During the April 10 special meeting of the San Benito County Board of Supervisors, staff and supervisors waded into the county’s persistent concern: the ongoing shortage of qualified employees. While County Administrative Officer Ray Espinosa reassured board members that the county is approaching succession and retention systematically, qualified analysts do not feel the county is moving fast enough or with a solid plan.
Former County Analyst Louie Valdez said in a recent BenitoLink interview he believes what is really needed is experienced, knowledgeable leaders, who he said, "…do not exist in the county at this time.” He stated that this can only be accomplished by the “…board appointing a different County Administrative Officer and other department directors.”
Valdez, who left March 23, took a similar position in Napa County citing a number of reasons, pay and benefits being just two, but professional development was high on the list as well.
Valdez said the way to look at why San Benito County cannot efficiently provide needed services is to compare the number of staff now to before the Great Recession of 2008. He said every department is operating with a fraction of the staff size they once had. For instance, he pointed out that today there are fewer than half a dozen people working on the road crew when before the recession there were 35. He said it’s no wonder roads can’t be repaired.
In the exit-style interview, Valdez said, “The problem is you have a very conservative approach to how you manage these types of things. That has to change.”
The April 10 special meeting, held to discuss policies and departmental needs in order to develop the Fiscal Year 2018/2019 budget, seemed to support Valdez’s opinions.
Treasurer-Tax Collector Candidate and current Budget Officer Melinda Casillas told supervisors that the county would not be able to hire anyone to fill vacant positions until after the human resources department reviewed potential impacts and met with bargaining units.
Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz then asked if there is an existing succession plan.
“We have implemented some succession planning tools incorporating duties and responsibilities of individuals within their office to import those so when new employees come onboard they can at least read that,” Espinosa said. “There’s a lot to this and it’s not just one piece. We just need to continue and elaborate further on. So the answer is ‘yes.’”
De La Cruz responded guardedly: “I wanted to make sure you’re not just adding words to this policy and we don’t do anything and say we’ll revisit it next year, and then next year.”
Espinosa explained, “There’s a lot of work and issues to be addressed with classifications. With that is a succession plan. Those two items will be really key this year.”
During public comment, Hollister resident Marty Richman told the board that San Benito County has the highest turnover rate than any other of the surrounding counties.
“We have to bring somebody in,” Richman said. “We have to get them trained and we have to hope we didn’t make a mistake because you never know with a new person. Almost every meeting I go to, it’s peppered with ‘We don’t have enough staff to do this or do that.’”
Richman said the county has the fewest number of employees per population and that within driving distance the competition is a lot higher for more money to do the same jobs.
“The gap is huge,” he said. “If you’re up in Tuolumne County that huge gap doesn’t mean as much because nobody is driving every day down to Santa Clara County. But if you’re here, they are.”
In similar vein with Valdez, Richman said the county is overdue for conducting a comprehensive staff analysis to develop a plan to stop the flow of trained staff to other counties. He said San Benito County only has a few options.
One is to make sure the county hires the right people along with enough support staff for them. Another is to only hire mid-level people. No matter the choice, Richman said the county has to come up with a plan.
“The residents of this county are paying for our inability to staff properly,” Richman said.
“It’s really difficult for us,” Espinosa responded. “We have a very low amount of revenue coming in. However, we are competing with very high salaries.”
Former employee Valdez believes there are answers to the problem, the first of which is a determination of what the board wants San Benito County to look like. He said there is presently no workforce development plan in place to address staffing needs. He said there should be a concrete, methodical approach to increase revenues, and then communicate it consistently to residents to get their buy-in.
“Right now all you have is ‘keeping the boat afloat,’” Valdez said. “You have a General Plan that’s not really a plan. It is a plan managed by the state. It’s kind of an outline of how you’re going to manage these things. What is the actual policy to that end that’s being fulfilled to address those problems? They don’t really have one.”
(See recent BenitoLink stories related to salaries).