Fresno County supervisors OK pay raises for top brass

The Fresno BeeJanuary 14, 2014 

Fresno County Administrative Officer John Navarrette stands to get a $35,000 annual raise after the Board of Supervisors approved pay hikes at its Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014 meeting.

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Fresno County department heads and senior managers were awarded hefty raises Tuesday over the objections of county employees who said they are still reeling from wage cuts.

Raises for 14 department heads -- averaging about 9% -- go into effect Monday. They include a nearly $35,000 annual increase -- from $178,525 to $213,356 -- for John Navarrette, county administrative officer.

County supervisors supporting the raises -- Debbie Poochigian, Judy Case McNairy and Phil Larson -- said they feared that the county's comparative low pay has created a dearth of applicants for open positionsin the top jobs.

They also are concerned about the loss of capable people to replace departing managers.

But Supervisor Henry R. Perea, who opposed the plan, said approving raises for managers without doing the same for rank-and-file workers dilutes the board's "moral ability to lead."

"It's not that they don't deserve it, it's the timing of this ... We should wait for this until we finish negotiations and give everyone their money."

Board Chairman Andreas Borgeas, who also opposed the plan, said he favored phasing in the raises over a couple years rather than all at once. He suggested putting the new salaries into effect on July 1, the start of the next budget year.

Supervisors favoring the raises said that county managers' increases have been paltry when compared to hikes given to other county employees since 2005. They compared managers' salaries to neighboring counties as a basis for the hikes.

Poochigian said the raises did not place Fresno County managers near the top, but inched them from the bottom to the middle of a salary list of comparable counties.

"We are having a retention issue, we are having a recruitment issue and our senior management and appointed department heads are at the very bottom of any increases since 2005," she said. "This is an effort to be fair."

Coroner David Hadden said he was concerned about "retirement spiking," saying that the $35,000 raise for Navarrette will total $700,000 over 20 years after he retires.

But the majority of supervisors cited a chart that showed top management employees got average raises of 5.5% since 2005; raises for other employee groups ranged from 9% to 19% during the same period.

Retaining top managers is a major concern, said Beth Bandy, county personnel services director, and the county has not had a large response to recruitment efforts.

And those hiring efforts were necessary, she said, because "we have had eight (top management) vacancies in less than two years."

There are four open jobs now, and a fifth will open next month when the county counsel position becomes vacant.

Fresno County has fewer departments than many smaller counties, which is an indication how hard top county managers work and how efficiently the county is run, Bandy said.

It's no secret that Fresno County pays lower salaries to employees who are qualified for similar jobs in other counties, she said.

"I get calls about our department heads, from headhunter agencies and other counties," Bandy said. "They say 'We pay more than you do and we are going after your people.' "

Knowing managers were getting lower raises didn't make employees feel any better, especially among thousands of employees who in 2011 took a 9% pay cut.

County employee Alysia Bonner, who also serves as Region 4 vice president for the 4,900 workers in the Service Employees International Union, said this "hasty agreement for a few" will affect ongoing negotiations with county employees to restore some of their pay cuts.

"They are losing the respect of their most valuable resource, their workers, who not only work in the community, but serve the community," she said.

County worker Marie Cortez said her fellow employees have been hit hard and struggled with less food in their cupboards and foreclosed homes after pay cuts were imposed by supervisors in 2011.

"How can you consider giving the CAO a raise that is more than my yearly salary?" she said. "Shame on whoever can vote yes on these raises."

In September, investigators in the district attorney's office took a 9.5% pay cut, said investigator Randy Waltz.

It's led to resignations and accelerated retirements of experienced investigators, he said.

"Recruitment efforts have filled less than half the vacancies," he said.

Waltz told supervisors he would favor pay hikes for managers if employees could be reassured that their pay cuts will be restored.

In other action, supervisors postponed a discussion on changing the county's ordinance on First 5 Fresno County.

The agency is independent and funded by California's tobacco tax, but supervisors appoint its commissioners and have some limited say over it. First 5's mission is to bolster health and education programs for families and their children from birth to age 5.

County staff had proposed some modest changes, but then Poochigian produced a document with four pages of additional proposed changes. She then asked that the item be postponed indefinitely so her suggestions can be reviewed.

First 5 has been a lightning rod for months and has come under fire from Poochigian, Case McNairy and -- to a somewhat lesser extent -- Larson.

The biggest point of contention is First 5's $15 million downtown headquarters. Poochigian, Case McNairy and Larson have said the building is too costly and will take money from children the agency is supposed to serve.

Construction began last week. Groundbreaking is scheduled for Friday.

Supervisors also supported a plan that will redirect revenue in a way to keep more money for the county's Department of Public Health services under the Affordable Care Act.

But even with revenue through the new program, the county will get less money than in previous years to pay for health services, including health care for undocumented immigrants, officials said.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6166, mbenjamin@fresnobee.com or @beebenjamin on Twitter.

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