[San Benito] union mass convinces board to put off job cuts

Hollister FreeLance News – Feb. 23, 2011

Dozens of members from the Service Employees International Union flocked to the board of supervisors meeting Tuesday, hoping to gather support from the five officials on two separate issues.

The SEIU succeeded in postponing the elimination of three jail workers for another week, despite those cuts being scheduled – and previously postponed – during the county’s budget hearings in August. One of the supervisors in particular, Jaime De La Cruz, stood staunchly in support of sustaining the positions and preventing any cuts.

The union also tried to gather support to prevent proposed cuts to home healthcare workers, but that wasn’t on the agenda.

As for what was on the agenda, the San Benito County Sheriff’s Office was proposing to cut three jail workers to fill its budget shortfall of more than $286,000. The cuts originally were proposed by the then County Administrative Officer Susan Thompson to the former sheriff, Curtis Hill. The sheriff had asked for more time to find additional funding for the position. In December, he announced he couldn’t find the funding but didn’t eliminate the position.

The proposed elimination of two correctional officers and one inmate program manager at the county jail brought support from a large contingent of the local SEIU branch – including local branch representative Lewis Myers. Jail workers and correctional officers described the elimination significant, threatening their personal safety while working.

If the cuts weren’t made soon, the deficit could grow by more than $400,000 by the end of the fiscal year, County Administrative Officer Richard Inman warned.

If the cuts were not made, it would affect the following year’s budget and almost entirely eliminate the county’s reserves in case of an emergency, Inman said.

“If something isn’t done it is not going to leave the county with enough reserves to protect itself in case of an emergency,” Inman said.

De La Cruz said the county should hold off on the cuts until the end of the fiscal year and worry about them later – and his response received applause from the SEIU members.

De La Cruz also wanted members of the board to visit the jail to see what they are threatening to cut.

“The dollars have been spent, and that is a fixed cost that we can’t do anything about,” De La Cruz said. “We are still going to be in the negative so let it go.”

An emotional sheriff Lt. Edward Escamilla said the jail is already understaffed, with around four guards on the jail floor at a time, and contended that a reduction in staff could mean more overtime hours and less inmate capacity.

“They put their life on the line every day,” he said. “We are still afloat, but if we start cutting our officers, the ship is going to start sinking.”

Sheriff Darren Thompson said that with the cuts, the jail would “not be able to provide the same services to inmates.”

Thompson could not find other alternative methods to fund the positions after the former sheriff’s attempts failed, he said.

The board held off on the cuts after Myers said the members would be willing to take possible cuts from pay and benefits – if the board looked into administrative costs as well. Myers also called for an independent audit of the county’s budget to determine where money is going.

“We are open to everything,” Myers said.

The board will discuss the cuts at the next board meeting March 1. Members of the board’s budget committee will discuss the cuts on Friday.

Supervisor Anthony Botelho believes something has to be done soon.

“It’s gotten to be really scary for us right now,” Botelho said.

Other proposed reductions included state cuts to homecare workers threatening 30 percent of jobs in the county, SEIU representative Eric Larson proclaimed.

SEIU members representing the homecare workers turned in more than 600 cards signed by local residents in support of the homecare workers.

A cut in the program would affect the elderly and the county dramatically, Larson said. The projected cuts are expected to take place in July.

Last week, members of the SEIU protested outside the board chambers to try and “bring awareness to the community,” Supervisor Robert Rivas said, who went out and met the SEIU members to exchange contact information.

SEIU members were calling for an audit of the county’s budget, Rivas said.

Myers, who ran the protest, did not return phone calls before press time.

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