Things Fall Apart

by Mark Scaramella, April 1, 2011

Negotiations between the County and its largest union, Service Employees International Local 1021, are stalled. The County wants the union to take an across the board 15% pay cut. Period. The Union rightly argues that they've already been cut to the bone via givebacks, including mandatory time off in prior years.

The County argues the money “saved” by mandatory time off never existed in the first place, and was necessary to beat back last year's deficit.

Options such as a 32-hour workweek or whacking higher paid staff more than line staff are not on the table although at last week’s fumbling “priority-setting” workshop the Board ranked a 36-hour workweek as "medium priority" without discussion how such a proposal would be implemented.

Also not under consideration is limiting cuts to those SEIU staffers who are paid out of the general fund of whom there are so few remaining that savings would be small.

As the local economy — dope, public employment, tourism — unravels faster than the national one of war and financial swindles, the number of local families seeking help increases. That demand increase in Mendocino County coincides with staff cuts, meaning applications for help get backed up and the suffering caused by delays and backlogs is incalculable but real.

Even though most of the Social Service positions are funded by separate state and federal dollars, staff cuts are local, with more cuts looming in those state and national subsidies. Cutting social service positions, or reducing salaries to the point that many workers quit or prematurely retire, doesn't make a lot of sense because these workers bring net funding into the County which is spent locally. The cuts, of course, are overwhelmingly line staff. These workers are less and less inclined to listen to County demands for 15% pay cuts on top of the mandatory time off they’ve already taken. Many of them are downright pissed off. But CEO Carmel Angelo and her top staff don't seem to care much.

Union reps say the County’s handsomely paid outside negotiators are naturally taking contract proposals to the people who hired them — County CEO Angelo and the Supervisors, but they come back as flabby counter-proposals or outright refusals.

Meanwhile the County’s overall budget picture gets bleaker and bleaker as state and federal cuts loom, reserves are depleted and pension costs climb, the increases in pension costs threatening to reduce the County to the odd position of existing primarily to pay retired County workers. (Many counties under similar duress are talking about declaring bankruptcy, meaning pensioners would probably wind up with golden year nest eggs ranging from zero to a small percentage of what they were promised when they went to work for public bureaucracies.)

A budgetary train wreck is clearly imminent as the Board is mired in pointless discussions and clumsy ways to save relatively small amounts of money.

Case in point, this exchange between Board Chair Kendall Smith and Supervisor John McCowen on March 15 as the Board discussed the County’s miniscule commitment to the County Museum:

Board Chair Kendall Smith: Well, I believe—

Supervisor John McCowen: Madam Chair.

Smith: Yes.

McCowen: [Points at his yellow marker, the signal Board members use to ask to be recognized for a comment.] I’ve been waiting to be recognized—

Smith: When—?

McCowen: All of my colleagues have spoken.

Smith: Well, I have not spoken yet. Um, Supervisor Brown has. Uh—

McCowen: Where’s your marker?

Smith: Uh, you… (Laughs) Supervisor, you’re the one that began this discussion, so you’ve spoken on this already, is that correct?

McCowen: Yes, I have, but I have also…

Smith: Ok! Ok!

McCowen: But I have also raised my marker since then and you’ve called on other people, who…

Smith: They’ve each only spoken once, Supervisor.

Supervisor John Pinches: It’s called the prerogative of the Chair.

Smith: It’s that each has spoken once! No one is avoiding you!

McCowen: Go on as you wish, Madam Chair.

Smith: It’s not…! Each person has spoken once. That’s once, once, once, once [pointing at the other supervisors].

McCowen: Madam Chair! Would you please proceed?

Smith: OK. So Supervisor Brown, what would you, would you… (Back to McCowen) You put your marker down, I watched you. So Supervisor Brown, what would you…? (Back to McCowen): You had just said… You put your marker down (gestures as if to put something down). I watched you. I turned over there and you put it back up. You…

McCowen: Obviously, we’re having a discussion that’s not on the agenda at this point. It would be better to have a discussion that is agendized.

