If there's one thing we've learned in the last couple of days, it's this: Working for the County of Humboldt can be a very lucrative proposition.
Last week the Journal filed a Public Records Act request seeking the salaries of every county employee. In the request, we piggybacked off a California Supreme Court decision handed down in September 2007 which affirmed that, yes, the salaries of public employees are matters of public information. Public employees unions had fought the decision, but the court sided with the Contra Costa Times, the paper that instigated the matter. Since then, newspapers around the state have been gathering up public salary information and sharing with their readers how much they, the public, are paying their public servants. We thought we'd join in.
To his everlasting credit, Humboldt County Auditor/Controller Michael Giacone acted upon our request with lightning speed. Unfortunately, he was not able to provide precisely what we asked for — an electronic version of annual salary records — because, he said, no such record existed that didn't also contain private information (such as Social Security numbers) that would take time and money to redact.
Instead, he provided a paper copy of a sheet detailing payroll for a single two-week period in August 2007. That information could be multiplied by 26 to get an employee's annual salary. There are some kinks in this system. Some employees are paid by the hour, and may not work the same hours from week to week. Some may have received an unusual amount in a particular week because they had received back pay in that pay period, perhaps upon retirement. But weeding out the obvious irregularities gives us a pretty good picture of who gets paid what.
Given the paper-based format of the data, we weren't able to data-crunch the roughly 1,700 names on the list that Giacone gave us in quite the way we would have liked to. But the nut of the matter seems to be that if you are on the top of the food chain in Humboldt County government you are doing pretty damn well.
All told, about 45 county employees make over $100,000 per year. Around 160 make over $75,000. Though Humboldt County governmental types often complain that low salaries make it difficult to recruit people, in fact we seem to stack up pretty well on the top end of the chain. This is considerably better than the public at large. In 2004, median household income in the county was only $33,281, according to the Census Bureau. It's also quite a bit better than some neighboring counties. According to Redding's Record-Searchlight, only 23 Shasta County employees made $100,000 a year in 2007. That's in a relatively prosperous county with 163,000 residents, compared with our 130,000. (Shasta County government appears to be roughly the same size as ours, with 1,720 employees on the books.)
Who makes the most money in Humboldt County government? Generally speaking, doctors and lawyers. Especially the former, and especially psychiatrists working in the county mental health department. One of these, Dr. Jonathan Sommers , took home an astounding $9,998.82 during the two-week pay period for which we have records. Two of his colleagues did nearly as well: Dr. David Aryanpur and Dr. Monir Chaudry made $9,037 and $8,011, respectively.
The lawyers trail far behind. County Counsel Wendy Chaitin makes around $106,000 per year — $30,000 less than her counterpart in Shasta County, $60,000 less than her counterpart in Butte County. District Attorney Paul Gallegos is paid $136,331 per year. Public Defender Kevin Robinson doesn't do near as well, earning only $119,905 per year.
But the plain old bureaucrats at the tops of their departments are doing fine, as well. County Administrative Officer Loretta Nickolaus makes $148,733. Sheriff Gary Philp makes $141,474. Community Development Services Director Kirk Girard makes $101,509. The biggest fish, Director of Health and Human Services Phil Crandall , makes $161,621.
Lest you think everything is roses over at the County of Humboldt, take a look at the long list of employees in Crandall's department. Here are pages and pages — several hundred social services workers, in-home health care personnel and others — doing only moderately well or doing very poorly indeed. Many names are at minimum-wage level, and many more aren't very far above it. Some of these names are part-time employees, no doubt, but many of them are not. The top of the pyramid reaches quite high, but there's a great big base underneath it.
There was a mistakein last week's column, the one that concerned the so-called "alternative plans" that the Maxxam Corp. — currently in the final rounds of the Pacific Lumber Co. bankruptcy trial — is hoping to cram down upon Humboldt County and the company's creditors. The "alternative plans," you'll recall, are the ones buried deep within Maxxam's several hundred pages of proposals the company set before the Corpus Christi judge hearing the bankruptcy case. They're the ones that Maxxam hopes will come into play if, as is likely, bickering between the multitudinous interests in the case prevents them from coming to accord over the future of the company. You'll be hearing a lot more about them very soon — the court is set to ratify the various options on the table at a hearing on Thursday, Feb. 28, at which point the various parties will vote for this plan or that.
We got the gist of the "alternative plans" right, but we erred on their scale. In their broad outlines the "alternative plans" are simple: One set of creditors gets Scotia and the mill and another set gets most of the company's land. Maxxam, meanwhile, would hold onto a significant chunk of Humboldt County property. But we were wrong, last week, when we said that Maxxam sought only to hold onto those 6,600 acres of prime forest it calls "The Ancient Forests"; in fact, Maxxam honcho Charles Hurwitz want to hold onto the entire 28,000 acres of land between Fortuna and Kneeland that he believes can be developed.
Ballsy move from the Hurwinator, and one not to be discounted. What Maxxam is arguing is that according to the arcane rules of bankruptcy law its "alternative plans" are the only ones eligible for something called "cram-down," in which the judge can unilaterally tell creditors that they're not going to get their money back. The creditors who loaned money against the town and the creditors who loaned money against the forest each have their own reorganization plans for the company. They're both somewhat ecogroovy, or have the potential to be so, but if they're competing against each other it's likely as not that neither of them will succeed. Which may leave the cram plan as the only plan standing, when all is said and done. At least that's what Hurwitz appears to be counting on.