Officials Again Scramble to Guard Perks : Finance: Some county employees decide to cash in vacation time benefit immediately after a cost-cutting plan is announced by two supervisors.


The issue that apparently just won't die an easy death in Ventura County is back on the table again--perks.

County officials who thought they had put the controversy behind them in December spent most of last week trying to stop another attempt to slash their salaries and fringe benefits.

This time the issue was revived by two of the county's top leaders, Supervisors Maria E. VanderKolk and John K. Flynn. In a surprise move, the two supervisors announced their plans: Cut salaries of almost all county workers by 5% and eliminate the extras to help offset a $36-million shortfall in state funding.

The reaction was immediate and hostile.

By Friday, more than 200 workers had decided to quickly cash in on a perk called "in lieu of vacation" pay--which pays up to seven weeks of unused vacation time annually--just in case the supervisors agree to eliminate it.

And top-ranking county officials launched a fervent campaign to persuade the two supervisors to abandon their proposal to cut the county's most financially lucrative benefits.

While VanderKolk and Flynn argued that they were acting out of high principle, critics in county government accused them of other motives.

VanderKolk has been described by some county officials as being angry that she had been ousted from the county's powerful budget committee and was reacting by setting herself up as a rival committee of one.

Flynn was accused of tagging along in the hope of getting political mileage out of the issue.

And others in county government saw the villain as Doug Johnson, a VanderKolk aide who may run for supervisor himself if VanderKolk decides, as some expect, not to seek another term.

A heated debate is expected during the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, when Flynn and VanderKolk ask the other supervisors to consider their recommendations to slash pay and perks.

So far, Supervisors Maggie Kildee and Vicky Howard have said little about their colleagues' proposal, except that they are pleased Flynn and VanderKolk have come up with suggestions to deal with the budget crisis.

The supervisors' proposal has been widely praised by county taxpayers' groups and the county grand jury, which issued a letter last week asking all the board members to give the suggestions serious consideration.

"We have one intent here: To wake up the bureaucracy," Flynn said, adding that he acted out of concern for balancing the budget and not to gain public recognition.

"I know they have a full-press campaign to knock us out," Flynn said of the county employees. "But they don't understand that there are a lot of people in the public who have taken pay cuts and who have lost their jobs. Times are hard. We all must sacrifice."

Flynn and VanderKolk are asking for three major reforms: Cut $1.8 million in "longevity pay," a perk offered to top employees who have worked for the county for more than five years; eliminate an estimated $4 million in the "in lieu of vacation" perk; and reduce salaries of county managers and negotiate with the unions to reduce the salaries of workers by 5%, a cut that would save an estimated $13 million.

In addition, the supervisors have proposed cutting all travel, except in special cases, and eliminating all textbook and tuition reimbursements.

They also want to eliminate mileage reimbursements for employees who receive auto allowances and institute a mandatory hiring freeze. They noted that since July, the county has hired more than 700 people.

The supervisors' plan marks the first time since December that the perks issue has become the center of debate at the government center. The issue heated up last year after disclosures by The Times that top county leaders were receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in financial benefits that had been kept secret from the public.

Following the recommendations of a nine-member citizens committee appointed to study the pay issue, the supervisors voted unanimously on Dec. 15 to increase their base salary by $14,300--to $64,543--while slashing a half dozen of their perks.

The board also agreed to fold longevity, vacation and education benefits into the base salaries of the sheriff, district attorney and four other elected officials--resulting in a basic pay increase of up to $24,000 for those officials.

According to county figures, about 800 county employees--mostly managers and their clerical staffs--are able to cash in on some of the same financial benefits. In many cases, the perks were given to the workers in the 1980s instead of salary increases, officials said.

Now faced with a sharp loss in state funding for next year, Flynn and VanderKolk decided that all employees' perks should be eliminated.

Instead of taking their proposals directly to the county's budget committee, charged with recommending to the board how the officials should handle the funding crisis, the two supervisors held a press conference to announce their plans.

While they spoke with the media, their staffs faxed letters detailing their plans to all the county's department heads. One county official said it was as if they had "dropped a bomb" on the government center.

Workers almost immediately started gathering to discuss their strategies.

"There is a lot of hostility in this organization at this moment," said county Public Works Director Arthur Goulet.

The supervisors' biggest detractors say the plan simply is unfair.

While the salaries of elected officials were increased in December to make up for the loss in perks, Flynn and VanderKolk have proposed no such adjustment for appointed employees.

"I think it's appropriate for management to take the lead in making some sacrifices," said Health Care Agency Director Phillipp Wessels, who received about $34,000 in financial perks on top of his base pay of $112,008 in 1991.

"But the playing field has to be fair in how we share in those reductions. It has to be equitable. Right now, we would be suffering disproportionately."

Court Executive Officer Sheila Gonzalez, who earned nearly $29,000 in perks on top of her base salary of $95,590 in 1991, said the proposal "is a reflection of their lack of appreciation and concern and lack of respect for the managers of this county."

"It's been a terrible thing for morale," she said. "It's like they cut us off at the knees."

Other employees have been more critical.

David Williams, president of the Ventura County Deputy Sheriff's Assn., accused the two supervisors of seeking publicity.

"John will grandstand on anything," Williams said. "He is clever like a fox. He knows when to push the buttons and he knows when to stir the pot."

As for VanderKolk, another employee, who requested anonymity, charged: "She is just upset about being thrown off the budget committee. It's pay-back time."

Several county officials and union members put most of the blame on Johnson, VanderKolk's aide, saying he was the one behind the controversial proposal.

"He's running for office," said one employee, who also requested anonymity.

Flynn, VanderKolk and Johnson have scoffed at the criticism.

"Maria's and John's proposal is shaking the very foundation of county government," Johnson said. "People are scared. But instead of dealing with the real issues at hand, they want to make it personal and blame me. Suddenly I've become the villain in a black cape and a mask."

Although Johnson said he would consider running for Maria's seat if she decides not to seek reelection, "this has nothing to do with that."

"Maria and John are doing what they think is right," Johnson said. "It's about leadership and it's about making a tough decision. We are asking everyone to share in the sacrifice.

"If we fall on our face, we fall on our face. At least we tried."

VanderKolk acknowledged last week that the uproar among county staff is worse than she had expected.

"It is much more personally painful than I had ever anticipated," VanderKolk said. "But we have to deal with reality.

"We are facing at least a $30-million cut in state funding. We will not be able to pass an assessment district. We will not be able to pass a half-cent sales tax. We need to find a way out of this."

She said the board's 3-2 decision to remove her from the budget committee in January had nothing to do with her motivations to ask for the cut in salaries and perks.

"The bottom line is there is a huge deficit looming out there and we have to deal with it," she said. "I have a responsibility to make proposals. This will be a very difficult and painful cut, but it is something that we have to go through. We cannot continue on this way."

VanderKolk and Flynn said if the other supervisors do not go along with the suggestions, a large number of the county's 6,400 full-time employees could face layoffs.

"Would it be easier to do it this way or would it be easier to lay off 500 people?" Flynn said. "It is not going to be easy in any case."

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