The Supervisors’ Pay Raise and a More Accurate Set of Facts

This is an important discussion and having the right facts is critical in understanding the issues involved. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation being used to stir up hate and public mistrust of the County government.  That is very unfortunate as, again, this is an important topic that could significantly affect how the County moves forward and the public should have been involved much earlier in the process.  The real question should be, how can we attract the most qualified candidates for County Supervisor that will help our economy grow while preserving our rural heritage?  Let’s look at some of the facts and issues involved.

Per Capita Income – The “raise” is not larger than the per capita income for the County

One “fact” that is often repeated, but is not accurate, e.g. Don Melcher and Saralynn Nusbaum’s letter to the Gazette on January 23rd, is that the $30K raise itself (from ~$50K to ~$80K) is greater than the per capita income of Mariposa County, citing data from the Census Bureau.  While it is true that the Census bureau does list the per capita income for the County as slightly less than $30K, during the January 7th Board meeting, County staff mentioned that the 2018 per capita income for the County was $53,143 citing the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) as their source.  Both numbers seem to be measuring the same thing, the total income for the County divided by the total population of the County.  How can both of these numbers be right?  Or, which is more accurate?

The answer lies in the methodology used to derive the two numbers.  The Bureau of Economic Analysis, which is part of the Department of Commerce, uses income information from the federal government’s income and tax records (IRS) for jobs located in Mariposa County.  The income data used by Census Bureau comes from the interview that Census workers conduct when visiting people in their homes and the answer given when asked if they recall their income for the previous year.  The Census Bureau data is therefore based on self-reported income, and not a government verified source.  Dan Flaming’s letter to the Editor to The Sierra Sun Times on February 5th discusses the differences between the methodologies of these two sources, and states clearly that economists regard the BEA data as the more accurate indicator of economic data for the County.  No incompetence here on the part of County staff or a need for a Grand Jury investigation of lies or fraud.  

The Compensation Analysis – Supervisor salaries must be competitive with other jobs in the region to attract qualified candidates other than retirees

The County Human Resources Director hired Bryce Consulting to do the compensation study for the County that served as a basis for the salary adjustment for the Supervisors and raises for department heads.  Bryce used 8 counties, including Merced and Madera Counties, in their study as those are the counties to which we tend to lose employees if our County salaries are not competitive.  And after consultation with SEIU.

Barbara Cone’s Letter to the Editor, written in opposition to the “60% raise”, agreed that it was proper to include Merced and Madera Counties for determining department head salaries, but that those counties should not be included for the Supervisor salary study since only residents of Mariposa County can run for Mariposa County Supervisor and Supervisor salaries in neighboring counties are therefore not relevant. She focused her analysis on other small counties where Supervisor pay was lower than ours and concluded that not only do our Supervisors not deserve a raise, but that they are already overpaid.

However, the premise of that Letter, that the Supervisor’s salary does not need to be competitive with other jobs in the region as the Supervisor’s job is the only job someone wanting to be a Supervisor and living in the County can take, is obviously itself flawed.  While that may be the only County Supervisor’s job they can take, it is certainly not the only job they can take, and those competing jobs will likely have a much higher salary.  

The basic premise for the County’s salary adjustment was not only salary equity within the County government, but the fact that a higher salary would attract a wider range of qualified applicants for Supervisor by appealing to those of pre-retirement age who have the desired business and management skills.  For the sake of discussion, let’s imagine that you are of pre-retirement age and you and your spouse live, or want to live, in Mariposa County where you can raise your kids in a beautiful and safe rural environment.  Let’s also imagine that you are running a department or office for a company, have experience managing personnel and budgets, are making $150 to $200K+ in salary, but that job involves, or would involve a long commute.  You want to find a job closer to home but taking a $50K job as a Supervisor would not serve your family’s best economic interests.  Let’s face it, a potential BOS candidate could earn more working for the County as an admin or other jobs within the County, as the average salary of County workers, those supervised by the Board, is $79,919.   Department heads, deputy department heads and many senior positions within the County make over $100,000 in annual salary, in some cases much more.  In what business does an admin make more than the boss?

So, no, our potential Supervisor candidate won’t take the $50K Supervisor job, but rather some other job in the County or neighboring counties where they can make many times that amount.  Dan Flaming’s study of the Mariposa Economy in 2012 showed that 28% of those living in Mariposa County who are employed, work in other counties with Merced and Madera Counties topping the list.  That number is likely even higher now given the expansion of U.C. Merced.  We live and work in a regional economy and salaries in Mariposa County cannot be considered in isolation.  

Or let’s consider the case of a successful local small business owner, perhaps a contractor who manages projects, makes payroll and deals with local and State regulations.  They would also be a good candidate for Supervisor, but since it would likely mean suspending or neglecting their business, taking the job as Supervisor for $50K would likely not be smart from the point of view of family finances.  

It is not that the current ~$50K Board salary is a horrible salary, it is just too low to attract non-retired people of the desired and needed experience to manage our County as a successful organization going forward. Raising the Board salary to ~$80K will certainly help make the salary more equitable within the County organization – equal to the average salary – but it also makes the Supervisor’s job more competitive with all the other jobs that a qualified candidate for Supervisor might also take.  But no qualified candidate is going to run for Supervisor, just to get a job.  A qualified candidate will have other options for likely a higher salary and given the long hours and periodic very public negative comments, including occasional death threats, taking a job as County Supervisor requires strong desire for public service.

Barbara Cone recently stated on Facebook that there was no example or proof that offering a higher salary for Supervisor might attract younger candidates.  Let’s look at Merced County where the $140K salary has, according to public testimony in the meeting on January 7th, now attracted two Supervisors in their 40s and according to the testimony, they are making a real difference for Merced County.

