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