Hundreds of Ventura County government employees jammed a Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday to voice frustration and outrage over a proposal that would cut salaries by 5% and slash fringe benefits.
Employees said they felt demoralized that Supervisors John K. Flynn and Maria VanderKolk had targeted salaries as a way to offset an anticipated $36-million loss in state funding.
The plan, first announced at a press conference March 22, has stirred the strongest employee response in more than a decade, a union leader said.
“Look at what you’ve done in the short time of one week, with the self-serving, publicity-grabbing grandstanding,” said Tom Convery, who serves on the Sheriff’s Department’s bomb squad. “This may sound like a harsh characterization, but look at how it was announced. It was an ambush.”
At the conclusion of seven hours of angry and sometimes tearful testimony, the supervisors unanimously agreed to refer Flynn and VanderKolk’s proposal to the county’s budget committee for review.
Appearing exhausted at the end of the marathon hearing, VanderKolk and Flynn seemed to soften their stance, saying they would want to cut salaries only if there were no other options.
They also said they would consider the possibility of folding in some of employees’ perks into their salaries to make the proposal more palatable.
“Cutting salaries is really the last straw,” VanderKolk said. “But we have to at least talk about restructuring compensation. It’s not a good system anymore.”
Flynn added: “What we have done is opened up the process so we can all work on this together.”
Although the three other board members did not criticize Flynn and VanderKolk for making the proposal to cut the pay and perks, Supervisors Maggie Kildee and Vicky Howard said some of the employee outrage could have been minimized if their colleagues had followed the county’s procedures.
Normally, all budget proposals are reviewed by a committee of top county managers and union leaders, and officials decide which options should be considered by the Board of Supervisors.
Instead of going to the committee, however, Flynn and VanderKolk chose to hold the press conference and send their proposal by fax machine to the department heads. They then asked the board Tuesday to review their suggestions.
“The way it was made caused people to have misunderstandings,” Kildee said. “I take issue with the way they were brought forward, but not with bringing them forward.
“I would not quarrel with an honest evaluation of the points,” she continued. “I think we need to look at them.”
But Howard said: “We will not try to balance the budget on the backs of the employees. . . . I hope we can get away from some of the hurt.”
As part of their proposal, Flynn and VanderKolk have asked for three major reforms: Cutting $1.8 million in “longevity pay,” a perk offered to top employees who have worked for the county for more than five years; eliminating an estimated $4 million in “in lieu of vacation” pay; and reducing the salaries of most workers by 5%, a cut they say would save an estimated $13 million.
Some workers estimate that they would suffer a pay cut of about 30% if the supervisors agree to cut their salaries and perks.
About 500 workers, including almost all of the county’s top managers, attended the meeting Tuesday to protest the proposals. The crowd was so large that county officials had to hook up speakers outside the hearing room. All but a few of the 71 people who spoke criticized the proposal.
Ventura County taxpayer advocates urged the board to adopt Flynn and VanderKolk’s suggestions.
“I’m pleased to see this is out in the open and is finally being discussed,” said H. Jere Robings, president of the Ventura County Alliance of Taxpayers.
Alliance member Don Hollingsworth told the board: “You have to make some difficult decisions. This is a start.”
But others said the proposals were simply unfair.
“To tell these people who are already underpaid that they must now take a 25% cut in pay is a grave injustice,” Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury told the board. “It is not simply sharing in the pain or making a sacrifice, this is tearing at the fabric of their families. It sends an unmistakable message that our people simply are not appreciated and valued.”
“I have seen employees this past week walk with their shoulders slumped and heads bowed because of this proposal,” said Sheila Gonzalez, executive officer of the Municipal and Superior courts. “To use such a proposal to wake up democracy is unwarranted.”
Barry Hammitt, executive director of the Service Employees International Union, Local 998, said no issue has sparked so much response from county employees since 1983, when the board considered a proposal to make employees pay a greater portion of medical premiums.
Eventually the county backed down on that matter, he said.
On Tuesday, Supervisor Susan K. Lacey choked back tears several times as employees explained how deeply they had been hurt by the proposals.
“This has demoralized and emotionally amputated me,” said Penny Bohannon, the county’s Sacramento lobbyist.
Several other women told the board they would have a hard time supporting their children if forced to take the cuts.
“Most of us are barely making it,” Bonnie Isaacs, a worker in the Public Social Services Agency, told the board. “We are not talking about cutting the fat, we’re cutting the bread.”