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The audience spills into the hall outside of the Plumas County Board of Supervisors chambers March 21 as Sheriff Greg Hagwood addresses the board regarding his employees’ contract negotiations. The supervisors held a public hearing to address the topic. Photo by Debra Moore
Plumas County supervisors voted to implement a new contract with sheriff’s department employees, but they hope to change the agreement before it takes effect Aug. 5.
Three years of negotiations between the county and its public safety employees ended May 21 following a two-hour public hearing that filled the boardroom and spilled into the hall.
At issue: how much the employees would contribute to their own retirement. The new contract calls for the county’s contribution to be reduced from 7 percent to 1 percent for miscellaneous members (dispatchers, office personnel and correctional officers) and from 9 percent to 1 percent for the safety members (deputies), which would require both groups to pay a greater share of their retirement.
The affected employees claim that the change amounts to a pay cut.
Taking it public
Typically contract negotiations are held in closed session, but when information began appearing on Facebook and Twitter, Supervisor Jon Kennedy called for a public hearing to discuss the contract.
County Counsel Craig Settlemire opened the May 21 session with a brief history of what has transpired since the last agreement with the sheriff’s employees expired April 30, 2009.
The two sides met more than 19 times, but couldn’t reach an agreement. They declared an impasse Nov. 8, 2012, and asked for a mediator from the California State Mediation and Conciliation Service.
Both sides met with a state mediator in two all-day sessions but still failed to reach an agreement.
Neither side opted to ask for fact-finding (the next step in the process) so the supervisors were poised to impose a contract on the employees during their May 7 meeting, but that action was delayed in favor of holding a public hearing.
“This is consistent with our last, best and final offer,” Settlemire said of the agreement under consideration last Tuesday.
After Settlemire’s explanation, Board Chairman Terry Swofford called for public comment, but cautioned those present to direct all comments to the board and to adhere to the three-minute time allotment.
Sheriff speaks first
Sheriff Greg Hagwood said that his department took a big hit last year — $764,000. “Last year you handed us a big bill and we paid it,” he said.
He said that “only through a measure of creativity and ingenuity by the men and women at the sheriff’s department” was the department able to function.
“We found every conceivable way to pay the bill and continue to operate,” he said.
He pointed out that his department didn’t come back to the supervisors during the fiscal year to ask for more money as other departments had. “That is a success,” he said.
“Is there a fiscal crisis that has emerged that necessitates what are significant reductions to our pay?” he asked the board.
Noting that sales tax is up, the real estate market is improving and property taxes have leveled off, he asked again, “Is there some emergent fiscal crisis?”
After hearing no response, he said, “That is not a rhetorical question.”
Supervisor Lori Simpson told Hagwood that she was noting his questions, but the board could not respond until the conclusion of public comment.
Hagwood said he knew that his department wasn’t the only one to be cut.
“I will acknowledge very publicly that other county family members have taken significant cuts,” he said.
He said it should be the top priority of the board to restore as much as possible. (Most county employees are being furloughed one day per week.)
He concluded his remarks by saying that any further cuts to the sheriff’s department would be premature.
About a dozen individuals addressed the supervisors from emergency first responders who discussed how much they rely on backup from deputies, to business owners concerned about adequate protection, to the employees themselves.
“I can’t begin to tell you how they make our jobs safer,” said Steve Tolen, who spent 40 years as a first responder.
He discussed the deputies’ expertise and said their “calming demeanor can make a difference.”
Portola resident Lynn Desjardin said, “I have total sympathy for every county employee, but public safety has to come first.”
Jail commander Chad Hermann said that he has worked for the department for nearly 22 years. Hermann said he understands that other county employees have been furloughed, and the sheriff’s employees had offered to take furloughs as well, but that idea was rebuffed.
He said that the sheriff’s employees would be willing to pay their retirement in increments, but not in one large cut as was being proposed.
A couple of employees mentioned their love of the area and their work, but said that the low pay made it difficult for some of their co-workers to continue working in the county when they could earn much more elsewhere.
“You want to talk about fiscal crisis? It’s called CalPERS,” Supervisor Lori Simpson said of the California Public Employees Retirement System.
She said the crisis is local, statewide and national in scope.
She said it was the trend in California for employees to pay a greater share of their retirement contributions, and listed a number of northern California counties where they pay a greater share of the costs.
Her voice rising at times, she said, “I get wound up, but I’m trying to calm down.”
Simpson said she could relate to the employees’ plight as she was once a “rank and file employee” and her dad had been a sheriff’s deputy. “I used to hear my dad gripe about the Board of Supervisors,” she said.
She said that she wants to add deputies and that would be discussed during the budget hearings, but she thinks it’s important that employees pay their share of their retirement.
“Taxpayers aren’t sympathetic,” she said.
Supervisor Sherrie Thrall began her remarks by saying, “I’m probably an extreme fiscal conservative.”
During his presentation, Sheriff Hagwood had asked what the county would do with the money it saved by not paying for the employees’ share of their retirement.
Thrall said she would like to first build the county’s reserves and then restore other county employees to full-time status.
“I want to ensure that this county doesn’t have to file bankruptcy,” she said.
Thrall said she would also like to hire more deputies.
Supervisor Kevin Goss said his priority is to get more deputies on the street. As a Greenville pharmacy owner, it concerns him that a deputy must split time between Greenville and Chester.
He said that after a lifetime of working in the private sector, he was happy to receive medical insurance and a retirement plan.
“I’ve been funding my own retirement 100 percent,” he said.
Goss said that “PERS is definitely an issue coming forth” and that he wanted the county “to remain whole” and not have to face bankruptcy.
When it was Kennedy’s turn to speak, he became a little emotional. “It’s been a rough couple of weeks; there’s not much fight left in me,” he said. (Kennedy recently lost a close friend.)
Kennedy said that he read a lot of the correspondence that had been going around and thought that it involved issues that had been discussed for several years.
“It’s kind of ambiguous; there’s no specific requests,” he said.
“I firmly believe that every single public employee should pay 100 percent of the employee portion of their retirement eventually,” he said.
But that said, he doesn’t think the sheriff’s employees should be asked to pay it all at once. “I think it should be phased in,” he said.
He said he understood that it would be difficult for employees to absorb an immediate cut. “In a lot of cases, it’s not manageable,” he said.
He asked County Counsel Craig Settlemire if there were a way to put aside the resolution that had been prepared and resume negotiations.
Settlemire said that such action would restart the clock and the board would have to work its way through all of the steps from negotiation to mediation to impasse if a timely resolution couldn’t be reached.
Ultimately the board decided to adopt the resolution, but delayed the effective date until Aug. 5, providing a window for a different agreement to be achieved.
“I’m hoping something will happen to make it all better,” Kennedy said.
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