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County to furlough employees

Dan McDonald
Staff Writer

With union negotiations at an impasse, financially struggling Plumas County has decided to furlough its employees.

At its meeting Tuesday, Oct. 18, the county’s Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to adopt furloughs for all county employees, with the exception of those in the sheriff’s office.

The board directed county workers to each take off four days without pay by Feb. 29, 2012. The furloughs are limited to a maximum of one day per two-week pay period.

The supervisors decided furloughs were necessary for at least two reasons.

First, the employee unions have not voted to accept the county’s 4 percent cut to retirement contributions, passed as part of the fiscal 2011-12 budget cuts.

And county revenue continues to decline. County Budget Officer Jack Ingstad told the board “our revenues continue to show problems. Sales tax is down. We don’t expect property tax to improve. And we are not getting some of the cost savings we had hoped.”

The county planned to save about $200,000 by reducing its contribution to the retirement fund.

However, the affected unions have complained about the sheriff’s office being exempt. That is reportedly a major issue in the stalled negotiations.

“Most of the members I have talked to feel it is unfair to have the OE3 (Operating Engineers Local 3) members contribute 4 percent toward PERS (retirement fund) and not require the same from others, such as the sheriff’s unit and classified department heads,” said Barbara Palmerton, who is a member of the union negotiating team. “The sheriffs have the best, most expensive retirement of any of us. But they aren’t being asked to contribute anything at all.”

In exchange for retirement cuts, the board accepted a $250,000 general fund contribution from the sheriff’s office for the 2011-12 budget.

The supervisors said the sheriff’s office likely would be exempt from cuts for this year only.

The supervisors did agree to furlough flexibility so that vital county services would not be drastically affected.

One of the services the board considered vital is feeding needy senior citizens.

Martha Heeszel, manager of Plumas Senior Nutrition, stressed the importance of that service.

She said her staff is “bare bones” right now. And furloughs could mean some seniors might not get a nutritional meal for three straight days.

The supervisors unanimously agreed to help maintain that service.

“We have senior citizens where this is probably their only hot meal that a lot of them have each day,” Supervisor Terry Swofford said. “There are home-bound people who depend on these meals. And then there’s also people who ride the bus who depend on these meals.”

All of the supervisors weighed in to show their support for the program.

“If anyone in here wants to disagree that that’s not a priority of government, let’s put on the boxing gloves,” Supervisor Jon Kennedy said. “Because I’ll go there with that one.”

Public Health Director Mimi Hall assured the supervisors her department would “do our best to figure it out.”

However, some county departments could be closed for a day during some weeks. Offices that remain open might be forced to offer reduced services.

The board said it was up to individual department heads to decide the furlough structure for their respective offices.

The county planned to start saving money from the retirement contribution cuts Oct. 1. That hasn’t happened.

“So each month that goes by that we don’t do something and start realizing an equal amount of saving somewhere, we go further in the hole,” Supervisor Sherrie Thrall said.

Thrall added that all county employees, supervisors included, must work together to serve the community despite the budget problems.

“I think we all need to remember that it’s the public that pays every one of our salaries. And they have a right to expect service from us at a level that we have been providing,” Thrall said. “So, it behooves us to figure out how to do that.”

Despite the move to institute furloughs, the supervisors said the county might be forced to resume layoffs.

More than 100 county jobs have been eliminated since the recession began.

Supervisor Lori Simpson said layoffs might be inevitable.

“Layoffs are probably going to happen regardless. We are going deeper and deeper into the hole every day,” Simpson said. “It’s just an unfortunate situation. We are tearing our hair out.”

Ingstad said the layoffs the county has made to date have hurt the local economy.

“There’s about $5.5 million in salary that doesn’t go into the community,” Ingstad said. “That’s a huge impact already.”


Vacancies to be filled

The supervisors approved a recommendation for the critical staffing committee to fill a number of vacant county jobs.

The county plans to hire workers for the following positions:

—Three probation officers and one probation assistant.

—One public works maintenance worker and one Sierra House attendant.

—One social worker aide.

—One social worker or senior social worker.

—One employment and trainer worker supervisor.

—One licensed vocational nurse or registered nurse or public health nurse.


Land exchange letter

The board approved sending a comment letter to the U.S. Forest Service regarding a proposed land exchange.

The exchange will allow 20 acres of Forest Service land at the Mammoth Mountain ski area in Mono County to be transferred to private ownership.

One Plumas County property that may be included in the exchange is an 86-acre parcel encompassing most of Taylor Lake, which is currently owned by The Nature Conservancy.

The letter outlines many concerns by the county, including that the board is “troubled that there was no direct notice to Plumas County.”

The county learned the details of the proposed transaction from another county.

“We have been working diligently with our local National Forests to improve communication,” the letter states. “And this may simply be a situation where a distant National Forest is taking the lead on a project and is not aware of local protocols.”


Probation department

The board approved the signing of a contract with Lassen County for the use of its juvenile detention facility.

Plumas County does not have a juvenile hall facility and must contract with surrounding counties to use their facilities when juveniles need to be detained.

Plumas has contracted with Lassen County for a number of years.

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