The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, after less than 15 minutes of discussion, voted unanimously to approve the pay increase requested for Sheriff Mike Downey to compensate him for the extra duties he's taking on in the wake of his office consolidating that of the coroner-public administrator. Each member of the board stressed before the vote that the consolidation was about better service to the public, not budget savings.
The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors is set today to consider approving an almost $15,000 pay bump for Sheriff Mike Downey to compensate him for the extra duties he’s taken on since the Coroner-Public Administrator’s Office was consolidated under his on Feb. 1.
But Downey said he wants to make clear, he’s not asking for a raise.
“This is compensation for taking on a new agency,” he said. “I’m not asking for a pay raise, I’m asking to be compensated for taking on a whole new department.”
Including benefits, the 10-percent pay increase would cost the county a total of $19,569 annually, according to a staff report, which makes some simplistic and questionable claims regarding the projected budget savings associated with consolidation. The item is listed on the consent calendar for this morning's board meeting, which means it is considered routine and on the fast track toward approval.
Former Coroner Dave Parris announced
back in November, four months after being elected to another four-year term, that he would be retiring effective Jan. 30 (read more about what lead up to Parris’ decision here
). In the announcement, Parris recommended that his office be consolidated with that of the sheriff, saying his office was chronically understaffed, leaving his employees overworked and in danger of burnout. In short order, the supervisors voted unanimously to follow Parris’ recommendation, noting that 48 of California’s 58 counties had consolidated their coroners’ offices and pledging that the move would come with anticipated budget savings for the county.
Since the offices consolidated officially Feb. 1, the coroner’s office has been under the direct supervision of Sheriff’s Sgt. Ernie Stewart, who’s serving as chief deputy coroner. The supervisors also recently funded a deputy sheriff position to help staff the office.
The staff report notes that, prior to consolidation, the county funded the coroner-public administrator position at about $8,715 a month. With the new deputy position funded at about $4,887 a month and Downey’s requested bump of $1,242, the county’s still operating at net savings, the staff report notes. If those numbers were the only additional costs, the county would, in fact, see a savings of $2,586 a month.
But, the staff report seems to be leaving out a few things — most notably, Stewart’s new role in the coroner’s office. While Stewart’s salary was already on the books and isn’t a new expenditure, he does represent a new body in the coroner’s office and represents one less in the sheriff’s office, which Downey and others have lamented as understaffed for years. According to the website transparentcalifornia.com, Stewart made just over $80,000 in salary in 2013, not including overtime pay ($22,800) and benefits ($32,400). That’s about $6,671 a month in just salary.
Additionally, there are the benefits for the new deputy that, according to www.transparentcalifornia.com, will run roughly $28,000 annually, or $2,333 a month.
So, it seems, a more accurate accounting of the already allocated ongoing costs of the consolidation are $7,220 for the deputy alone. Then there’s Stewart’s $9,371 a month in benefits and salary. And, now — potentially — Downey’s monthly increase of $1,630. That brings the total monthly expenditures now going to the coroner’s office that weren’t a couple of months ago to $18,221.
To be fair, the county wasn’t comparing apples to oranges. The monthly salary the staff report says Parris was taking home — $8,715 — didn’t include benefits either. In 2013, according to transparentcalifornia.com, Parris got about $28,250 in benies, bringing his monthly cost to the county to $11,069.
Instead of saving money, as was billed, one could argue — if the board approves Downey's pay increase today — that the county will actually be paying an extra $7,152 a month to carry out its post-consolidation coroner functions, when one balances Parris' cost verse those of Stewart, the new deputy and the aforementioned raise. And those are just the immediate ongoing costs, not taking into account long-term pension impacts or the one-time $26,700 allocated for pre-consolidation training.
Now, one can surely argue, as Parris did, that the coroner’s office was woefully understaffed and that the very reason for consolidation was to bring in extra help, like the new deputy to enter the call rotation with the three existing deputy coroners and Stewart to take over administrative duties. That’s essentially two people stepping in to do Parris’ job and help out elsewhere, which one images would be welcome in a long stretched department.
Similarly, one can argue that there’s a chance this pencils out in the end. In 2013, the office’s three deputy coroners — Charles Van Buskirk, Trevor Enright and Roy Horton — combined to earn more than $45,000 in overtime pay. If having a sheriff’s deputy in the rotation schlepping calls and Stewart handling the administration — instead of Parris doing both — adds efficiency, maybe those overtime hours come down, though it remains an unknown just one month in.
For his part, Downey said technological efficiencies that came as a part of the consolidation are already yielding some results as well, and he expects to see overtime hours come down. “We’ve been able to spread the workload out,” he said, adding that he’s also considering revising work schedules in an effort to cut down after-hours callouts. Additionally, he said, some deaths that are obviously natural and not suspicious are now being dealt with in the field by deputies, who call mortuaries directly rather than rousing a deputy coroner. “The overtime issue should be more manageable now,” Downey said. “We’re not waking up people in the middle of the night as we have in the past.”
One can also argue simply that Downey is taking on extra responsibilities and should be paid accordingly. The county staff report notes that compensation plan approved by the board for elected officials provides a “process for evaluating additional compensation for department heads based on changes in responsibility.” It could even be argued that the 10 percent bump is a bargain, as a Journal
analysis of similar sized counties back in September found that sheriff-coroners made an average of about $26,000 more than their sheriff counterparts.
But one could also argue that the county staff report is at best an oversimplification of the issue and at worst a totally misleading when it states: “Elimination of the coroner-public administrator position saved $8,715 monthly. On Feb. 10, your board approved an additional allocation for a Deputy Sheriff I/II, which will cost approximately $4,887 monthly at top step. Even with additional compensation for the sheriff, there is still a net savings to the county through the consolidation of offices.”
County Administrative Officer Phillip Smith-Hanes and Human Resources Director Dan Fulks are both recommending Downey receive the 10-percent bump. See the full staff report below.