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Law enforcement: no salary caps on Measure Z

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – Faced with declining Measure Z public safety tax revenue and the increasing costs of law enforcement staff salaries, Humboldt County supervisors have decided that the situation is not at a critical level but have asked for a plan to address it.

At the Dec. 10 meeting, most of the Board of Supervisors didn’t support directing salary spending caps. Capping the salaries of previously-approved Measure Z-funded law enforcement positions is on the table after the chair of an advisory committee recommended it.

Supervisor Steve Madrone.

A letter from the advisory committee has warned of “a developing financial trend where the inflationary increases to ongoing personnel costs are causing a significant decrease in the discretionary funding portion of the Measure Z revenue.”

​County administrative staff reported that the cost of salaries and benefits for county staff has increased from 26 percent of total Measure Z funding in 2015 to 2016 to 68 percent of total funding in the current fiscal year. It’s an increase of $4.1 million.

​Those numbers were described as being “kind of skewed” by Sheriff Billy Honsal, who said the 2016 to 2017 year should be used as a baseline because that’s when all vacancies in the Sheriff’s Office were filled.

​Since then, the percentage increase has been from 52 percent to 68 percent, Honsal said.

​Beyond numbers and percentages, Honsal emphasized that funding for deputies and other public safety staff should continue because that’s the focus of Measure Z.

​“Measure Z has become all things to all programs within the county,” he said. “And although it’s great and there’s a lot of deserving programs, I think this board and the county should really focus on those county essential services and rural fire – and roads – that the ballot measure was referring to.”

​He added that he doesn’t believe the county “should be restricting or even discussing” caps on salary allocations because it “sends a bad message to law enforcement, to public safety and really, the intent of the ballot language.”

​District Attorney Maggie Fleming said it’s unfair to offer jobs if there’s no assurance that their full costs won’t be covered.

​“I can’t in good faith recruit someone to come from the Sheriff’s Office or (the Eureka Police Department), give up their seniority, take a position and then  have to say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t fund that spot anymore,’” she told supervisors. “That’s the issue with salary caps – we can’t be in a position where we’re going to offer people jobs but then not be able to fund them down the road.”

​County Chief Probation Officer Shaun Brenneman said Measure Z has “transformed our adult probation services” and to recruit officers, there needs to be “stability to be able to plan and make decisions.”

​Most supervisors agreed with the department heads, saying law enforcement salary spending is what provides the public safety Measure Z is supposed to fund.

​But Supervisor Steve Madrone said the imbalance between revenue and wage costs needs to be addressed because “left unchecked, we’re going to be in a difficult position in several years where we’re going to exceed the money anyway just simply because of increase in salaries.”

​Saying “we do have to have a plan for that,” Madrone recommended “some sort of a cap” or leaving positions vacant. “Ultimately, we have to have a plan for this because at the rate of increase in salaries, we’re going to be up against this,” he said.

​Supervisor Estelle Fennell said she appreciates the advisory committee’s fiscal caution but “I don’t think at this time it’s reached that level of emergency.”

​She suggested that the board direct staff to “do a little bit more analysis” as the next fiscal year’s budget is developed.

​Supervisors voted to have administrative staff work with the sheriff, DA and chief probation officer and come back with options on managing Measure Z costs.





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