Do They Make Too Much?
It’s easy to go into sticker shock when you see what we’re paying our top county officials. In a county where the average family income is thought to be about $43,000 (probably closer to $38,000), should a handful of feeders at the public trough be bringing in over $100,000? What makes these cousins worth so much more than the rest of us?
Let’s ask a couple of questions first. What are the jobs, what are the consequences of failure at the jobs, what are the minimum qualifications, and why would someone with the necessary skills live here.
I The Job
The jobs and positions (some aren’t technically jobs) have a couple of things in common. First, their primary functions are similar:
The first task is one of continuity; if the funds aren’t found and if the budget isn’t closely managed, the department will begin to have problems. Any of the departments at the County would have this requirement but we’ll use social services as an example. As a general rule, social service departments in small counties have to spread their staff. This means that, for example, a mental health professional will treat clients, but will also make decisions about staff, and will oversee certain related functions administratively, or professionally. Even the person who drives a van may not be fully employed there, and will also perform other tasks. In social services, as in any department, people filling roles have to have appropriate education, experience or accreditation or licensing to perform tasks from driving a van to treating clients. The reason this becomes so critical is that a single individual may not be paid from just one fund. The person may work under one grant funded position part of the time, and under DSS/state funded positions at other times. The requirements of the funders (grantor and state) might not be the same, meaning your staff may have to have more than one certificate or license.
If funding is cut from a program, or if a grant ends, that person might be cut back, or the position might disappear, meaning all the related functions would have to be spread among current staff, if possible, or perhaps would vanish with the person. Revenue and funding sources for most departments are constrained, meaning only some can be used, and they can only be used a certain way.
It is very difficult for the department manager in small counties to avoid creating a house of cards.
Keeping the department and county free of lawsuit is another way of saying "obey the law and observe procedures common to your profession or specialty". Sure, anybody can sue anyone over anything at anytime, but most of those "any" suits go nowhere. The lawsuits managers have to worry about are the ones where someone in the department, maybe the manager or maybe the housekeeper, did something they shouldn’t have, they failed to observe law and procedure. This could be anything from failing to clean spilled water to failing to provide state mandated services. One of the quickest roads to death is to have staff providing services they are not legally qualified to provide. This means having the snow plow driver give a lift to a stranded motorist or having an unlicensed provider treat beyond their scope, or simply having staff trespass.
Looking at it from the perspective of the department head, the world is composed of their purview, the things they are in charge of. Anything beyond that is someone else’s purview. This world is where they send their staff. Staff can only navigate this world along established lines. Between established lines there are landmines, and when they are activated, lawyers creep from the woodwork. You don’t want that.
Organizing resources and prioritizing tasks is not a game for sissies. It is like being a slave with a thousand masters, some great but far away, some small but in your ear. Whether the service is plowing roads or granting waivers or providing counter service, there is no end to demands.
Some demands are not negotiable; if your staff doesn’t provide the service you’ll be sued, or you’ll lose revenue. Those masters you simply serve.
But then there are the community and political masters. Some have special needs and present themselves as representing all with such needs, and if you screw up, they might actually become that. The Board of Supervisors take heat from people while they’re checking their mail, and if the heat gets high enough or often enough, they’ll either have to do something or stop checking mail. The thing they can do is talk to the department head. They can’t tell the department head what to do in that instance, but they can carry a grudge if they aren’t given something to tell the folks in the P.O. The life of the department manager is tough enough without a scorned and vindictive supervisor to deal with. They can find themselves struggling to be allowed to hire appropriate staff, or apply for required funding. In extreme cases they are attacked personally for following law and prudent administrative procedures.
Finally, each department head represents a different problem for the public. The sheriff is a tool of oppression, the health department and building departments want people to be homeless. The tax assessor is greedy, the auditor is shifty, the director of slickery stuff plows his own driveway first. Government is often opaque to people, all they see is the person they think is responsible for whatever. A big part of the job of managing a department is to know when and how to respond to such criticism, and when to shut up.
II Consequences of failure
The consequence of failure for any department manager is most likely the hemorrhaging of money, often as a secondary effect of the loss of property, limb or life. Each department head has a "failure track" which can eventually lead to serious financial or regulatory harm to the County.
A quick nightmare example: The Director of Human Services delegates the hiring of a clinical social worker to another staff member. That person doesn’t properly check the credentials of the new staff. The new staff treats a client, say, a child, and that client comes to harm, is abused again, or killed, or commits suicide. Lawyers would come from down-below to handle a case like that (hell or Los Angeles, take your pick).
A very similar example could appear in any department: a house falls down, a car is hit, a road gives way, a building is over-assessed. In the last instance, no one was killed, but the subject of taxation, as we know, is second only to death.
In some instances, even insurance companies will abandon the County, if the laws and accepted procedures are violated too much.
III Minimum Qualifications
This will come as a shock to many, and it probably won’t be the shock it should be to some, but not every loudmouth in the county is smart enough to run a County department. Unless you can thoroughly read and completely understand complicated technical writing on complex subjects, you can’t fulfill the requirements of the job. You can be a county supervisor and ignore the board packet and doze through meetings, but you can’t do that and be a department head. That’s for starters.
Most of our top positions have professional requirements. Some are relatively easy to achieve, perhaps a BA degree and some specialized training; some require advanced degrees and licenses. Almost none of the positions can legally or adequately be filled by less. The degree is a start, a kind of "license to gain mastery" in the discipline. Experience is the real teacher.
The degree costs money; the experience takes time. These are qualities that the individual brings to the job, and they must be paid for. Without them, the County is at constant risk, as we’ve seen.
IV Why would someone with these qualifications live here?
Oh, we who love Sierra County are willing to endure all kinds of privations, from crappy television reception to slow internet, but not everyone is. People who set out to become professionals often want something back for their effort. That "something" is generally money. A hundred grand a year might sound like a lot to most of us cousins, but it’s peanuts in the world of big city and county government. Why should someone with the skills and qualifications to make big money on the coast put up with snow and a two hour drive to see a first run movie? Just to eat beans and drink beer with us wonderful cousins? In a city or larger county, a person could quit their job with the county if they wanted to and get another professional position without having to sell their house and move; you can’t do that here. If they loved us so much, they could work in Sacramento and eat beans with us on weekends, and some folks do that.
It is already possible that some of our department heads aren’t as smart or professional as they should be, we all know that. The sobering fact is that they are the best we could get for the money we pay. Better qualified people aren’t willing to move here for that.
Finally, let’s not forget that some of those high salaries include years, many years, of service to the county. Should a mill worker get regular increases to offset the greater experience and time in service, but a department head not?
V Locating ourselves in reality.
In reality, we need qualified people in all positions in County government. In reality, their skills are valuable, and they should be paid. Sure, we all hate the thought that the person next to us at the barbecue or Christmas party is making twice or three times what we are, and they’re taking it in public money. But maybe we ought to be a little grateful. Obviously, they do like our company, and they do care about our county, or they wouldn’t be sitting next to us. Maybe we should be glad some people are willing to live in our community, and practice their profession for our benefit.