Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Wednesday, June 26 @ 5:08 p.m. / Infrastructure, Local Government, Roads

Budget Discussion Turns Testy When Starkey, Short Request Raises For Road Workers

Roads Division employee Tristan Smith breaches Lake Earl in this January 2020 photo. | File photo: Jessica C. Andrews


2024-25 Recommended Budget Memo


District 2 Supervisor Valerie Starkey traded words with Del Norte County’s administrative officer over a proposal to increase wages within the Road Division that she said the full Board hadn’t seen.

The proposal came to her attention after she questioned management about requested adjustments that were included in the budget packet she and her colleagues received. Starkey said she felt the request was too low. The Road Division is grossly understaffed, receives about $1.5 million every year in SB 1 gas tax dollars, has about $5 million in revenues total and can afford increasing wages, she argued.

County Administrative Officer Neal Lopez told supervisors Tuesday that the proposal in question was submitted to the budget team by “somebody else other than the department head.” It didn’t reflect what the department head had discussed with the budget team and compared Del Norte County wages to pay staff with Caltrans and California State Parks receives, Lopez said.

He also argued that increasing wages in one division would impact others within the Community Development Department and within the county structure as a whole.

“Whether or not you can afford something does not address the impact to the county structure,” he said. “We can talk about county structure and bring something forward that fits within the county structure without impacting other departments.”

Lopez and his budget team, which includes Auditor-Controller Clinton Schaad and Assistant CAO Randy Hooper, presented the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors with an overall recommended 2024-25 fiscal year budget of $182,513,391 and a general fund budget of $40,386,950.

The budget team began asking department heads for their requests, including staffing changes, for the 2024-25 fiscal year in March. While they approved a slew of budget-related items on Tuesday, which included a series of public workshops, the 2024-25 budget isn’t final, Board Chair Dean Wilson said.

“Negotiations are still being held, still being conducted and still being managed as to salaries, benefits and other considerations whether it be with the Road Department, whether it be with the Sheriff’s Office or whether it be with DHHS, etc.,” he said. “This is just so we can continue to spend as we have dictated as we move forward to adopt the final budget, which is many months down the road.”

The final budget must be adopted by Oct. 2, according to the county’s staff report.

One of the actions the Board took Tuesday was to approve a list of position reclassifications for the upcoming fiscal year that included adjustments to salary ranges. Though they approved the list as-written, supervisors told staff to bring recommendations back to them from both the budget team and department leaders at their second meeting in July.

According to Lopez, salary adjustments would take effect July 5. He asked for time for the Human Resources Department to work on job descriptions since it’s also woefully understaffed.

Starkey said she wanted to be sure that the proposed wage adjustments the Roads Division submitted to the budget team on April 8 be included.

“The Board of Supervisors have to make these big decisions on a $182 million budget,” she told the Wild Rivers Outpost on Wednesday. “We can’t make it with just limited information. We have to be able to make these decisions with all of the information in front of us so we’re making decisions that are equitable [and] in the best interest of Del Norte County.”

According to Starkey, out of 10 road maintenance worker positions, four are filled. The roads superintendent will hire someone, train them and then lose them to Caltrans, who Del Norte can’t compete with, Starkey told the Outpost.

Though it was Starkey who traded words with Lopez over the issue, her colleague, District 1 Supervisor Darrin Short introduced the subject of wages in the Roads Division. Short said he had also seen the proposal to adjust on the new salary ranges within the division and he said he was disappointed that it hadn’t been included in the budget team’s presentation.

“We hear from the Roads Superintendent that he can’t hardly put a flagging team together much less accomplish a project on a road,” Short said. “I think this is our opportunity especially since that proposal is completely funded with SB 1 money that the taxpayers voted in.”

The proposal called for increasing the hourly wage for a Road Maintenance Worker I from $18.77 to $20.55, according to Starkey. The hourly wage for a Road Maintenance III position would increase from $22.51 to $28.34, she said.

“It’s not a significant amount especially when you’re looking at some of these other positions that are being [reclassified] today,” she said. “The [wage] for that particular position would increase 25%. If you look at some of these other re-classes they’re increasing by 27 percent. It’s affordable, it’s within their budget and it’s something we should do.”

Starkey argued that the wage adjustments proposed in the county’s overall reclassification list should be cost of living adjustments.

While it’s within the Board of Supervisor’s rights to reclassify positions and establish a salary structure within a department, impacts to employees have to be negotiated with the unions representing those employees. It also has impacts to the county’s workers compensation and unfunded liability expenses, he said.

“There is a contract negotiation that will be coming forward with the union that’s going to result in at least a three-year contract and wage adjustments for each of those years,” Lopez said. “When I talked about the impact to workers comp or unfunded liability, all of those things have impacts, which is why I’m asking you guys to consider all of these things when we talk about this.”

Though she conceded that the budget team did what it’s supposed to do, Starkey said she feels that she and her fellow supervisors aren’t given all of the information.

“At some point if the Board was to ask, ‘what got denied,’ you would think the budget team would say ‘here’s all the things we denied, but we’ll give the Board a choice,’” she told the Outpost, adding that department managers can provide information to the Board of Supervisors, though the budget team discourages that practice. “But sometimes when you ask [they say], ‘No, nothing was denied. You got everything.’ And then you come to find out maybe there was something else.”

Frequent public commenter Sam Strait said he understood where Lopez came from, pointing out that California had recently increased its minimum wage for restaurant workers to $20 per hour. The fall-out from that decision has yet to be realized, he said.

Strait also said that if the Board of Supervisors approve wage increases for its lowest paid employees, its highest earners will probably also get an increase.

“I am loathe to think what the president of the union is going to have to say regarding your insistence that one department and, in fact a couple of people in that department, get raises,” he said. “She’s going to have to negotiate with the rest of her fellow employees in terms of what they’re going to be expecting from the Board.”

Strait’s expectation proved accurate. Norma Williams, president of the Del Norte Employees Association SEIU 1021, warned supervisors that the union will be asking for wage increases for every classification it represents.

“The wages are, and I’m going to be using a vernacular in English not in Spanish, crap,” she said, adding all county employees deserve raises. “This [discussion] was eye-opening and enlightening for me because, yes, what you do decide on we will be asking and demanding for all later on.”


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