State

Stanislaus County laying off 16 more workers

A Stanislaus County employee sent a “pretty passionate” e-mail in which she “begged and pleaded” for elected officials to save her job, Supervisor Bill O’Brien said Tuesday as leaders undertook one of their ugliest tasks.

Rick Robinson, the county’s chief executive officer, ignored impersonal PowerPoint slides for a moment, saying he felt a need to “speak from a more visceral level.”

Supervisor Jim DeMartini groused that state legislators’ “disturbing” slothfulness in dealing with money problems amounts to cutting back on “coffee cups and cell phones.”

Dick Monteith, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, urged colleagues to man up.

“If we can’t address the responsibility before us,” he said, “we don’t belong here.”

Moments later, 16 more county workers learned that they will join the ranks of the unemployed.

Supervisors say they agonize over layoffs, which have helped the county downsize by nearly 1,000 jobs — 21 percent — in about three years. But pulling the trigger has become almost routine, and leaders say the end of pink slips is not in sight.

The latest to get walking papers: four code enforcement officers, six maintenance workers, three janitors, a mechanic, and a clerk and middle manager in Robinson’s office.

When they leave — their last days vary among departments, from April to July — the county will be down to 3,616 workers. That’s fewer than the work force in 1996, although the county still employs more than any other entity in the region, public or private.

Among the county’s 27 departments, reductions have claimed as many as 40 percent of employees in the agricultural cooperative extension and 39 percent in the general services agency. Ten departments have suffered staffing reductions of more than 18 percent, said assistant executive officer Monica Nino.

“These are very troubling and difficult times,” said Patty Hill Thomas, another assistant executive.

Plummeting sales and property taxes are blamed, although sales tax has picked up a bit in recent months. At the same time, the county’s retirement and worker compensation costs have soared.

Despite downsizing and across-the-board 5 percent pay cuts, the county faces a projected $28 million general fund deficit in the fiscal year starting July 1. Leaders will use $8 million from reserves for the third time in as many years, and hope that a retirement board in coming weeks will reduce the county’s obligation by $12 million.

If the Stanislaus County Employees Retirement Association refuses, leaders might tap another reserve fund later this year, taking as much as $18.4 million, Robinson said.

Regardless, more layoffs are expected when supervisors confront a proposed budget in early June.

Eventually, the county will have redefined its mission with fewer employees and will resist the urge to bulk up when times get better, said Robinson, who will retire at the end of the year.

Sonya Harrigfeld, environmental resources director, said three workers will remain in code enforcement, with one dedicated to following up on verified complaints. The unit deals with vacant homes, graffiti, abandoned vehicles and junk piles.

Calling that work “important,” O’Brien voted against laying off the four unit workers; other budget votes were unanimous. He apologized to those dismissed, and their families.“As we fight over this, it’s going to be tougher and tougher and I fully expect and predict there are going to be disagreements about what should be cut,” O’Brien said. “I think it’s important to debate the issues in this boardroom.”

Supervisor Terry Withrow tried to strike an optimistic tone.

“We’re going to find ways to look at things differently,” Withrow said. “We’re going to come up with ways to fundamentally restructure what we do here. And we will come out stronger than we were going in.”

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390.

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