‘$68,000 Is Absurdly Low”

by Mark Scaramella, February 8, 2012

Although the Clerk of the Board said that Supervisors Dan Hamburg and Kendall Smith were “absent by prior arrangement” from last Tuesday’s abbreviated Board meeting, it was pretty clear that they simply didn't want to be present when their three colleagues voted to formally reduce Supervisor pay from $68,000 per year to $61,000 per year.

The pay cut was the sole item on last week’s agenda. For it to take effect next year it has to be formalized before the February 23 filing deadline for Supervisor candidates.

The previous week Supervisor Hamburg had argued against the pay cut on the grounds that supervisors “are somewhat different than all the other positions in the county” because the job “is something that is pretty much on your mind all the time.” Hamburg added that “your worth to the organization is related to your pay scale,” and that it’s “somewhat of a challenge” to live on $68,000.

The inarticulate Smith seemed to be comparing her abilities in the job to the pay of what she called “other electeds” and that her salary of $68,000 plus generous perks was “below market.”

Supervisors Carre Brown, John Pinches and John McCowen were clearly uncomfortable forcing mandatory pay reductions on their employees while not taking a reduction themselves. Without Smith and Hamburg on hand to argue for keeping the pay at $68k, it fell to First 5 of Mendocino Executive Director Anne Molgaard to make the case for the specialness of people like herself.

“I wanted to address the proposed decrease of supervisors salaries. I must say I'm pretty baffled. If I were more skeptical I would say it's election-year pandering. There is *no way that the job you are doing should be paid $61,000 a year. That is ridiculous. I understand that you want to take a 10% cut, and that's great. But if you take 10% cut from something that was already *absurdly low, it doesn't make any sense. What you end up doing is disqualifying anybody who didn't buy property in Mendocino County before the year 2000, anybody who's under 50 from serving — anybody who didn't inherit money. It's just not the way we want Mendocino County to run. If you are paying a CEO and a County Counsel a comparable salary because you want the best and the brightest, I want the best and brightest for you all! I just don't want landed gentry who is semi-interested in politics and they are the only ones who can afford to do it. But that's the system that I think you are creating by lowering the salary. What about people raising kids and trying to send them to college so that they can come back and be of great service? I think there is a difference between public service and being a servant. Servants aren't really paid, or maybe public serfs. Serfs aren't paid. I've certainly done public service. I'd love to show you my scars from the Peace Corps when little tiny things would crawl into my body, and for that I was not paid. That's a Peace Corps experience and that's totally understandable. But that's not the work you all do. You all have to deal with air quality regulations and the complexities of pensions and bonds and retirement systems. And you think you are going to get that for $60,000. And you will. But it will only be one type of person. People who grew up with money or who inherited money or who made it big. And that's going to mean that you only have one type of opinion on the board. You don't have a variety of opinions because you are all going to come from the same place because nobody else can afford to do your job and either pay off their student loans, pay off their law school loans, or send their children to college. It's a public service because you are serving the public. It's not public serfdom.”

The per capita income in Mendocino County in 2000 (the Census didn't ask income questions in 2010, but average incomes in the area remain pretty flat) was $19,443. The average household income was about $36k.

Supervisors Brown, Pinches and McCowen took the opportunity to explain why they favored the permanent 10% pay cut.

Brown: “We have asked everyone working for the county to take a minimum 10% decrease in pay. Ms. Molgaard, what you have come up and commented on we have heard from County employees as well. This request [to cut supervisor pay] was made at the beginning of last year. I brought it forward, Supervisor McCowen supported it at that time. There wasn't a formal item. So I could tell that other supervisors were not supportive. Therefore, bringing this forth this year, I'm very serious about it, I really feel that it's supported by the community. I think it's important to do. That's why we sit here being leaders. In my opinion, I cannot ask County employees to do something I'm not willing to do myself. Yes, I am up for reelection. This is not being done because of that. It's being done because I think it's the right thing to do.

