State

Stanislaus County cuts wages 5%

Stanislaus County supervisors on Tuesday reduced next year's pay for almost all employees by 5 percent, cut retirement benefits for some future workers and approved a buyout plan for those thinking about retiring soon.

The pay reductions — in the form of 13-day furloughs for nearly all 3,762 full-time workers — could save about 70 positions by cutting $13.8 million in salary costs. However, dozens of employees still face layoffs in coming weeks as the county's bottom line continues to stagger under a $23 million deficit.

After recent membership votes, the 12 unions representing county workers agreed to the furloughs. Wages for 413 unrepresented managers and elected officials likewise will go down 5 percent. Exceptions are Treasurer-Tax Collector Gordon Ford, who refused to go along and can't be compelled, and about 26 resident physicians in training, whose contracts are unlike those of other county employees.

Workers will have two years to take off 13 unpaid days, the equivalent of 5 percent of a year's salary, starting with the new fiscal year July 1. Only 11 of the county's 27 departments imposed furloughs in the current fiscal year, affecting 34 percent of the county work force; terms previously were decided by department heads.

"These are not insignificant reductions in wages," said board Chairman Jeff Grover, thanking employees for support "in this unprecedented time of financial stress."

A majority of supervisors twice in recent years declined to give raises of varying amounts to six elected department heads, including Ford, he noted in an e-mail read during Tuesday's public hearing.

Raises recommended at those times were based on a survey of salaries paid to officials in comparably sized counties, and ranged from 4.9 percent for Auditor-Controller Larry Haugh to 12.6 percent for Ford. Others who would have received more money were Sheriff Adam Christianson, District Attorney Birgit Fladager, Assessor Doug Harms and Clerk-Recorder Lee Lundrigan.

The proposals would have bumped Ford's salary to $142,979 in September 2007 and to $147,975 in January 2008.

Haugh and Harms also are exempt from furlough pay reductions because they plan to retire soon. The salaries of Christianson, Fladager and Lundrigan will be reduced 5 percent just like their employees' pay, as will pay for the five county supervisors and all other managers.

County leaders in 2002 adopted more attractive retirement benefits to lure and retain qualified workers. Tuesday's vote reverses that, but only for workers hired after the end of this year who aren't represented by unions.

The county has 413 unrepresented workers, mostly managers and elected officials.

Also, retirement formulas for future unrepresented employees will be based on average pay during a worker's final three years, supervisors decided Tuesday. The current practice based on the final year of employment has allowed some to spike retirement packages by claiming vacation cash-outs and other compensation.

An ongoing hiring freeze suggests that few would be subject to the new rules next year, but leaders have been under pressure to adjust perceived extravagant pension terms, and Tuesday's move is considered a first step.

Officials want to lower benefits for all future employees and are in negotiations with the unions.

Proposed formulas would lower retirement pay from 3 percent of salary for each year worked, as of age 50, to 2 percent for public safety workers such as deputies. All others already get 2 percent for each year worked at age 55; the new formula would not kick in until a worker reaches 61.

Court rulings have prevented public agencies from imposing lower retirement terms on existing employees, who enjoy "legally protected vested benefits."

Buyout terms adopted Tuesday would give retiring employees with 20 years of service $1,000 for each year worked, up to $25,000. A report says paying that amount still would be less than forking out unemployment benefits to laid-off workers.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.

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