Despite pleas from the board and audience for more time to study a proposed five-year labor deal, a bare majority of Modesto Irrigation District leaders on Tuesday approved 16-percent employee raises over the next five years.
New board member Stu Gilman, sworn into office 24 1/2 hours earlier, asked for a two-week extension so that he and members of the public could absorb the inch-thick printed proposal. Board member John Mensinger called that a reasonable request, and some members of the public agreed, but the three other board members said a delay would serve no purpose.
Board member Larry Byrd’s motion to approve the new contract for 439 workers, and a subsequent debate, came with no staff presentation, so those attending Tuesday’s meeting and the viewing audience had no reference point when leaders mentioned, for instance, 3-percent annual raises or Cadillac tax.
After the meeting, board chairman Nick Blom acknowledged that skipping a public presentation was not normal procedure. “It’s on our website. But we might have accidentally jumped the gun on that,” he said.
Outvoting Gilman and Mensinger were Blom, Byrd and Paul Campbell, who openly shouldered the burden of casting the tie-breaking vote. A delay would not likely change the outcome of the important vote, Campbell reasoned.
Not mentioned was a July Modesto Bee review of public salaries which found that MID offers higher pay and more generous benefits than cities, county governments and other local agencies. Gilman had made MID compensation a cornerstone of his campaign, along with what he calls dissatisfaction among electricity customers.
Tuesday’s outcome could suggest future battle lines for the board, whose power center slowly has shifted from farming roots toward more urban interests. For the first time in memory, the board has more nonfarmers in Gilman, Mensinger and Campbell, but Campbell often had sided with farmers Byrd and Blom in his first four years, and remained true to form in the board’s first major vote since Gilman’s election.
Gilman won 51 percent of the November vote to oust farmer incumbent Jake Wenger.
Wenger had served with Byrd on a two-man committee in contract talks with the district’s three labor unions. Byrd is a retired lineman and reservoir tender who retired before his election to the MID board in 2011, and his son is an MID construction supervisor. Pension, pay and benefits for both Byrds cost a combined $282,651 in 2016.
Modesto attorney Bob Fores noted that MID is facing several challenges bound to affect the district’s financial health, including a class-action lawsuit challenging MID’s practice of overcharging some 100,000 electricity customers to subsidize low farm water prices for a few hundred growers.
Modesto Chamber of Commerce CEO Cecil Russell said “a number of people” had told him they too would appreciate a chance to absorb the proposal, and asked for a delay in the interest of transparency.
Byrd said such a request has never been made, and constituents trust the board to make such decisions. Not moving forward would hurt employee morale, he said, and he, Blom and others said proposed raises are consistent with the going rate at other utilities such as the Turlock and Merced irrigation districts.
New General Manager Scott Furgerson said it costs more than $100,000 to train one lineman, and MID would risk losing them if wages don’t keep pace. That was happening when Byrd and Blom came to the board six years ago, in the middle of a long labor dispute and impasse, when employees worked several years without an updated contract, Blom said.
Mensinger said, “I don’t think this needs to be rushed through,” and agreed with Gilman’s suggestion to hold a special meeting vetting contract points.
Gilman said he knocked on more than 3,100 doors while campaigning in northwest Modesto, Salida and Wood Colony. He said he met “an awful lot of people” who feel that MID leaders care more about the organization than its customers, and asked for the courtesy of a two-week delay allowing people to better understand the proposal.
“When you go out to the public on issues like this, which has never historically been done, you open a hornets’ nest,” Byrd said. “It’s not going to be about the facts; it’s going to be about perception,” he continued, noting that MID’s customer base is largely a poor community.
“We are not selling the farm. We are doing the right thing,” Byrd said.
The Bee’s July review noted that the average 2016 private-sector wage for this area was $39,969, compared to $91,105 for the average MID worker. Health and retirement benefits at MID are far more generous, averaging an additional $54,500 per worker, than all other area agencies, the report said.
Campbell said, “This district is very generous with its wages. That’s just the fact of the matter. That ship has already sailed.
“All things considered, we’ve negotiated a very good contract which I feel is in the best interest for the district in the long term,” Campbell continued. If inflation continues to grow, locking annual raises at 3 percent (compounded, it comes to 16 percent total in five years) could prove to be a wise deal, he said.
Labor contracts were set to expire at year’s end. Blom said he would rather not hold a special meeting close to the holidays; the next board meeting is scheduled for Jan. 9.
After the vote, Russell told board members, “(A delay) would have been good, for you to show that you embrace transparency and that you value input from ratepayers.”
Gilman said, “I’m committed to finding ways to reduce the burden of ratepayers. ... A lot of people out there are having to choose between paying their MID bill and paying for food.”
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390