Rising pay for Sonoma County Board of Supervisors at issue in labor standoff

Pay for the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors has risen almost 50% in a decade and members are now among the top 10 highest paid in the state.|

As Sonoma County and its largest labor union square off over compensation, pay for members of the Board of Supervisors has soared 45 percent over the past 10 years. The increase puts the board among the most well-compensated in the state, ahead of counterparts in many larger jurisdictions, an analysis shows.

As of July 1, supervisors received base pay of $141,780 a year plus other earnings, pushing their total pay to almost $160,000. The latest raise added up to a more than $5,000 increase from supervisors' base earnings in 2014, thanks to a formula that tethers their salaries to 75 percent of what state superior court judges earn.

By comparison, San Francisco and Sacramento supervisors received annual salaries of about $118,000, according to a Bay Area survey released this summer. Only supervisors in a handful of urban counties such as Alameda and Los Angeles made more, the latest statistics from the California Controller's Office show.

In fact, Sonoma County supervisors are the seventh- or eighth-highest paid in the state, depending on certain criteria, while the county is ranked 17th in size with a population of about 500,000.

As Service Employees International Union workers staged a three-day strike last month, leaders repeatedly contrasted relatively flat wages for rank-and-file employees with those of the five executives responsible for overseeing county government.

'People always say the best job in California government is being a county supervisor,' said David McCuan, professor of political science at Sonoma State University. 'Based on this data, I'd say one of the very best jobs is being a Sonoma County supervisor.'

Supervisors defended their salaries, citing long hours and responsibilities that include presiding over separate boards governing open space and the county water supply, in addition to running their districts.

Chairwoman Susan Gorin said she had no idea what supervisors in other counties are paid. She said she puts in 60 to 80 hours a week in a 'full-time-plus job' involving oversight of a $1.45 billion budget and roughly 4,100 employees.

About two years ago, she and other board members took voluntary pay cuts to help balance the budget and she has waived her retirement benefits to save the county money, she said.

'People know that I work very hard,' said Gorin, a former Santa Rosa mayor. 'All of the supervisors do.'

Supervisor David Rabbitt said the system that pegs supervisors' pay to judicial salaries is fair and 'takes the politics out' of annual adjustments. Sonoma County switched to the current system to avoid any controversy from board members voting to give themselves raises. Many other large counties make use of the same salary connection to judges' pay, with varying percentages.

Rabbitt said supervisors deserve adequate compensation for complex work that includes lobbying in Sacramento and Washington. At the same time, the salary attracts the most qualified candidates for public office, he said.

'People can say we get paid too much — Well, that's what it was when I ran,' said Rabbitt, a former Petaluma councilman. 'If they want to lower it and get independently wealthy people on pensions, I don't think the public would be too pleased with that.'

Supervisor Shirlee Zane declined to be interviewed about the issue, saying only that "the county supervisors are well compensated and it is commensurate with our responsibilities."

Supervisor Efren Carrillo did not return calls or text messages placed with him since last week seeking comment. Supervisor James Gore responded with a text message late Tuesday saying he would be available Wednesday morning.

The pay issue emerged during contentious negotiations between county managers and SEIU Local 1021, which represents about 2,200 county employees, about half the workforce. Union leaders seeking two raises of 4 percent over the next two years accused supervisors of applying a double standard by granting meager pay hikes while their own salaries soared.

County officials last month said they offered SEIU-affiliated employees a 4 percent increase in total compensation — including pay and benefits — over 21 months.

Billy Harville, chapter president, said workers have had few raises since the economy tanked in 2008 while shouldering one of the costliest medical benefits packages in the state. The county's health care contribution is capped at $500 a month and employees are required to contribute thousands of dollars out of their paychecks — about 12 percent for non-public safety workers — to their own pensions.

By contrast, he said supervisors have received regular salary boosts and enjoy better benefits.

A Contra Costa County survey of eight comparable counties showed Sonoma County supervisors made an average contribution to health care and put up the most for their own pensions. At the same time, they enjoyed the most generous retirement formula, according to the survey.

'Regardless of the economy, the supervisors' pay continues to increase, good times or bad,' said Harville, a county social worker.

In 2013, the supervisors took an 8.5 percent cut in total compensation, including benefits as part a round of concession-driven contracts with county labor groups aimed mostly at curbing taxpayer pension costs. Most employees affiliated with labor groups took a 2.25 percent cut in total compensation.

The method of determining supervisor pay is common across the state and dates to the early 1980s. A few counties, such as San Francisco, impanel civil service commissions to decide increases but most link to judges.

A spokesman for the California State Association of Counties did not know the exact number of county boards using the judge system, saying only that it was a 'fairly common' practice.

'Over time, more counties have added on to doing it that way,' said Geoff Neill, an association principal analyst.

The rate varies and is set by boards themselves. Los Angeles County, which has 10 million people, pays supervisors 100 percent of judicial salaries while Sacramento County pays 55 percent.

Sonoma County increased its rate from 65 percent in 2005 to 75 percent in 2008. Supervisors voted on the rate hikes with little public fanfare, saying they needed to catch up to like-sized counties. Now, they make three-quarters of a judge's salary, which increased in July to about $189,000. In addition, supervisors receive a car allowance and other compensation regularly totaling more than $15,000.

Contra Costa supervisors, among the few who do not tie their pay to judges, launched the analysis of supervisor compensation earlier this year when considering a proposed 33 percent raise for themselves. They ended up with a more moderate increase, going from $104,000 to about $116,000.

In the analysis, Sonoma County supervisors ranked at or near the top in many categories. They had the highest pay, even eclipsing Alameda and San Mateo counties, when adjusted for cost of living to the standard of living in Contra Costa County.

Political observers said the creep is a reflection of compensation levels throughout county government. The average pay for all Sonoma County government workers is about $58,000, according to the state Controller's Office.

Top management positions pay considerably more, with department heads receiving more than $175,000 and elected officials such as District Attorney Jill Ravitch getting $220,000. Ravitch is the 16th-highest paid elected official in county government in the state, making more than district attorneys in Orange or Sacramento counties, according to controller statistics.

The highest paid county employee in 2014 was a sheriff's deputy patrolling the coast who accrued $169,000 in overtime last year, for total gross earnings of $292,000. The highest paid department head is County Administrator Veronica Ferguson, who earned $251,789 last year.

By comparison, the average pay for workers in nearby Mendocino County government is about $40,000 and supervisors get base pay of $61,000, according to the Controller's Office.

'I'd say Sonoma County is the poster child for supervisors who are well-paid,' said McCuan. 'It's certainly skewed to the higher end.'

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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