Raises OK'd for Modesto Irrigation District employees

gstapley@modbee.comDecember 18, 2012 

— After four years without a formal contract, most Modesto Irrigation District employees will get raises — some substantial — thanks to Tuesday's 3-2 board vote.

Workers in the audience were happy and thankful. Some board members hinted that a new day is dawning for the MID, whose board has navigated political minefields for more than a year.

Tuesday also marked a changing of the guard, with Allen Short leaving after 19 years as the district's general manager and board members selecting their two newest directors — Nick Blom and Larry Byrd, both elected last year — as 2013 board chairman and vice chairman, respectively.

"Things are changing," Byrd said at one point Tuesday. At another, he said, "This is going to be a new MID."

The wage increases will cost the MID about $3.85 million extra in 2013 and more the next year.

Terms of the two-year deal are identical to those negotiated before a September rejection by the board, which deadlocked 2-2 when Byrd abstained because his son works for the district and would get a raise. Byrd cast the deciding vote Tuesday after the California Fair Political Practices Commission determined that participating would not pose a conflict of interest, he said.

Blom and Paul Warda joined Byrd in favor of the contract, while 2012 Chairman Tom Van Groningen and Vice Chairman Glen Wild voted "no."

The deal provides 3.9 percent increases retroactive to July 1, an additional 2.2 percent in 2013 and up to 4 percent again the next year.

Also, more than half of the district's 400-some workers will get 3 percent to 34 percent more based on salary comparisons with 14 utilities and public agencies in Northern California. Those above the average would forgo some of the inflation-based raises until the average catches up with them.

The contract affects bargaining units representing utility service and maintenance, with about 208 members, and the 44-member professional and supervisory unit. Talks with a third unit representing about 107 administrative, technical and clerical workers remain at impasse.

Van Groningen noted that many MID customers have suffered through layoffs and furloughs not imposed on district workers. Wild said workers at the MID pull down more on average than counterparts in other agencies.

Several others rushed to defend employees.

Byrd noted that the wage comparison study was conducted by the district — not the union — and showed many people at the MID making less. Grower Jake Wenger questioned whether Wild's MID estimates are skewed high because administrators, not linemen, are paid handsomely.

Ted Donham, a former district employee who ran unsuccessfully against Warda, said bright young stars are seeking better pay elsewhere. "Don't be a sieve for good men to leave," he said.

Warda said district leaders should stand behind terms negotiated in good faith before the September deadlock.

The board also approved reduced retirement benefits for workers hired after the new year.

Who will follow Short?

In closed session Tuesday, the board discussed a temporary successor to Short, but emerged with no announcement.

"Love him or not, he has been our general manager for a number of years," Blom said. "Many good things happened. Many things stirred the pot."

Van Groningen praised Short, saying, "I think the district's current financial resources are better than they've ever been."

"We've had a pretty good run," Short said, saying he is "leaving very comfortable that the district is headed in the right direction."

Short could make more money in retirement thanks to his $149,000 annual pension plus $120,000 from part-time work with a water-rights agency to which the MID belongs. That's a total of $269,000, compared to his current $240,507 salary.

Disputed payments OK'd

In other action, the board agreed to pay $49,500 to Martino Graphics Design despite complaints from the audience that its contract was used to launder hidden payments to subcontracting consultants.

A report sought to "put to rest the misconceptions that have surfaced" about the arrangement, which had allowed Van Groningen and Short to funnel money to politically connected people without some board members noticing. They helped "improve the image and credibility of the district," said Joy Warren, regulatory administrator for the district.

The Martino contract was used to pay Mike Lynch $15,000 for "consulting" in June and July, according to an invoice. Former Modesto Councilwoman Janice Keating received $9,000 for "outreach/transparency" in June, July and August, and Mark Looker of Looker Communications Consulting got $10,500 in the same three months for "communications services."

The team members were "experienced in how to effectively break down and relay great amounts of complicated information in a digestible manner" and helped produce five educational videos that can be viewed on the district's Web site, among other tasks.

Those efforts are not related to $15,000 paid to former Mayor Carol Whiteside, also under the Martino cover, as reported in November.

Some in the audience called the payments appalling, but Warren said the consultants could sue if the MID were to refuse payment for services.

Byrd said, "I'm not happy about it, either," but voted with the others to avoid legal trouble.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.

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