Clarity Blog

Clarity Blog

Posts Tagged ‘public agency’

Public Agencies and Public Benefits

We can’t tell you how many times we’ve read through the comments posted on a news article about the compensation and benefits paid to the employees of public agencies only to find a slew of comments about how the agencies “operate in secret” and “work behind closed doors.”

That always strikes us as funny, because the articles these readers are commenting on almost always came about because of some sort of public disclosure the agency is required to make. Lately, it’s been documentation compiled by the State Controller. Often, it’s based on Public Records Act request the agencies have received from reporters and have little choice but to comply with.  Or an agenda item at a public board meeting.  So, what secrets? What closed doors?

Still, the spotlight is on public agencies, and it’s going to stay there for a while before it moves on to make someone else uncomfortable. The effects of a tsunami of articles on public employee pensions, mid-six-figure compensation packages for agency heads and the growing unfunded pension obligations have made this a hot issue.  A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (theoretically a non-partisan group), revealed the not-surprising finding that the public’s discontent with government employee pensions and benefits is rising, and that the most popular suggestion for how to cut government budget deficits is to cut spending on “pension plans of government employees.”

The issue is hitting home.  We saw this week that Helix Water District in suburban east San Diego County is the target of a citizen group, East County Tax Hawks.  The Hawks like the District’s water service just fine, but think the employee benefit package is way out of whack – at least 24 days of paid time off a year (above recognized holidays), 100% of health insurance costs paid by the District and “over the top” retirement benefits.

The District responded to these charges as well as they can, by comparing their benefits to other water agencies’ benefits, and showing how they’ve cut operating expenses.  At a recent public meeting, Helix’s board president, DeAna Verbeke, acknowledged the public’s concerns, stated the agency also is concerned … then added, “employees have rights too.”

Of course they do, but that message probably will do nothing to reduce the ire felt by the Hawks, who probably see public sector employee contracts more as gifts of public funds than as legitimate payment for work done.  That doesn’t mean they have to keep that opinion, or that their opinion should be parroted by others in the District. Avoiding that will take communication and clarity.  Districts are going to have to face this issue head-on or risk the election of new directors set on slashing expenses by unreasonable amounts.

Based on my 30 years in public affairs and crisis management, here are some suggestions for your consideration:

  • With all contracts, work with other public agencies to obtain apples-to-apples data and take board action to commit to being “average” in compensation and benefits.
  • Push employees to re-open contract negotiations that aren’t set to be re-opened soon.  They may refuse, but the public will appreciate the effort.
  • With employee compensation packages, focus on the trimmings, not the meat.  People expect rank-and-file employees to be fairly compensated, but don’t like overly generous frills in public employee contracts.  Paid off-days, health insurance costs and the like will be scrutinized.
  • Check your $100,000-plus pensions, which are the subject of particular scrutiny.  How many do you currently have; how many do you expect to have? How many years did those people work?  How much did the agency pay in?
  • Compare your GM and Board salaries, payments and perks to other agencies’ and be prepared to answer questions on anything that stands out from the crowd.
  • Expect scrutiny and be as prepared for it as you would be for an operational mishap.  Keep your compensation data on hand and up to date, and have messages prepared that anticipate the difficult questions you’re likely to receive.

If you’d like to discuss this further, give me – Laer – a call at 949/599-1212.

Why the Old Ways of Talking Water No Longer Work

Amidst a recent hectic afternoon, one of our clients called to pick our brain about what LP&A sees as the latest trends in water agency communications.  Although it admittedly caught us off guard, it’s a great question that couldn’t have been posed at a better time, given the uncertainty of California’s water future and the swirling dynamics of public sentiment.  We share our answer below, but the bottom line is that the old ways of doing business no longer work in today’s changing environment.  Here’s why:

1. Water is no longer an issue that flies under the radar. These days water providers are asking a lot from their customers: Use less, pay more, vote for this (within the advocacy laws), don’t mind that sinkhole or pipe break.  Agencies that foster trusting relationships with their customers through proactive communications will reap the most benefits.

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Recent court decision says what you can and can’t say in your advocacy

Let’s say … and I’m just hypothesizing here … that the state legislature decided to raid a water districts’ coffers in an attempt to bail itself out from ballooning deficits. Or that a group of ratepayers placed an initiative on a local ballot that would rescind a water rate increase. Could you, as a public agency, actively campaign against these moves?

Thanks to a recent court decision, Vargas v. City of Salinas, the answer is yes … but only if you define “actively campaign” correctly.

“Express Advocacy” is still out, so what’s in?

In the Salinas case, a few Salinas residents placed an initiative on the ballot,  Measure O, that would have repealed the city’s utility users tax. The city   launched a communications effort to let citizens know the devastating   effect Measure O would have on city finances. The voters voted down the   measure,  and the citizens group sued, claiming the city unlawfully  interfered and used public funds for political purposes. They sought $250,000 from the city.

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