By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Investigators in the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office were told Tuesday that they no longer will be allowed to routinely take home their work vehicles.
The issue has been simmering in a months-long dispute between District Attorney Jill Ravitch and investigators in her office.
In budget cuts enacted halfway through her first year in the elected post, Ravitch in July ended the long-standing practice of take-home vehicles for investigators.
At the time, the move was estimated to potentially save about $6,000 annually. More recent projections show the savings could be $15,000, or more than a quarter of investigators’ estimated annual vehicle costs of $53,000, county officials said.
The office’s 13 rank and file investigators, however, have opposed the change, arguing it eliminated a key work tool and violated their labor contract by ending a benefit without their say.
Attempts to resolve the matter through negotiations resulted in an impasse and put the issue before the Board of Supervisors.
On Tuesday, the board sided unanimously with Ravitch after she assured supervisors that the change had not impacted investigations.
“It’s unfortunate we’re here today,” Ravitch said at the start of her presentation to the board.
She said the cut was part of an attempt to trim fixed expenses and save positions in her office, which has a staff of more than 100 employees and a budget of $20 million.
The move would not affect an on-call investigator — a rotated, week-long post — or an off-site investigator assigned to a state-funded computer crimes task force based in Napa County, Ravitch said. It would apply to the office’s chief investigator, Brian Davis, but it won’t affect Ravitch, who said she commutes to work in her own vehicle.
In the face of budget cuts, “we’re doing everything we can to ensure (the office’s) operations continue,” she said.
The board’s 4-0 vote, absent Supervisor Valerie Brown, followed a rebuttal by investigators’ representatives and questions to county personnel officials. The officials told supervisors that take-home use of departmental vehicles, though a long-standing practice for investigators, was not a benefit provided by their contract or a factor in their compensation.
“That seems pretty cut and dry. It’s just an operational change, no different than changing cubicles in an office,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt.
The decision signaled what several supervisors said is a pressing need to review and possibly reduce a long list of perks given to county employees on top of their salaries.
Car and cellphone allowances could be next, along with other benefits, said Supervisor Mike McGuire.
“The message being sent today is that sacrifice is here to stay for at least the next several years,” McGuire said.
He was one of at least three board members to voice frustration that an impasse had developed over a relatively small fiscal issue.
But investigators’ representatives told supervisors they saw it differently.
First, they said the change shifted up to $20,000 in annual costs — a figure they said came from county fleet officials — onto the backs of investigators without any commensurable concession from the county.
Second, they said the move was made without their input, a step required by their contract.
And third, they said, despite Ravitch’s assertions, take-home vehicles continued to be an important work tool.
“At the start of this job, each of us was handed a badge, a gun and a set of car keys,” said Greg Phillips, an investigator in the District Attorney’s office and a vice president of Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association, which represents the investigative team.
He said that work would go on, but that the change had opened up a rift with Ravitch. “The reason we’re here is because she violated the process,” he said.
Ravitch fired back inside and outside the board chambers Tuesday.
She said investigators would still be allowed to take home their work vehicles in special circumstances with prior authorization from Davis, the chief investigator.
She also said her relationship with the investigators remained strong.
“I have a good relationship with the investigative bureau,” she said. “I’m very proud of the bureau’s work.”