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