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Jim Ruffalo: Where — and how — can we save taxpayer dollars?

Looking Behind the Scenes
By: Jim Ruffalo
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If there is an upside to the continual downward financial spiral most of us are trapped in, it’s that in times such as these, government officials can do things they never could in better days. For example, so-called draconian financial matters can be addressed more severely during the bad times, especially if it involves going after unions and/or employee groups. The rationale, I suppose, is that if we’re all suffering a bad case of the financial shorts, why not them? Especially when — rightly or wrongly — many times union contracts and employee group working agreements are seen as a big reason we’re in the mess in which we now find ourselves. Some governmental entities, including the city of Auburn, have done just that, although an argument could be made as to the level of severity, or even-handedness for that matter. Which leads me to today’s question: How has Placer County’s Board of Supervisors used these times to its financial advantage? Assuredly, there have been take-backs from the local unions, and assuredly the same has happened to the Deputy Sheriff’s Association. But could more have been done? Well, what about the often discussed proposal to consolidate the various fire districts into one countywide unit? Supporters of that idea claim a bundle of taxpayers’ dollars could be saved by doing so, but Auburn Fire Chief Mark D’Ambrogi isn’t quite convinced. “Granted there are repetitious duties in which savings could be had by consolidating,” he said, then gave an example of where a county fire inspector or training officer could replace several similar officers employed by the various departments. “And there’s also the benefit of standardization of county services, which would really benefit (struggling) districts such as Newcastle. On the other hand, the level of service is usually dictated by what the citizens of each district want and are willing to fund. In the long-run, it’s up to your local citizens on what they want,” he added. There’s also the issue of whether consolidation is truly needed here. “Our county fire chiefs’ association has come a long way in the past couple of years,” D’Ambrogi said, adding that the organization has done a great job in strengthening various mutual protection agreements. D’Ambrogi then cut right to the chase: “The issue is, and should be, not how much money can be saved, but what is the best level of service we can provide?” So I’ll give the supes a pass on that one, but what about consolidation for the county’s school districts? Obviously the supervisors don’t have that much sway in how various districts do business. On the other hand, supervisors could cobble together an effort toward consolidation if they desired. “Of course there are benefits with consolidation,” says former County Superintendent of Schools Bud Nobili, who adds, “but it all depends upon which district you’re looking at. Consolidation could reduce the number of administrators needed, but that’s not a ‘given’ in small districts wherein one person acts as both an administrator and a school principal. You may replace his or her administrative duties, but you still need a principal.” Nobili put in more than four decades in education, eight of those as county superintendent “and in all that time most consolidation proposals were just an idea of putting two small pieces together to make a larger piece. There has to be more to it than that,” he insists. “You might save money on construction and custodial care with consolidation, but you’ll still need just about the same number of teachers and classrooms,” he said. He said there’s also the issue of what the state wants. “In the past, the state provided funds as an incentive to consolidate, but that’s no longer the case,” he said. So much for school consolidation, but what about going after those top-heavy government workers’ pensions and way-too-generous health packages? Surely there’s more work to be done there. Now don’t get me wrong; in no way am I calling for the cessation of current pension and medical payouts. Those were previously agreed upon, and many times the benefits were granted in lieu of salary increases or merit raises. Still, that huge ticking time bomb can destroy us all if not properly addressed. “We’ve done what we could there,” claims county CEO Tom Miller. “We’re a CALPERS county and that means there are limits to what we can do.” Miller explained that statewide laws hamstring counties and cities in what they can do with employee pensions, even to the point of making it extremely difficult to place new hires in less-generous pension brackets. “I’m pretty sure most people think reform is needed there, but it’s going to take a statewide initiative by the voters to do so,” Miller said, adding that he’s completely confident such a measure would pass in these current bad old days. Now, Gentle Reader, thus far it appears there is little supes can do to alleviate there problems because, as you see, the state keeps throwing roadblocks up faster than the Highway Patrol. But both of us know there is something to be done, and that’s for not only our Board of Supervisors, but those in every California county to run out and get a spinal transplant and start making some noise. Unfortunately, nearly every supervisor I’ve ever met — and there are many — always sees the state legislature as the next political step skyward. No need to rock that boat. Jim Ruffalo’s column runs on Sundays. Contact him at jimruffalo@yahoo.com.