After negotiations with the union representatives of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Sonoma’s City Council recently approved an 8% raise for its roughly 25 non-management employees. This is only the first of salary increases totaling 13% over the three years of the agreement. While the amount seems large, and it is, it also reflects the rate of inflation, which is at an historic 40-year high. In the aggregate, this agreement adds considerably to the cost of running the city.
Raises for 15 non-union-represented management employees, generally the highest paid, are still being determined, but the City Manager has recommended an immediate 18% increase. If approved, this would make Sonoma’s the highest paid City Manager in Sonoma County at $256,500. Staff salaries and benefits represent about 25% of the cost of local government; the cost of fire and police services account for another 50%.
The problem, as we see it, is that the relentless rise in the cost of government gobbles up increased revenues received by the city through TOT taxes, sales taxes, new fees, etc. For too many years, the City of Sonoma has been short of money to fund major capital improvements and projects that benefit its residents. Unlike years past, when money was available to fund the Montini Preserve, build class-one bike paths, or renovate city-owned buildings, such projects aren’t even on the radar.
It’s not difficult to identify needs; improved bathrooms in the Plaza, better parking facilities downtown, and extensions of class-one bike paths are just a few. Having more funding to create affordable housing for workers, seniors, and the homeless would be ideal, but year after year, we residents are told, “Sorry, we just don’t have the money.”
If not for pandemic rescue money provided by the federal government, Sonoma’s budget would be in the red, yet the federal funding makes it appear that Sonoma’s budget is in good shape. While we understand the need to pay government employees fairly, we don’t think it’s the time to be generous. Our financial reserves have yet to be replenished; if there’s another costly emergency, then what?
In our opinion, City Hall is management top-heavy, accounting for 30% of staff. Any cost-of-living increase granted to union-represented employees is extended to management employees. Tellingly, the city’s union negotiator is a member of its management staff. We think this creates a serious conflict of interest; the union negotiator should not be party to any salary decisions.
In this day and age, government jobs are very good jobs, with fine salaries, excellent pension benefits, and solid job security. Sonoma’s government has no competition; except during emergencies, the working atmosphere in City Hall is low-key, low-stress, and comfortable, unlike the working environment in larger cities with high crime rates, significant poverty, and heavy traffic. Management salary comparisons should only be made with cities of similar size, not larger ones like Santa Rosa or Petaluma. Management salary increases should be based upon individual job evaluations, not granted across-the-board.
It’s time for City Hall to tighten its staffing belt. Management staff should be reduced in number from the current 15 department heads and the City Manager. Cost-of-living raises are understandable, but until Sonoma’s financial condition is greatly improved, the city should be running lean.