Veterans Service Office no longer its own department

Joshua Sebold
Staff Writer

The Plumas County Board of Supervisors gave its required 90-day notice Tuesday, Sep. 7, that it would cancel Veterans Service Officer Sheryl Austin's contract with the stated intention of rehiring her in a similar job that would no longer categorize her as a department head.

Explaining his recommendation for the board to take that action, County Administrative Officer Jack Ingstad said, "At budget time the board instructed the CAO to look at cost-saving ideas including reorganization, and the board also instructed a subcommittee to conduct performance reviews of department heads, and when we sat down with Sheryl we realized that she had no employees."

He said this made it "very difficult to have the performance review match her duties as veteran service officer."

Ingstad indicated Austin recommended the board move her position to another department, and the committee agreed that was the best idea.

Ingstad said it would free up office space and allow the county to rent out the previous veteran services office.

No final decision has been made about where to move the office permanently, but the health department would take on the position for now and provide support answering calls and providing backup when Austin couldn't be there.

Larry Trotter, a veteran in the audience, told the supervisors he wanted them to "carefully consider this because the veterans are the ones that gave us the freedoms that we have."

"We don't want to see the board send a message to the veterans that you're going to balance the budget on their backs. We've got people coming back from the sandbox, we've got veterans that are here that need these services."

He told the board Austin was good at her job and should be retained.

Ingstad said his intent was to move the current VSO to another department, not eliminate her.

"Sheryl, you're shaking your head like you didn't know that either. I told you that in your office, so I'm a little surprised," he said.

Austin read the backup material for the agenda item and talked to Health Department Director Mimi Hall and said, "We don't have any idea what the plan is, when if you decide to terminate my contract today when is the effective date? Is it 90 days from now or is it today?"

Ingstad told her the contract would be terminated in 90 days and he and the human resources department would work out the details during that time.

Chairwoman Sherrie Thrall, who is on the budget and department head evaluation committees, thought Austin should be moved to the health department because of confidentiality concerns and meeting space availability.

Thrall said when the committee did Austin's performance review, "almost every item on that evaluation didn't really apply to her job any longer because it is an executive level evaluation form, so that brought the discussion of the termination of her contract. Her contract is a department head contract."

Quincy Supervisor Lori Simpson, the other board member who sits on both committees, added that the change would allow veteran services to be open 40 hours a week, which wasn't the case in the previous arrangement.

Austin said that point shouldn't be taken out of context.

"When the board started laying off staff from the Veterans Services Office in 2008, the board made an agreement to allow the hours to shorten because of the shortage of staff.

"Having one person staffing the office or three people staffing the office makes a tremendous difference in the amount of work we can cover in a 40-hour week.

"There has to be some downtime when the public does not have access to the department," so that she can catch up on paperwork and conduct research.

"Well, Sheryl, with all due respect, I think almost every employee we have could say that same thing," Thrall responded.

"I know everybody is taking on extra duties as we've laid people off in all our departments. Everybody is working at their max."

"I'm sure everybody would like to be able to lock their door for an hour or a day and be able to catch up on their work and make phone calls and do research.

"I understand what you're saying, and I think again that this move will actually go toward allowing you more of that time because there will be backup for you."

Simpson voiced her agreement with that sentiment.

When an audience member asked why the board wasn't adding more employees under Austin instead of moving her, Ingstad responded, "The department head during budget time told us she wasn't busy and didn't need the staff she had."

Simpson said she originally became concerned there would be a lot of soldiers returning to the county from Iraq and the department would need to be expanded, but Austin told her that wasn't the case.

Austin agreed that was true and that "very, very few" soldiers would be headed to Plumas in the near future.

Thrall ended the discussion by reiterating her recent thoughts on the direction the county needed to follow in making further cuts.

"We have cut our worker bees in all our departments to the point where it's becoming very difficult for the departments to perform their core services."

"We have not made any cuts in our upper level management positions and one of the things we're looking at as cost savings is how we can combine departments."

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