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Who will carry the torch for reform?

It was a day of celebration at the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday as two new board members – David Rabbitt and Mike McGuire – were sworn into office. History also was in the making as Efren Carrillo became the first Latino board chairman in the county’s history. But the question remains, who will emerge as the true fiscal leader of this new board? More to the point, who will carry the mantle for making the hard decisions needed concerning reducing pay and cutting pensions and other benefits to balance the county budget?

Case in point: One of the most significant county stories in all of 2010 was published on Dec. 2 with little fanfare. It concerned the decision of a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Sonoma County government retirees over the county’s rollback on health care premiums. In short, the county had been paying all of the cost of health care for retirees, and the increases were threatening to drive the county in the tank. So the supervisors in August 2008 agreed to a controversial plan to roll back health benefits 20 percent a year until 2013 when retirees would receive a flat payment of $500 a month.

The Sonoma County Association of Retired Employees sued a year ago arguing the county had promised to pay full health care for life. But a federal judge found the county had never made such a promise and thus was not bound by one. It was a complete victory for the county.

There’s no question that this change was painful, but it was also necessary from a financial perspective. Earlier this month, I had lunch with former Supervisor Paul Kelley, just days after he stepped down after 16 years in office. He told me that if he and his colleagues had not made that change two years ago, the county would probably be looking at an additional $9 million budget shortfall this year –  a $45 million gap instead of a $36 million one.

The problem is that a similar change is needed with the county’s pension system, although there the county has made promises to existing retirees that can’t be broken easily. Nevertheless, county leaders have an obligation to county residents as well. Taxpayer contributions to the county’s pension system are nearly $50 million now and are expected to rise significantly for the next half-decade in order to make up for significant stock market losses in recent years. This will force more cutbacks in services and programs. But five of the primary architects behind the change in health care benefits are now gone: Supervisors Tim Smith, Mike Kerns, Mike Reilly and Kelley and former county Administrator Bob Deis. Only Valerie Brown, now the senior member of the board, remains.

Deis left following the retirements of Smith and Reilley, when it became apparent that he would be serving with a board that was divided over the rollback decision and a number of other issues.

Meanwhile, if Kelley had chosen to seek re-election, he knew he faced considerable opposition from SEIU Local 1021 – Northern California’s largest public employee union – and other labor groups. In fact, an independent expenditure committee had already been formed in late 2009 to oppose Kelley’s re-election. The group included SEIU 1021, the North Bay Labor Council, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 551 as well as Sonoma County Young Democrats, Sonoma County Conservation Action and the Sonoma County Democratic Central Committee.

Kelley says he didn’t retire because of the formation of that committee, but it’s clear he was influenced by the reality that it would have been a costly and bitter battle had he sought re-election.

Thus the question remains: Now that most of those behind the county’s only real reform push are gone, who on the new Board of Supervisors is going to show the courage to make the hard budget decisions?

My guess is it may be a while before the answer is apparent.

- Paul Gullixson

11 Responses to “Who will carry the torch for reform?”

  1. Eric Newman says:

    “‘Reform’ is Code for ‘Roll-Back’”

    The latest tactic of the intellectual mouthpieces of the corporate oligarchy is to rebrand their class war privatization schemes as “reform”. This is not reform, it is roll-back.

    The greatest irony of the post-crash media discourse is how the corporate elites managed to divert the discussion from the 3.3 trillion dollars they stole from the American public, in one of the largest inter-class transfers of wealth in human history.

    The corporate press (including the PD/Argus/North Bay Business Journal) all did their part to change the subject from the robbery in broad daylight to inciting a fight between public sector workers and the increasingly insecure private sector workers. The hegemony of the corporate media system was fully revealed in how successfully this ruse was pulled off.

    We need independent media, not under the thumb of the corporate oligarchy, to help build a progressive movement in this country to defend the American people, as we sink into Second World status, while the mainstream media throws sand in our eyes to distract us from the real causes of our decline.

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  2. Privatize says:

    Fire everyone and privatize the whole system. Private industry can obviously do it better than the public system. Corporate cops and corporate firefighters. Corporate Human Services. There’s arecipe for a balanced budget. Take that portion of tax dollars, cut it in half and have a private company provide the service. No retirement, no benefits, life is great for the public. No more money problems. The road dept can be axed and call a local paving company. Scap the jail system, put them in tents surrounded by towers and razor wire. Climb that criminal!!! There, problem solved.

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  3. Josh Stevens says:

    The current political landscape does not look good for public employees.And because of the economy and budget shortfalls,many more “promises” will be broken.

    The unionization of public employees has resulted in 1 trillion worth of underfunded pensions(nationally),that’s in addition to a deficit of 1.6 trillion and a 14 trillion debt.

    Who’s going to pay for all of this Democrat-driven dependency? Our kids and THEIR kids!

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  4. Just a worker says:

    This fiscal year every Sonoma County employee is taking 64 hours off without pay. Guess who is exempt from the mandatory time off? The Board of Supervisors. Just one indication of how it always is.

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  5. Wayback says:

    A little clarafication. No one had full medical, Ever. The plan was County 85%, Employee 15%. Active and retired got the same.

