Officials of Sonoma County's emerging public power agency sparred Thursday while setting compensation packages for a pair of new hires, splitting over appropriate pay for the posts and how salaries and benefits at the agency would compare to other public entities.
The debate revealed a significant, near-unanimous consensus: that Sonoma Clean Power employees should not be eligible for the traditional defined-benefit pension plans that have saddled Sonoma County, its cities and local and state governments across the country with hundreds of millions of dollars in unfunded liabilities.
Several board directors called those retirement benefits unsustainable.
But disagreement over proposed salaries for a public affairs manager and an executive assistant — two positions that interim CEO Geof Syphers wants to fill quickly to assist with the workload — later divided the board in a 6-2 vote.
After an hourlong discussion, and an adjustment that reduced the top salary for both positions by $5,000 — to a range of $85,000 to $120,000 for the public affairs manager and $70,000 to $90,000 for the assistant — most board members said they were comfortable with the figures.
"You get what you pay for," said Cotati Mayor Mark Landman, noting Syphers' stated wish to hire experienced staffers in the energy field.
But a minority led by county Supervisor Shirlee Zane strongly questioned the salary levels, saying a study of comparable local government positions was inadequate and any decision needed to be delayed.
The pay ranges ranked in the middle of the salary study, which featured similar posts from Orange, Contra Costa, Marin, Alameda and Sonoma counties. Zane, however, repeatedly called the proposed wages "inflated."
"I believe we need to be competitive, but we also need to be conservative," she said.
The debate reflected the growing pains of a startup venture that even supporters concede is very much under the public microscope, its every move scrutinized by skeptical future customers, government critics and those staunchly opposed to the alternative to PG&E.
Thursday's relatively minor decisions, on the two tentative salary and benefit packages, a new consulting contract and new marketing deal, were therefore protracted, with board members taking pains to showcase their efforts to hold down administrative costs and support local job creation, two of Sonoma Clean Power's stated goals.
On the salary issue, Syphers urged the board not to reduce the pay range further, noting the lower-cost 401(k)-type defined contribution retirement plans proposed for agency employees would make their overall compensation less — 18 percent less by one estimate — than comparable county employees.
Several directors described the benefits shift, and the resulting long-term savings, as groundbreaking. "This agency is not going to have that (pension) problem," said Santa Rosa Councilman Jake Ours. "That is worth more than I can possibly imagine."
Zane prolonged the debate with a push to have the benefits, including retirement, medical and life insurance — the details of which are yet to come — mirror the package set by SMART, the Sonoma-Marin rail agency.
SMART has a traditional defined-benefit pension for its employees. Reminded of that fact, Zane, who is a SMART board director, said later in an interview she was not pushing similar pension benefits for Sonoma Clean Power employees or opposed to 401(k)-type plans.
Several members of the public urged the board not to get hung up on the salary issue.