Board OKs Pay Raise

Santa Clara Valley Water District Board of Directors votes 4-3
to increase amount they are paid to attend events and meetings
San Jose – The directors of the Santa Clara Valley Water District capped a year of lost revenue, wage freezes, staff cuts and an audit blasting them for fiscal mismanagement by giving themselves a raise.

A divided and indignant board of directors voted 4-3 Tuesday to raise the amount they’re paid to attend meetings and events from $214.41 to $225.13, beginning January 1, 2006. The 5-percent bump is the maximum allowed by the state water code. Board members have approved a raise for at least six straight years. In 2000, they received $168 per meeting.

Rosemary Kamei, of Morgan Hill, and Sig Sanchez, of Gilroy, voted against the raise, as they did last year. The raise is only a $9,000 hit to the district’s bottom line, but Kamei said that it carries a much larger symbolic significance.

“We don’t do it for the money, we do it for the service we can provide to the community,” Kamei said. “I would not be in favor of a raise. [Saying no] shows leadership and that we’re in harmony with our employees.”

Earlier this year, the three unions representing the district’s 813 employees agreed to forego a cost of living raise to help the district balance its budget. Tuesday, Glenna Brambill, who represents more than 600 workers as president of the SCVWD Employees Association, pleaded with the directors to follow the example set by the staff.

“The employees were reluctant, however, gracious, in setting a trend in voting to extend our contract with no pay raise. This was done as a good faith gesture knowing that the organization was facing difficult times,” Brambill said. “You have shown over the years that you value and appreciate the work the employees association has done. Giving yourself a raise at this time sends a message to the contrary.”

In the last year, the district learned it must turn over $51 million in property tax revenue to the state and was forced to pay more for water it imports from the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta. An audit performed by the county found that the district does a bad job budgeting for capital projects, charges too much for water and overpays its employees.

That last point was seized on by director Joe Judge, of San Jose, whose face reddened as he responded to Brambill, his voice choked with hostility.

“It’s sad that employees would [say that],” Judge said. “There are some critics out there who say we overpay our employees. I don’t agree with that. I would have expected a little more consideration from our employees since I’m out there defending you.”

Board members do not receive a salary but are paid by the meeting. They are compensated for as many as 10 meetings a month.

Many activities, ranging from board meetings and conferences to mixing with constituents and attending community events qualify as a “meeting.” Board members are paid, for instance, to attend the district annual event at a San Jose Giants game.

According to records provided by the district, board members often attend more than 10 meetings in a month. Director Greg Zlotnick, of Palo Alto, said that he puts in so much time that his actual compensation is closer to “minimum wage.”

“If you average it out, it falls down pretty dramatically,” Zlotnick said of the per diem, adding that directors pay taxes on their earnings and don’t get overtime. “If we as board members don’t feel we’re worth it, no one else does.”

Board Chairman Richard Santos, of Sunnyvale, said the pay increase is important if the district is to attract top-quality candidates. Directors who joined the district after 1995 do not receive pensions, and the most a director can earn in 2006 is $27,015. If the board continues to award itself a 5 percent raise every year, the maximum yearly pay in 2011 would be $34,479.

Tony Estremera, who is appointed to the board by the county supervisors, said directors have to take the raise every year because they can’t award themselves larger raises in flush economic times.

“We’re very limited by state law. We’re good to our employees,” Estremera said. “When things are going well we make up for when things were not going well. … This board has to be recognized for our public service, for what we do.”

George Cook, president of the district’s 163-member engineers society, was disappointed by the board’s action, but said he believes the directors earn their money. He said he thought their emotional reaction to Brambill’s request was a misunderstanding.

“I think they heard Glenna’s comments and took that as we don’t appreciate what they’ve done,” Cook said. “They do a very professional job representing their constituents. They bring a lot of funding back to the district. When you put all that in context the size of the raise is pretty insignificant.”

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