By Debra Moore
For the third consecutive week, Plumas County employees used the public comment portion of the Board of Supervisors meeting Oct. 18 to address the steep increase in health benefit costs and the lack of a pay increase, particularly juxtaposed against the increases granted to department heads and elected officials earlier this year.
Even the Sheriff’s Office chaplain, George Tarleton, who typically limits his remarks to an impromptu prayer before the start of each meeting addressed the difficult and dangerous job of law enforcement personnel, made even more so by a lack of staff.
“Backup is far away,” he said. Tarleton served in law enforcement from 1978 to 1998 in the Bay Area and drew upon his experience there in making his remarks. “When I was a street cop in the Bay Area, all I had to do was to survive another 60 seconds,” he said, because he knew help was on the way. That’s not the case in Plumas, which he said presents a danger to the officers as well as to the public.
“We need to work on the problem before someone gets seriously hurt,” he said. When he did move onto delivering a prayer, it was to pray for “the safety of our police officers and their families,” among other requests.
Cassie Lavley, who has worked as a dispatcher in Plumas for the past 13 years, said that staffing has never been as critical as it is now. She said, “Year in and year out the county has offered nothing more than a 2-3 percent COLA that takes months of negotiating for, and the county has been reluctant to cover any increase in medical expenses.”
She knows the Sheriff’s Office isn’t alone and noted that “Social Services has been here for the past couple weeks – pleading for the county to simply cover the cost of upcoming medical…”
Lavely said that the department recently lost a dispatcher to a Chester business dispatching tow trucks that pays more than a sheriff’s dispatcher. She described the long shifts; working holidays, weekends and overtime, that sheriff’s dispatchers must do to cover the center.
She also noted the stressful nature of the work, citing an instance where there was a physical fight underway in Portola, but the nearest deputy was in Chester. She said, “The suspect in this case had a previous attempted homicide charge involving the same victim as in this assault. Having to take several 911s reporting the incident and getting on the line with the wife and mother of the involved parties who was pleading for help and having to tell her ‘I’m sorry Ma’am I do not have anyone to send to you’ this is not only heartbreaking, but I cannot tell you the amount of stress I feel day in and day out having to tell citizens ‘I’m Sorry I just don’t have anyone to send’ or ‘We are coming but its going to take us an hour to get there.’”
She questioned why the new County Administrative Officer was being hired at twice the pay of the former administrator, and then referenced the Human Resources Director. “The HR director stood here last week and said she was the lowest paid HR director in the state. Well, our county employees fall into that same category so does that mean we all deserve a 43% wage increase like she got?”
She concluded by saying that by next February, the department could be down to three dispatchers, based on the number who are planning to leave. “At that point it is impossible to staff a 24-hour center,” she said. “Plumas County will no longer be able to answer 911 calls.”
A Behavioral Health compliance officer also addressed the low wages and the increased health care costs. She said her office is the first to be called when someone is in mental distress. She said the office is already short-staffed and she fears that soon they won’t be able to respond to calls for help. “For me and my family, citing the budget and failing software systems is not enough,” she told the supervisors. “Please hear us before there is no one left.”
Ava Hagwood, who works for Social Services, addressed the board again. She said that she was speaking for many of her coworkers who were unable to attend due to high caseloads and needing to cover vacant positions. She said the front desk position has been vacant for months and supervisors have been answering the phones. She questioned the wisdom of paying a higher-wage position to answer the phones, rendering them unavailable to perform their own duties. She also cited statistics regarding the county’s general unit employees saying that 19 of the positions pay minimum wage; 38 of the 215 general unit positions pay less than $16 per hour; and 98 pay less than a starting wage at the mill. She added that the mill’s health benefits don’t cost nearly as much as the county’s. (These numbers don’t reflect the Sheriff’s Office which is a separate unit.) She asked the supervisors to make a timely offer to the county’s employees.
During a discussion later that day, Sheriff Todd Johns said it’s of paramount importance that the supervisors act quickly to address the wage and benefits issue. “I am losing employees every week,” he said, reiterating the need for them to present an offer to the employees as soon as possible.
The supervisors are listening. Board Chairman Kevin Goss said that wages and benefits are the top priority. “Folks need to understand that we are working diligently to correct this situation. We want to give all of the employees a bump,” he said. Goss went on to mention the economic downtown and the effects of the pandemic and the Dixie Fire, but said those events also mean that there could be more federal funding available that would be pursued.
Goss also has been investigating options to lower healthcare costs.