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A special series by Sarah Reith about the financial realities of Mendocino County governance.

"The county hasn't done their homework:" union not buying poverty claims

Union workers in purple shirts carry signs and march outside a county building.
SEIU Local 1021 workers rallied outside the county administrative building on Wednesday.

SEIU Local 1021, the largest county employee union, rallied for a COLA Wednesday, claiming the county has not produced proper budget reports and is not operating with full transparency.

June 9, 2022 — Union members rallied outside the Board of Supervisors chambers during the second day of budget hearings Wednesday. The county is in negotiations with all its bargaining units, and the largest, SEIU Local 1021, says that on Monday, the county offered them a zero percent cost of living allowance increase, or COLA.

Negotiator Jackie Otis, a social worker in adult and aging services, let supporters know that they were up against a bad precedent, when county workers took a 12% pay cut in 2010. “Everybody needs to be willing to fight,” she told the crowd of fifty or sixty purple-shirted members. “The problem is, the county knows from our actions before that we laid down and let that 12% salary reduction happen. They want to increase our premiums on our already overpriced and in-the-hole health insurance, ridiculous health insurance that we have. We’ve got to stop this.”

One of the budget holes is a multi-million dollar deficit in the health plan, which union president Julie Beardsley says is the result of what she calls a bad management decision five years ago. “I don’t know if people remember, but in 2017 and 2018, the county gave all the employees a holiday on paying their healthcare costs, and the county decided it would be a good idea if they took a holiday, too,” she recalled. “So consequently, we’re in this hole. I don’t think our employees should be penalized for mistakes that have been made in the past. And the county has been stalling on looking into new plans. Obviously, Adventist has kind of a monopoly here in the county, and they can charge whatever they want, but we need to look at new plans.”

Lief Farr, in county information services, is part of the SEIU bargaining team. He also cited historical decisions, among a number of other concerns. “The county hasn’t done their homework,” he said. “They haven’t put out the necessary budget reports. And so when they express this concern that we’re not taking what they say seriously, that they have no money, we’re saying, well, this is not a transparent process…for instance, how much money have you made on the teeter plan this year? That’s not listed anywhere. You say you need money to put into retirement, but years ago, you took out a bond measure, which is the worst way to make money on retirement, and you’ve been paying that off at a great amount of money that could have been going into the retirement fund. How close are you to paying that off? Have you paid it off? None of these questions are being answered. Until they can show us the transparency and all these different aspects of their funding stream, it’s really hard to understand or believe that they’re broke.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, half a dozen management positions were reallocated for significantly more money, which Beardsley said was irregular and unfair. “There were some complaints about raises being put in the consent calendar instead of the normal channels,” she noted. “When you have your employees who are doing two or three jobs, and then you have these upper-level managers who are getting raises, that just doesn’t seem fair to me…the fact that we’ve had two and a half years of this covid pandemic, when it caused so much hardship for the staff to come in and work long hours in the DOC, to manage this pandemic, and to not acknowledge that, it’s just not right.”

Buffy Wright-Bourassa, a program administrator in behavioral health and recovery services, is another negotiator who says she’s not getting a lot of answers. “We actually haven’t gotten those numbers,” she said, of the half-dozen consent calendar raises. “We are asking for them, and looking for transparency from the county to supply us with all of the information that we need to make a decision together.” She’s also negotiating for a more advantageous rate for bilingual workers, who do a lot of translating. “What I’m noticing is that we have a bilingual rate pay that’s really not fair to the people who have to show up and do the translating,” she said. “They’re translating all over the county for us, and we really either need a specialized position in the county for a bilinguist to translate our websites and all of our forms and make sure everything’s going out that’s translated in at least Spanish. Our population of Mendocino County is at least 26% Latino, Hispanic, Mexican. So it makes sense to me.”

Farr maintains that, claims of budget crisis notwithstanding, the county can afford to make a better offer. “I think they’re being conservative,” he allowed; “but to say they have no money, I think, is disingenuous. They haven’t even produced the budget reports that they’re required to, so they’re working in the dark, as far as I can tell. All of their revenue sources, ToT bed tax, sales tax, property tax, are trending upwards…They put a lot of things into this category they call one-time money. So if you’re, say, a department, and you have a salary savings, or you bring in more revenue than anticipated, that extra goes into the general fund, but it’s considered one-time money for the next year’s budget. That’s the kind of thing that happens a lot. And that’s debatable, whether you should account that way. It allows them to pick and choose, them being the administration, as to how they want to spend that money. So they can tell us, there’s no money in the budget for a COLA. Well, does that mean there’s no money for a COLA, or you haven’t budgeted for any money? That’s the situation that we’re in.”