Supes hear arguments for raises, OK walnut theft ordinance

Stanislaus County employees warned their bosses Tuesday evening that staff cuts and below-standard salaries had thinned the ranks in social services departments.

Speakers at the Board of Supervisors meeting said there is severe understaffing among health service nurses, social workers and staff who handle child protection cases. New recruits stay long enough to gain experience and are hired by other counties offering better pay and benefits, speakers said.

“You have rookie staff handling some of the worst cases you are going to have,” said Jason Thompson, a representative with the Service Employees International Union.

Employees with the Community Services Agency and Health Services Agency are demanding raises in contract negotiations with the county. Many of them attended Tuesday’s board meeting to vent their concerns.

Later in the meeting, supervisors approved an ordinance designed to prevent the theft of walnuts.

Officials didn’t have hard numbers on losses from walnut theft. But a survey last year found that 46 percent of growers had seen evidence of possible walnut theft on their property and almost 60 percent thought an ordinance would discourage thieves.

Supervisor Vito Chiesa said he believed growers have been victimized because of the prices fetched for walnuts. The hard-shelled nuts are worth 6 cents apiece and are easily scooped into sacks and stolen after growers have shaken them from the trees.

County Counsel John Doering said it was OK for supervisors who raise walnuts to participate in the 5-0 vote because the ordinance pertains to sellers of less than 2,000 pounds of walnuts per year. Supervisors including Bill O’Brien, board Chairman Jim DeMartini and Chiesa raise larger amounts of walnuts.

The ordinance will focus on sellers of small amounts of English walnuts and require them to provide documentation for their produce. They will need to obtain a certificate with their name and address, the source of the nuts and other details. State law already requires some documentation from anyone possessing more than 25 pounds of farm produce.

The county will establish a period for buying nonprocessed walnuts, from the end of the fall harvest to April 30. The sale of small amounts of nonprocessed walnuts won’t be permitted during the harvest season – when walnut theft occurs.

The penalties for violating the ordinance are up to $500 for a first offense and up to $1,000 for additional violations. Agricultural Commissioner Milton O’Haire said his office expects to spend $10,000 in staff time on small-grower registration and verification in the next 12 months.

According to a staff report, growers can use a restricted materials permit or certified producer document to prove ownership. The ordinance won’t apply to growers trucking walnuts from their orchards to a commercial processor.