The job of Supervisor is a time-consuming job, with many evenings spent in meetings or answering constituents’ phone calls or emails, with weekends spent reading the hundreds of pages in the Board packet in preparation for the next Board meeting.   If done properly, being a County Supervisor is a full-time job and then some.  Currently, on an hourly basis, one can make more whacking weeds than working as a County Supervisor in Mariposa County!  

In those other counties where they Supervisors have a lower pay, and that Barbara’s Letter to the Editor considered, some of the Supervisors there also hold another full-time job and thus are not always able to adequately prepare for important decisions at Board meetings.  That does not serve those counties’ interests well.  “You get what you pay for” is likely true when it comes to County Supervisors.  

Compensation Studies, Apples and Oranges – there is no other Mariposa County

It is also fair to say that comparing Supervisor’s salaries between Counties is not easy.  There are many more variables than population and square miles.  Some counties have incorporated cities, we don’t. Some counties have board meetings once a month and/or take the summer off.  We typically meet four times a month with the exception of national holidays.  Some other county Supervisors, such as in Madera County, have staff and/or a Chief Administrative Officer to which the department heads report. We don’t.  We also have a lot of special districts and commissions for which we serve as the governing body and that increases the responsibility and workload relative to some other counties.  That is why we hired a professional organization to conduct the compensation study, and that study certainly supported the salary adjustment.  At the end of the day however, they also realized that there is not another Mariposa County and besides the comparison with other counties, it was also important that we have salary equity within the County government itself and that the Supervisors’ job was salary competitive with other jobs in the region that might attract the same qualified candidates.  We need County Supervisors with business and management skills and experience, and a vision on how to use those skills for the benefit of Mariposa County.   You will not get that for $50K a year unless you find some exceptionally dedicated retired person for which the salary just does not matter.  

An important part of this whole discussion, however, is the recognition on everyone’s part that the job of County Supervisor, in Mariposa County at least, is a full-time job with the need for regular office hours, calendars available for staff to schedule meetings, travel, evening and weekend meetings, etc.  We badly need a code of conduct and a job description for our Supervisors to avoid any misunderstandings in this area.   

The Fiscal Impact of the Salary Adjust – Yes, it makes dollars and sense.  

Kim Williams, our Human Resources Director stated that the cost of the Salary adjustment is 0.15 of one percent of our overall budget but also noted that bad decisions by the Board can cost considerably more:

“And as we had seen several boards ago, bad decisions can cost the County far greater sums than what we are discussing today, and with ramifications that can be felt for decades.”

Part of the justification for the salary adjustment therefore also is that a Board with greater business and management experience will be less likely to make expensive mistakes.  

A Supervisor with experience dealing with State and Federal agencies can also help bring needed funding to the County.  Just one disaster or emergency declaration, such as Tree Mortality, or one grant where the Supervisor played significant role in writing or advocacy in Sacramento or DC can bring back far more money to the County than their salary.  Doors are more open in Sacramento and DC to “electeds”, i.e. a County Supervisor, than they would be to County staff.  Perhaps that is because many of them, like Senator Feinstein, got their start as a County Supervisor and have a soft spot in their heart for them because of it.  

The Timing Issue – This issue could have and should have been made public a year ago.

One thing everyone agrees on is that the timing of this whole Supervisor salary conversation stinks in that it came to the public attention too late to affect the current election cycle. Thus, we have three uncontested races for Supervisor.  There is talk about some Supervisors trying to sneak this item in without public discussion for their own benefit.  It is therefore important that the public understands why the timing was what it was.  

Currently department heads, such as the Human Resources Director, Kim Williams, report to two Board Liaisons for that department, rather than the whole Board.  Kim brought the Supervisor salary issue up to her Board liaisons, Supervisors Jones and Long, more than a year ago, according to comments by those two Supervisors at the Board meeting on January 7th.  Rather than allowing Kim to bring the matter to the whole Board for discussion and direction a year ago, they asked her not to.  It ended up being combined with the salary study and action for the department heads scheduled for the meeting on December 10th.  The other Board members did not find out about this until some time before the agenda for that meeting went around for internal review and then was made public.  At that point, it was too late to affect this election cycle, and that is very unfortunate.

The fact that two Board members could so significantly affect County policy without knowledge or consent of the whole Board or the public is one of the most disturbing aspects of this whole unfortunate series of events.  Does the system of Board Liaisons make really sense for good governance?  Certainly not in this case.

Which Way to Go? – who should be a County Supervisor?

I certainly realize that not everyone has the same vision of how our County moves forward, or perhaps backwards in some cases, or the role that a County Supervisor should have in those decisions, but I hope we can agree that our Board of Supervisors should reflect the makeup of our community.  To quote again from Ms. Williams:

“This election we are seeing three uncontested races for supervisor, and while this is in no way a value statement to be made about any member of the current board or our next one, it does signal that we are not drawing out more candidates and we are not drawing out any member of the community who would need to support a family. This restricts the competition of ideas and impacts policy decisions for many years down the road. And if we care at all about building up a local government that is for the people and by the people, then we are going to need to take steps to ensure we can build a representative body that reflects the diversity of age, incomes, and perspectives that makes up Mariposa’s entire community.”

This is an important discussion that we need to have as a community. It would have been good if the salary adjustment was brought forward for discussion and direction by the whole Board a year ago, and we could have had public debate on this issue without the hate, angst, threats of Grand Jury investigations, and perhaps the need for a costly special election(?).  We all deserve better.