    Now, ALL wmployees, active and retired get a flat $500 a month.. The real problem with that is the county flat refused to move to less expensive plans. The Countys premium plan is $1900 a month.. Kaiser was $1300 a month. People paying $300 or $200 had their portion increase to $1400 and $800.. That hurts any budget. Only after a year of the retirees lawsuit did the county implement the 20% step down for retirees. The active employees stayed at the flat $500.
    If anyone read in the paper before Deis left after 8 and a half years, the county was upset he paid $1.2 million to a law firm to conduct negotiations the county usually uses their own lawyers for at no cost. They still employeed all their same lawyers at the county, they just didn’t use them. Then, because he made a sweet deal with the county, they paid Deis for 18 months after he was gone so he would qualify for his 10 year retirement and his lifetime medical benefits. His possitions salary was immediately cut 40% because it had been manipulated prior to him leaving. All this was in the paper. There are no heroes here. I remember dozens of people in their 90′s in the Board of supes meetings who had their deals changed and their medical premiums instantly were more than their retirement checks. Financially neccessary as the article said. 3 of them were over 100 years old. I don’t expect compassion from gov’t. I certainly don’t expect any in this forum.

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  6. Dan Delgado says:

    Hey Bear,
    Health insurance for my wife and I is three times what you’re paying and long ago exceeded our mortgage payment. If you factor in the portion of your health care cost I’m subsidizing, my cost is even more. You’ll excuse me if I shed no crocodile tears for you and the so-called promises made by your union-backed Supervisors. .

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  7. bear says:

    Hey Gullixson! I knew you when you were younger and smarter.

    I worked for the County for decades, yet can’t remember the time when employees didn’t pay a lot for their health care or retirement. Say 30% of every paycheck.

    Now my 90% health care coverage is costing my wife and I $587 a month – 70% more than last year. And it will go up another 70% this year, and more the year after that. It will soon cost more than my mortgage.

    Promises made, yet promises broken. We don’t have the option of going back 30 years and choosing some other occupation. Our mistake.

    Why does the County health plan for out-of-state residents charge $199 for a single person, but $587 for a married couple? A marriage penalty? A penalty for not being able to afford Sonoma? We wish we could be there.

    You obviously require the lowest possible pay and the fewest possible benefits for public servants who really could find other job options. Leaving you with WHAT in terms of public service?

    Think about it the next time you need an EMT. Why would anyone take the lower salaries and political games? 30 years of BS is enough for us.

    Who exactly caused the stock market crash and real estate crash and the resulting unemployment?

    Clue: NOT public employees.

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  8. Brad Atkins says:

    It’s really amazing how the shoddy journalistic standards of the PD affect their editorial opinion as well. Not one word about the special ordinance Mr Kelley and his cronies at the Board of Supervisors passed recently so that he could SPIKE HIS full benefit package when he “retired”…or about Mr Deis’ extreme and obscene compensation package as he double dips from the poor suckers in San Joaquin County. Why does the PD NEVER discuss the overinflated salaries and pay packages of top management and administrators and instead focus their attention on the rank and file workers most of whom make LESS than private sector? Is it because then they can attack the public unions who are their favorite whipping boys? You notice they will never write an editorial about how big “financiers” like Clem Carinallli destroyed the lives of seniors and working people with his greedy Ponzi scheme. Why? because that would upset their advertisers. I guess it is easier to attack rank and file county workers than go after those who are making six or seven figures as Directors or administrative paper pushers. Or is it because those ‘directors’ are not part of a union? The PD has made no secret of their dislike of unions participating in politics. Their agenda is fairly obvious.They want to keep 1021 and the Labor Cuuncil from participating in politics the same way their friends in the Chamber of Commerce do. But when they start having lunch with hypocrite of the year Paul Kelley, who would never question his own right to work for 6 figures and a huge pension(that he didn’t earn) and complaining about pensions whithout ever questioning Kelley’s self interested manuevers on his pension then they are not just poor sports, they are poor journalists as well.

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  9. Ben Saari says:

    What you are calling “reform” has no substantial change involved… it is a roll back in benefits for a sub-group of retired public employees… your recap of the rollback is also incomplete, if memory serves law enforcement and fire are exempted from the roll back… you also answer your question to a degree with your description of Deis’ tactic, the guy bounced as soon as it became apparent that he might have to struggle… people interested in change do not shy away from from struggle, it’s politicians who do that.

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  10. GD says:

    This article paints Deis and his gang as the saviours and the workers as the greedy, non-bending group who are single handedly driving the county into the ground. The workers are all willing to share the pain of cutbacks as long as the cuts are distributed equally and not just from one group. How many workers were laid off or had hours drastically cut compared to management? How many new management positions have been created or stayed the same vs the number of worker positions? The workers (through loss of jobs, benefits, and hours) and the public (though loss of services) is being made to shoulder the brunt of the burden while the management keeps what they have.

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  11. truth in law says:

    I love how Kelley and Deis were able to “retire” with the paid medical they took from sonoma County Retires. Look at the amount they were paid for taking away benifits promised to folks who had retired. I hope they enjoy the 13 pieces of silver put in their pockets.

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