants are wearing multiple hats, adding to the job pressure. Alan Weaver, for instance, is the county's public works and planning director. In many counties, two people have that job.
Not only does it mean more work for a Fresno County employee like Weaver, but it also highlights the challenge of making apples-to-apples salary comparisons when the county is trying to set a competitive salary on certain jobs.
Taken together, it's tough for county officials who consider Fresno — the state's 10th-largest county — a destination for seasoned civil servants. Instead, it looks like it is becoming a pit stop on the road to other counties. The employees get experience here, only to get recruited elsewhere or seek out other jobs with higher pay.
"We were always the pro league," Personnel Services Director Beth Bandy said. "Now we're the farm team."
County Administrative Officer John Navarrette said Fresno has already taken a number of steps to try to retain employees and also attract new ones to fill open positions.
Among them were lifting the county's promotion freeze at a cost of $5.8 million. That move, he said, allowed lower-level employees to once again earn promotions. The county also increased its contribution to employee health plans, Navarrette said, which cost $2.5 million.
But only so much can be done, Supervisor Debbie Poochigian said.
She said Fresno County will never be able to compete financially with counties like Los Angeles, Santa Clara or San Francisco, but it can — and should — be competitive with its San Joaquin Valley neighbors.
"I wish them the best," she said of those who have left for other jobs. "You never want to hold someone back professionally. It probably balances out in the end. Hopefully people love it here and want to stay here."
But more money may be needed to attract job applicants and to keep rival counties — even nearby ones — from snatching up talented employees. Fresno County's pay study found it was underpaying by tens of thousands of dollars in every department-head post.
Some of that pay gap likely can be traced to pay freezes or reductions that many county employees have endured, according to the SEIU Local 521 union, which represents more than 4,000 rank-and-file county workers.
"The Board of Supervisors is starting to see the problems when we don't invest in our workforce and community," the union said in an emailed statement attributed to Jennifer Jensen, a job specialist for the Department of Social Services.
"It takes a team to deliver quality services, and the county needs to start with our front-line workers who have barely survived the last few years with 9% pay cuts. It's time to put our community first by investing in the working families and local businesses of Fresno County," the statement said.
In an effort to deal with the nation's recent economic downturn, supervisors had imposed pay reductions on rank-and-file employees of between 2% and 9%. This year, board members declined to restore those cuts.
But county officials say it isn't the lower-level jobs that are hard to fill. In fact, they are deluged with applicants for entry- and lower-level positions. At the same time, they are struggling to fill the top positions — and compensation is likely the key reason.
"Our top management, from senior managers to department heads, are underpaid compared to the surrounding counties, for the most part," Bandy said.
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