Supervisors OK discretionary funds to help them better serve constituents
Two years and two weeks after a split Merced County Board of Supervisors voted to dissolve a budget practice that split $200,000 in discretionary funding between each supervisor annually for “special board projects,” the current board approved a $100,000 budget allocation for another discretionary strategy to “help them do their jobs.”
The vote was 4-1 to plan for the $100,000 in a way that distributes the money evenly to all five supervisorial districts (or $20,000 each) on a discretionary basis for Extra Help Administrative Assistants or “something else” to support the districts. Staff was directed to draw up rules and policies on use of the funds and the hiring and management of any additional staff assigned to district leaders. It was noted that individual leaders could opt out from receiving their share of funds, which in that case would presumably go back into the General Fund.
Supervisors Rodrigo Espinoza and Scott Silveira, the ones who made the motion, were asked to assist staff in the process.
Supervisor Daron McDaniel was the lone NO vote, and he did so emphatically, adding in frustration: “We close a fire station at Castle, but we can add assistants.”
The vote came toward the end of the Sept. 17 board meeting that was held mostly to finalize the 2019-20 fiscal budget — yet another “prudent” spending plan without any major controversy. However, the back-and-forth dialogue that developed over the $100,000 aide proposal — something that was included in the earlier proposed budget — harkened back to more contentious times in recent years.
Back in 2017, after a bitter dispute during the final budget hearing, Supervisors McDaniel, Lloyd Pareira and Jerry O’Banion outvoted their colleagues Espinoza and Lee Lor to end the practice of receiving an annual $40,000 each to spend as they see fit on community projects or programs.
For years, the practice would come under attack during election years, with some candidates calling it a “political slush fund” to win favor among constituents.
McDaniel had been a vocal critic, and during his first term he made several attempts to make the process more transparent among the community groups who received funding. He also urged use of the funds to be used for brick and mortar projects.
Past supervisor John Pedrozo used the money for a wide-range of community programs across his district, but he took heat for it from opponents when he ran for re-election. He also hired personal aides with the money, as did past supervisors Linn Davis and Deidre Kelsey.
Interestingly, another big election year is just around the corner in 2020. Supervisors Espinoza, Lor and Pareira are all up for re-election.
County supervisors make around $100,000 a year in salary, but well over that amount if the value of benefits is added on. The board chair also gets a monthly bump for performing extra duties. They all have private offices on the third floor of the County Administration Building, and the entrance to them is staffed by a few board clerks.
Earlier this year the idea of “direct administrative support” for supervisors surfaced once again, with concerns from Supervisors Lor, Espinosa and Silveira. Lor said she sent an extensive list of duties regarding constituent services over to county staff for review.
According to a budget report from the CEO’s office, “Some of the duties and responsibilities requested range from administrative such as calendaring meetings, scheduling appointments, assisting with constituent issues, following up on inquires, analyzing issues, creating tracking mechanisms, and attending meetings on behalf of and as a representative for a board member.”
At last week’s meeting, Lor spoke up first.
“I recognize we all have different needs,” she told her fellow board members. “I ask for help because we have always talked about increasing customer service to our constituents. … The assistance that would be provided would be a higher quality of customer services, and a broadened capacity for us as supervisors. … I need help in being organized and on top of things, and I believe staff can say that I constantly request for the same thing two or three times a year. If I had staff to help me keep that organized in one spot, and keep me on track with projects, I think that will decrease the workload for staff as well.”
She continued, “I recognize that some folks may see it as a campaign tool, or a political tool, but we have to admit this is a political position and everything we do, and everything that we say, is going to be political.”
Espinoza agreed and noted he had been requesting assistance before the board adopted the draft budget earlier in the summer.
“I’m trying to attend the Merced City Council meetings, but I also have MAC (Municipal Advisory Council) meetings in Le Grand and Planada, and I attend Livingston City Council meetings, as well as other subcommittees we are all separately involved in.”
The supervisor pointed out that Madera County supervisors have a full-time assistant chief of staff for, and also Stanislaus County supervisors have access to part-time help.
Supervisor McDaniel responded right back.
“No doubt this is a hard job,” he said. “I mean we get calls at 4:30 in the morning. We get calls at 12 o’clock at night. But the way I look at it is, we know what we signed up for. We signed up for this job. I absolutely love what I do, helping constituents. Constituent services has always been my priority. I have figured out a system. I can work with you guys on my system that seems to be working very well where I actually put it back into the constituents hands for some of our follow up.”
He continued, “When you compare us to the other counties … Our wage is among the highest … [Other supervisors] make a lower wage, but they do have assistants.”
Then McDaniel offered a solution that caused a few chuckles and laughs in the audience.
“Maybe there is a way you can work with the CEO’s office and use some of your salary to go back toward maybe an assistant,” he said in the direction of Lor and Espinoza. “We don’t have to accept our entire salary.”
Lor shot back, saying: “I know what I signed up for. I signed up for excellent customer service. Yes, I could take it out of my salary. I can share my finances. … My desire for an assistant is beyond the status quo that we as the Board of Supervisors, and as a county, have been providing. I have been an assistant to an executive most of my career. I have ran a nonprofit for six years without an assistant. And I have been in this position without an assistant, and I know with an assistant we could do so much more. Without an assistant, I will be forced to cut back on the quality and the quantity that I provide to constituents. Just know that. I know all about systems, and running efficiently, and the role that I have been taking is to build capacity in people. So yes, I do turn it back to the constituents, but in addition to turning it back to the constituents, I walk them through the process. The reason for that is everyone is scared of the government system. And so without holding their hand through this cycle one time, you are just throwing it back at them to fail.”
With that, Supervisor Silveira from the West Side chimed in, saying he was on the fence.
On one side: Having only been elected to the position for the first time in 2018, he admitted to asking County CEO Jim Brown for help. “In order for me to do my job for my 56,000 bosses, you need a little bit of help,” he said. “It’s quite overwhelming. I came from city government and I thought that was big and crazy. And then with the county government, we are on the verge of passing a $670 million budget.”
On the other side: “Then when you start to think about the whole picture. It’s logistics. Where are you going to put your part-time person. We are crammed for space, there are no empty offices. I don’t want to share my office. That would not be very productive for me … We have all been aware of potential things that supervisors are asking for. After reading the list, there is no way, with a part-time employee, 20 hours a week, that you are gong to get all those things addressed, and some of the more higher level stuff, I don’t know … If it’s a minimum wage, or even a $15 dollar-an-hour employee, I don’t’ know you if you are going to get that quality of a person at that price point … and then if it this starts out as a part-time position and then ends up a full-time position at some point … I don’t want to waste taxpayer dollars.”
Silveira ended up suggesting a “hybrid” approach of allocating the money evenly, but have each supervisor decided on whether they need their share or not.
Later, Lor detailed more of her concerns. She explained that when she started, she didn’t realize that she was the one who had to track the terms of community volunteers serving on board committees and commissions, letting them know when they were to expire, or letting new members know they have been accepted to panels. She also said she could use help writing those letters and copy editing them.
“It’s not that those duties are below me, it’s efficient because they’re representing us. When they don’t hear from us for two or three months about an application they turn in, how does it look on us?”
Lor also said new assistants could be used to present ceremonial county certificates when needed on behalf of supervisors.
After the vote on the item for $100,000 in administrative support for the Board of Supervisors, Chairman Pareira issued a clarification on the aforementioned comment made by Supervisor McDaniel on the fire station at Castle.
“I don’t believe we closed the fire station with our actions today,” he said.
Stay tuned. More to come in future editions of the County Times.