Why are many people angry at the Modesto Irrigation District? Well, let's see, repeat electrical rate increases, a $1 million-plus legal settlement for ineptly handling the environmental review process for a biomass project and, of course, the proposed sale of water to San Francisco.
Citizens are watching the actions of the MID like never before and many aren't satisfied.
So what do they see now? A tentative agreement that would give MID cost-of-living raises that could total 12 percent over the next 2½ years. In addition, 55 percent of the district's 400 employees would get so-called market adjustments raises of between 3 and 34 percent based on salary comparisons with 14 other utilities and public employers in Northern California.
If the new contract with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers is approved by the board Aug. 14, the cost-of- living and the salary survey raises will total almost $4 million for 2012. The increases for 2013 and 2014 and therefore the total cost for those years will depend on the Consumer Price Index.
The tentative agreement makes little change in the district's generous health insurance benefits, for which employees currently pay only 10 percent of their monthly premium, but do create a lower level of pension benefits for future hires. Their normal retirement age would go from 60 to 65.
There are three ways to look at this tentative agreement:
Employees: They believe they are long overdue for raises because their salaries haven't gone up since December 2007, when the workers received the last of four yearly raises. The amounts: 3 percent in 2004 and again in 2005; 3.25 percent in 2006 and then 3.75 percent in 2007.
Furthermore, the IBEW salary comparison shows that for occupations such as lineman, the MID is now among the lowest paying utilities, with an hourly rate of $38.28, compared with $45 for the Turlock Irrigation District and $47 to $51 for Pacific Gas & Electric. The employee perspective: We deserve these raises.
The five elected directors: Their comments to The Bee suggest directors want to be fair to employees but recognize that the raises are out of step with what's happening in the community. County government has negotiated permanent 6 percent pay reductions with most of its employee groups. The city of Modesto is pushing for employees to permanently pick up most of the contribution to their pension, resulting in lower take-home pay.
Over the years, MID leaders have been quick to point out that labor costs are a relatively small part, about 15 percent, of the total budget, while buying power and natural gas are the big expenditures. That's in contrast to school districts and the county, where labor costs are the big expenditures.
What is getting less attention is an unfair labor practice charge pending since late 2009. At that time, the district and the IBEW had a tentative agreement that the board suddenly rejected after the unions unanimously approved it. That triggered a dispute that is pending before the state Public Employment Relations Board. We suspect the union would drop the charge if it gets this new contract. Or the board risks losing before PERB and being ordered to make retroactive raises to 2009.
The public: While MID employees haven't had cost-of- living raises, they haven't had to sacrifice with furloughs or other compensation cuts. They've had it darned good compared with many public and private sector workers. Furthermore, Modestans are paying higher power bills, which the MID has claimed are necessary primarily because of the state's mandate for green energy.
Approval of this generous contract will put the MID further out of step with the experiences of most local residents in this economy. And it will only exacerbate the mistrust and anger.