Smith: I agree. But all…

McCowen: It’s just that everyone is making comments. I have comments to make. But you do too, so please proceed.

Smith: No. My point is that each Supervisor was going to get to speak once.

McCowen: We’re beyond that, Madam Chair.

Smith: No, we’ve each all spoken once. Except the Chair! (Gestures to herself.)

McCowen: Please speak!

Smith: So each has spoken once and then we’re going to put it back on the agenda.

[McCowen is silent.]

Smith: Mmm-k. Now. My sense about it is that, uhhh, the discussion that was left, the open part of the discussion, was more along the lines of the public-private partnership, um, concept and the methodology in which that was being brought forward, what would be the appropriate roles to be played and if there was considerably more work and dialog that needed to happen regarding everybody’s roles and responsibilities in that and that that was the item that was going to come back to the board. That’s my recollection.

McCowen: Ok.

Smith: That was a strong piece of what, of what needed to happen and was not resolved. And there were other questions that Supervisor Brown had regarding the appointments, uhhh, to, uhhh, the library advisory board, her concerns about that…

Brown: Museum.

Smith: Museum! I do this all the time. Not just today. And, um, and I have had a discussion with staff in their efforts to try and iron out lots of complexities about the appointment process, not just relevant to the museum board but we made considerable headway and I can have the clerk maybe walk us through what, what progress has been made on that, you’re appointment and my appointment are the two that are the most outstanding with the most, uh, time delay that needs to get worked out, but in that discussion we came upon some other issues that need to be resolved and I think we’re ready to have that discussion so maybe that should be bar— brought back as part of the, uh, the discussion of the, the museum, we could touch on all these points. So does that work?

McCowen: Madam chair.

Smith: Yes! Supervisor.

McCowen: Thank you. Just for the record, this is at least the second time you’ve spoken to the issue because you have already said what you have just now said again. Now, obviously, I’m swimming upstream on this. But what was said at that hearing, and again, for the record, it wasn’t agendized as a report, it was agendized with every item on the agenda being an action item. However, we did not take action. Uh, what we did say quite clearly was that we did not favor closing the museum. But I don’t see how, in the current budget environment, where we are currently in a deficit, we have been perpetually in a deficit, we have actually been in deficit since 2005, where we know we are facing millions of additional, uh, expenses in the next fiscal year, and millions more in the fiscal year after that, I don’t see how we can responsibly rule out the possibility that there may be a more efficient way to administer the museum. Uh, when you have a staffing ratio of one department head to one employee maybe there’s another model that we could look at that would provide for efficient administration of the museum and free-up additional funds that could actually be used to support the museum and still realize the cost savings. So I just object to the idea that we’re going to go down the line and we’re going to rule everything out, uh, for potential savings when there may be more efficient ways to do our business.

Smith: Ok, fair enough. To the CEO, so maybe she could wrap up this discussion, how important we’re going to bring this to light. (Mumbles more to McCowen.)

CEO Carmel Angelo agreed that “there may be efficiencies as to how the museum is operated,” and that options would be explored in the near future, blah blah blah.

One Response to Things Fall Apart

  1. Trelanie Hill Reply

    April 1, 2011 at 8:17 am

    If you want to understand better why so many states—from New York to Wisconsin to California—are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, consider this depressing statistic: Today in America there are nearly twice as many people working for the government (22.5 million) than in all of manufacturing (11.5 million). This is an almost exact reversal of the situation in 1960, when there were 15 million workers in manufacturing and 8.7 million collecting a paycheck from the government.

    It gets worse. More Americans work for the government than work in construction, farming, fishing, forestry, manufacturing, mining and utilities combined. We have moved decisively from a nation of makers to a nation of takers. Nearly half of the $2.2 trillion cost of state and local governments is the $1 trillion-a-year tab for pay and benefits of state and local employees. Is it any wonder that so many states and cities cannot pay their bills?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *