By SEAN SCULLY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County supervisors got a treat last month to mark the coming of the new year — a 1.4 percent pay hike and a lump-sum payment because the raise was retroactive to July 1.
The little-noticed pay hike boosted the supervisors’ base pay by $1,878 to $135,969. The back paycheck was $763.20.
Fourth District Supervisor Mike McGuire voluntarily turns back 10 percent of his pay, so his annual hike was $1,690 and the back paycheck was $686.88.
The hike was not the direct handiwork of the supervisors, however, but rather an indirect effect of actions by the state. For more than four decades, Sonoma County has pegged supervisor salaries to judicial salaries as a way of reducing any appearance of conflict of interest in having elected officials set their own salaries directly.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane said she sees nothing wrong with the raise, given that it was simply a matter of following long-set procedure. The system of linking supervisor salaries to some unrelated outside factor, such as judicial salaries, is a good thing, she said.
“It takes the politics out of it,” she said. “I think it would be bad if we had to determine our own salaries.”
Zane and Supervisor Efren Carrillo pointed out that the supervisors agreed to take an 8.5 percent cut on total compensation in 2013, at the same time the county was asking unions to agree to pay and benefit cuts. In the end, most county employees took a compensation cut of about 2.25 percent, but the supervisors maintained their own larger cut.
“We felt the need to lead by example,” Zane said.
McGuire had little to say about the raise, but also said he was “leading by example” by voluntarily turning back a portion of his salary.
Board Chairman David Rabbitt said he had heard no discussion among supervisors of turning down the raise.
“I don’t know how symbolic that would be. Where do you stop on those things?” he said. “8.5 (percent) is much, much more than anything else. We did lead by example.”
Vice Chairwoman Susan Gorin, who joined the board in 2013, agreed, saying that in addition to the board’s voluntary compensation cut, she had waived any participation in the county’s pension system. Given all that, she said, “I’d have to give some thought as to whether or not I want to give this back.”
The raise, however mechanistic, didn’t go down well with county employee unions. Bill Robotka, union representative for the Engineers & Scientists of California, said his members are set for just a 1 percent raise, and that won’t kick in until December.
He said a fairer way to set the board’s salary would be to peg it to Sonoma County employees, so the supervisors would experience the same local budget pressures as the workers do.
“Don’t make it a perception (of sharing the pain), make it a reality: set the salaries to your employees,” he said. “If we’re waiting until December, why would you take it now — and have it retroactive?”
The county’s largest union, the Service Employees’ International Union, reacted with dismay and said it was “past time” to reconsider how supervisor salaries are set. SEIU workers are expecting their 1 percent raise in October.
“No other county worker receives a salary increase without public input or a vote by the supervisors. … Employees’ salaries and benefits are consistently scrutinized, examined and vetted by the public,” area field director Jason Klumb said. “All county employees work hard for our community and everyone should go through the same public process. It shouldn’t be different.”
Sonoma State political science professor David McCuan agreed that the raise would likely irk some employees and taxpayers.
“This is obviously bad politics and bad optics in an election year … . It’s going to appear that supervisors are not like the people they govern,” he said.
The formula for supervisors’ salaries was pegged at 55 percent of judicial salaries until 2000, when supervisors raised the figure to 65 percent, giving themselves an 18 percent pay increase, phased in over three years. The board raised the percentage to 75 percent in 2008.
According to county payroll records, the base pay for supervisors was $64,851 in 1999, $93,494 by 2004 and $134,091 by 2013, before the latest raise.
Including the new raise, supervisors’ base pay has jumped 210 percent in 15 years.
Several other counties use similar mechanisms to set the salaries of elected officials, though the California State Association of Counties does not have a comprehensive list of how many.
Marin County supervisors voted in June not to take the judicial pay hike. Napa County supervisors accepted the raise, according to reports in the Napa Valley Register. Madera County supervsiors declined it in December, two weeks before it was to take effect, according to the Fresno Bee. Fresno County supervisors accepted the raise collectively, the paper said, but one member declined personally.
Sonoma County Taxpayers’ Association President Jack Atkin said he was “not crazy” about the idea of supervisors getting a raise, but he noted the the total cost was modest, less than $10,000. The real danger to the county, he said, is the cost of the pension system, not the pay of five elected officials.
“It’s not something I’m really concerned about because there is such budget pressure,” Atkin said, leading to “things that go unfunded that should be funded — like road maintenance, park maintenance, basic government services.”
You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or email@example.com. On Twitter @BeerCountry.