County budget tops $1.3 billion
SEIU employees say proposed 2% wage increase isn’t enough and that budget hearings are not transparent
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – Tulare County will spend over a billion dollars by this time next year, more than a quarter of which is for employees. But many employees think the county should be spending more on the people who provide services to the community.
At its Sept. 10 meeting, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors passed a $1.3 billion budget. Total employee compensation increased from $360 million to $375 million. Half of that increase went to cost of living adjustments and merit increases for employees and the other half went to cover rising insurance premiums, ballooning pensions, and the addition of 72 employees, bringing the county to a total of 5,105 staff members.
“Tulare County has many needs and our budget attempts to address those. Increases in healthcare, retirement, as well as, risk insurance give us reason to remain cautious, while still investing in modern equipment and facilities,” says Board Chairman and District 1 Supervisor Kuyler Crocker.
The only opposition to the budget came from the county’s largest labor group, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Both current and former employees spoke on two main points that county workers deserved a 3% raise in order to keep up with the cost of living and that the county’s budget process needed to be more transparent.
Both the four county elected officials (Sheriff-Coroner, District Attorney, County Assessor/Clerk Recorder, and Auditor-Controller/Treasurer-Tax Collector) and the five Supervisors received a 2% increase, matching what SEIU said the county was offering their collective bargaining unit. However, the County and its largest employee group had not reached an agreement as of press time.
Nick Carrillo, vice president of the Visalia office of SEIU Local 521, presented the board with a petition signed by more than 700 employees. The online pledge listed Tulare County’s official mission and vision statement “To provide the residents of Tulare County with quality services to improve and sustain the region’s safety, economic well-being, and quality of life. Tulare County government strives to earn the trust, respect, and support of its residents through collaboration, fair, and effective service”
“Today, compensation and benefit policies of Tulare county undermine its own mission statement,” Carrillo said. “Low pay rates and inadequate/unaffordable health insurance are resulting in turnover, stress, and low morale, which hurt the ability of county employees to deliver the quality services that residents deserve.”
The petition called for the Supervisors to adopt and/or amend the budget in order to: 1) Implement a general increase of 3% for all employees; 2) Implement additional equity raises where studies have shown employees to be underpaid; and 3) Implement improvements to the basic health insurance plan to reduce copays, and to lower deductibles and out of pocket maximums.
Susane Gundy, who retired from Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) 20 years ago, said she supervised a corps of community health workers whose families were on MediCal due to the low wage. Now 20 years later, Gundy says their family’s health insurance is $800 per month, more than a week’s salary even at $15 per hour.
“In Tulare County, a county job is a good job but does not compare to jobs in other places,” Gundy said. “A 2% raise will not do anything to help our minimum wage employees.”
The county did take steps to leave more money in employee pocket books by restructuring its health care plans. Rhonda Sjostrom, Human Resources & Development Director for Tulare County, said the county invested $4.5 million into a plan to decrease Medical deductibles from $1,000 to $750, reduce the out-of-pocket maximum from $4,000 to $3,500, lower co-pays from $45 to $25 for primary care and $45 to $35 for specialists for more than 1,900 employees.
“By enhancing the services that our employees and dependents receive by decreasing the copays and deductibles, the hope is that more money will stay in the pocketbooks of employees and their dependents,” Sjostrom said.
Sjostrom said Tulare County is also the first government agency in California to contract with an innovative company 98point6, named after the human body’s optimum temperature. The company offers virtual doctor visits via text messaging as well as phone calls and online videos instead of driving to a doctor’s office. By using the service, Sjostrom said employees will not have a copay or any cost for the visit for and the county will not incur a claim cost for insurance. After an initial video interaction, county employees will be able to get prescriptions written out online and sent to a pharmacy. Sjostrom said county employees need to collectively use the service at least 286 times for the county to break even on its investment.
“Adding these other aspects, pretty impressive program for comparatively little cost and would save employees if take advantage of that,” said Supervisor Dennis Townsend, who represents District 5. “If living in Springville, 98point6 people in those areas will certainly use and end up being at no cost to employees.”
Employees also voiced concerns about the county’s budget process. They argued that the budget was not available until the Friday before the public hearing which did not give them, or the rest of the public, adequate time to digest the 438-page document.
“Today’s hearing is the first public hearing on this budget and it’s also the last,” said Amanda Silva, a social worker for 18 years. “This is truly a reflection of the priorities of this board which include limiting our residents and workers in expressing the true crisis impacting us and swiftly allocating funds to special interests that guide your decisions.”
Laura Hernandez called the process complacency instead of transparency and called for the board to adopt rules to ensure budget transparency. “It’s important for our community to at least have a glimpse and come here and share their thoughts and feelings,” she said.
In a meeting with local media prior to the budget hearing, CAO Jason Britt said employees and their representatives have many opportunities to comment on the budget throughout the year through advisory committees which work directly with departments and the public has an opportunity to hear the mid-year budget review in April-May and the Capital Improvement Plan in August.
Britt said it is difficult to provide a draft budget any earlier than September due to the state budget cycle. Of the county’s $1.3 billion budget, Britt said only about $176 million is discretionary, meaning the other 85% of the budget in mandated by the state or earmarked through grants. The state has until June 15 to adopt its budget and counties don’t receive hard numbers until mid July.
“We really only have about 6-8 weeks to put together the budget,” Britt said. “If we do it any earlier and the assumptions are too high or too low it can create a lot of problems.”
Britt also pointed out that county budget hearings happen at the same time every year. Due to the state cycle, Britt said Tulare County’s budget hearings fall on the second or third Tuesday of September every year because the budget needs to be adopted by Oct. 1.
County Administrative Officer Jason Britt hit the highlights of the budget during his presentation to the Board of Supervisors. The $844.5 million General Fund budget is almost a 7% increase, the largest year over year increase in the last five years. Revenues were up nearly 8% with the largest increase (16.69%) coming in local sales tax. Expenditures increased by 9.4% or about $119 million due to increases in pensions, bonds for sewer rural sewer systems and loans to enterprise funds. The largest increase, just over $2 million, came in special district funds.
Higher than expected countywide revenues and unplanned departmental savings increased the General Fund Unassigned balance to $46.3 million. The Capital Improvement Plan allocated nearly $6 million of county funds but plans on spending nearly $40 million overall on projects this year. Projects to be completed in the current fiscal year 2019-20 are Fire Station No. 1 ($3.7 million), remodel of the Dinuba Library ($2.1 million), an emergency dispatch center ($2.2 million), a vocational education building ($400,000), and the Three Rivers public restrooms ($530,000) and the South County Detention Facility ($3 million this year).
Britt also reported that, “The adopted $1.38 billion budget demonstrates Tulare County’s sound financial position due to the Board’s fiscal policies to maintain feasible and sustainable operations while providing mandated and essential services; funding local programs and projects; meeting capital and infrastructure needs all while maintaining reserves and contingencies.”
Crocker ended the budget hearing by stating the budget was more than numbers as it laid out goals and objectives for each department. He applauded the county’s ability to increase reserves by $2 million to $32 million, lauded the Economic Development for facilitating 250 new private sector jobs, and celebrated Adult Protective Services for having the third highest percent of employees with certifications statewide.
“I’m proud of our hard working employees who make this financial document a reality every day,” Supervisor Crocker said. “Not only does this provide transparency for the County in regards to revenues and expenses, but also lists out the goals and objectives for our 22 departments for the 2019-20 fiscal year.”