Pinches: “When I was elected five years ago I came forward with a strong argument, I was the swing vote to raise the supervisors salaries some 47%. I made the same argument that Anne Molgaard made but I was not near as eloquent as she was today. But things have changed a lot. The first thing that changed is that there have been 35 million Americans lost their homes. To cut my salary 10% compared to losing your home is a small part to give up I think. I am concerned about the ability, especially from the rural areas, to draw, say, somebody from the far reaches of my district who wants to be a supervisor because I certainly want that to happen. I am concerned about the compensation that allows people to do that. But on the other side we had a lot of — I have a planning commissioner who is a fire chief in Laytonville. Jim Little, he goes to Sacramento quite often on County issues that have to do with the fire department and sometimes I feel pretty bad that he's doing that for nothing and I'm taking a salary for doing it. So we have a lot of people out there doing a lot of community work. I know people who go to Plowshares and work there every week for nothing. Volunteerism in this County — I don't think it's surpassed by anybody in any county. It's truly tremendous. But this is a job, there's a lot to it, I will say that. I'm not educated. I graduated from high school and sometimes it's pretty hard to keep up with all the issues. I don't want to go on too long but this is the only thing on our agenda today so I guess we have a little time to talk about it. As Carre brought up, we have asked everybody in this system to take a 10% cut and they have. Not willingly. And we can make the argument of why they shouldn't take— every County employee can make that same argument of why they shouldn't take it. But what it comes down to is I just feel better when I'm dealing with County employees when you're asking a County employee to do this or do that, you have to create some sort of an equity. It's good for morale and good for the system. God knows we need a dollar savings, that's not even an issue. We're going to be faced next year with — we have a balanced budget this year but next year we're going to have to start off the budget cycle with a couple, three or four million dollars in the red. We will have to make the cuts and do different things to keep that balance. How we are going to do it just yet I'm not sure. But we will do it. Because we balance the budget every year. Overwhelmingly the people feel that we should share the pain, I guess. So that's why I support it. But I do have a long-term concern of drawing good people for supervisor’s jobs because this is a very challenging job. When you are dealing with healthcare and pensions it's also not just a challenge, it's a very tough job. When you are telling people ‘No’ out there — when you are giving out money you're a hero. When you're taking it back you’re a zero. Then again, if somebody don't like the pay, they don't have to file for the job either. An overwhelming majority of the people think that we should take the cuts and that's what we are, we are representatives, we have to reflect what the people want. When you start being a politician who does not reflect what the people want then you are just a private interest of yourself. You're not a public servant.”

McCowen: “I agree with everything that Anne Molgaard said except for the political pandering issue. All of the other arguments I think are completely valid. We have heard them from every single one of our employee groups. It's just a reflection of the dire economic times that we are in that we have asked all of our groups, no matter how hard-working, no matter how qualified, no matter how dedicated, we have asked them all to take a cut. My only regret is that we didn't start with ourselves first and set the example three years ago. That's the only failing in this action that we are taking here. Virtually every one of our employees throughout the County are all being asked to do more with fewer resources, with fewer support and with an increasing workload. If you talk to the custodians, the groundskeepers, the social service workers who are doing intake on people and evaluating their applications, their caseloads in social services have doubled or even tripled in some cases, I believe. And we are paying them less. I just don't see how we can take any other position than to say that we are going to, as Supervisor Pinches said, share the pain. Because when they make those same arguments that we just heard today, it's equally true for all of them. So I don't see how we say we are special. As far as qualified people, it's almost insulting to say that you won't find any qualified people to do this job unless you pay them considerably more than what we are making now. There are probably a lot of people sitting at home saying, Boy I bet I could do that job. (Laughs.) We get people coming in trying to help us all the time.”

With that, the Board voted 3-0 (Supervisors Hamburg and Smith absent) to make the pay cut to $61,000 permanent beginning next year.

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