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Favorite Son: Union officials say David Ginsborg's external-affairs job is expendable. But his boss says he's worth 10 of his critics.

You're Fired!

A new survey shows the county workforce is top-heavy, leading to a new round of bickering over who should be laid off

By Allie Gottlieb

IF NOTHING ELSE, Santa Clara County managers have turned this fiscal ice age into an opportunity for self-revelation. Naturally, they did this by inventing a brand-new study. It's titled "Organizational Spans of Control and Staff-to-Supervisor Ratios," and it means to gauge the level of truth to the theory that county government is a top-heavy beast.

Last year, ever defensive about job cuts, the county's largest union, Service Employees International Union Local 715, asked the Board of Supervisors to identify how many management positions it maintains as compared to front-line workers. The county complied and produced its initial tabulations in December. The study found that the county's 40 departments have an average ratio of nine employees to every one supervisor. Some departments, including the county executive, have ratios as low as two or three employees to every supervisor. The study also counted the layers of management in each department, finding as many as eight within the social services agency.

These results appear to bolster the union's position that Santa Clara County employs too many supervisors, especially now, when the county needs to cut $238 million from its budget.

"It's like they have a lot of people on standby, for planning for disasters," says SEIU representative Robert Brizuela, a public-health communicable-disease investigator. "You can't plan for a disaster. Otherwise it wouldn't be a disaster." Brizuela finds it wasteful, for instance, that five medical doctors consult in the health department. "They should be in the hospitals serving patients," he says.

It seems the Board of Supervisors got the message. "When you have such layers of management in the bureaucracy, it tends to cost a lot," explains Supervisor Jim Beall.

But the SEIU and county management haven't exactly been in agreement over how to use the study. The union considers the county's report justification against worker layoffs. But county analysts don't quite know what to make of it. Mary Stephens, the county's budget-operations manager, explains that the county has nothing to compare its findings to. "There really is no industry standard," she says.

County Executive Pete Kutras warns, in a memo attached to the findings, not to make too much of the them because "there are a number of significant issues that make it difficult to generalize conclusions as to what the data represents."

It is, of course, predictable that union and management would clash over the best way to compose themselves. What's interesting to note during this buck-hunting season is the way county employees at various levels are handling their anxiety over impending job losses. They're trying to save their asses by going after others.

Ready, Aim, Fire

"The issue is, what is going to be the county's workforce," says Brian O'Neill, SEIU county chapter chair. "A director isn't going to serve the county as good as more nurses."

But SEIU's O'Neill, a goateed appraiser with the county assessor's office, doesn't stop at evaluating the public-health workforce or identifying waste in his own department. He actually calls out by name a specific employee whose purpose he questions. "David Ginsborg is a perfect example," he says. "Why do you need an external-affairs person?" O'Neill complains that Ginsborg, Assessor Larry Stone's right-hand man, assumes an unnecessary position. "His deal is the politics," O'Neill says. "But we're the ones who do the actual work and have to deal directly with the public in the county."

When later presented with O'Neill's remarks, Ginsborg, visibly bothered by the attack, says he didn't want to dignify it with a response. "I'm disappointed that he's making it into personal issues," Ginsborg says.

Assessor Stone, the publicly elected boss of both men, is less inhibited. "David Ginsborg is 10 times more important to me than Brian O'Neill," Stone declares.

Ginsborg ends up dignifying the question of his value by listing some of his duties. He helps shape policy, leads customer-service improvement efforts involving surveys, spearheads the push to make property records more available to the public and staffs meetings in Sacramento. He's a certified appraiser as well and generally a confidant whom Stone includes among his five most crucial staffers.

Rubber and Glue

Stone and Ginsborg observe that the stress of expected job cuts "is becoming so great that it's pitting people against people." Incidentally, Ginsborg, a member of County Employees Management Association, also is a union man and opines that O'Neill is pitting unions against each other as well. Meanwhile, Stone and Ginsborg can't help but question the work of other county employees.

They zero in on the clerk's office. The clerk of the board, which handles assessment appeals, angered Stone this year by trying to dip into $4.2 million of state grant money, paid from property taxes, to help cover the assessment-appeals payroll. Stone complains that the assessment-appeals division has overgrown. In the mid-'90s, he points out, the clerk's office employed one person who was in charge of appeals. While the workload hasn't increased since then, the office now divides it among five employees. That might make sense during the busy months--last year, those were September, October and January--when thousands of appeals flood the office. But what were the five full-timers doing last May, when the office received only 35 appeals, Stone asks.

"We've no doubt the clerk's staff are working very hard," Ginsborg clarifies. "They're just not working on assessment appeals most of the year. So we shouldn't be funding them as if they were working year round."

Phyllis Perez, clerk of the Board of Supervisors, oversees the assessment-appeals division. Firstly, she notes that of the five positions in her division, only three currently contain warm bodies. One position is vacant, and someone else is on maternity leave. Perez names a list of constant clerical and organizational responsibilities belonging to each of her employees, overfilling their time. In fact, she sounds a bit like Stone when he defends Ginsborg's work.

"You couldn't tell from looking from the fifth floor what [the appeals employees] do, and that's where I disagree with Mr. Stone," Perez says. She says Stone and she used to inhabit the same side of the staffing issue. "Mr. Stone was the one who suggested that we get more staff members," she says.

Union members, meanwhile, worry the county will cut disproportionately from the bottom, as they have done in the past.

"When you have some departments that have ridiculous levels," comments SEIU Local 715 Spokesperson Andrew Hagelshaw, "like one supervisor to every two workers, you have to talk about cutting management. ... And I think some departments are completely ignoring those realities. I think the registrar of voters is actually talking about cutting more staff."

The registrar of voters has one supervisor to every 2.7 staff members, according to the span of control study. That statistic, however, doesn't acknowledge the registrar's election-season workforce, which includes volunteers.

Hang Ups

The union is concerned most with cutting social services. At the moment, jobs on the chopping block include counselors who operate the suicide and alcohol- and drug-addiction recovery hotlines.

"Someone will tell you that they have no one in their life," says Lydia Torres, a rehab counselor. "And when someone tells you that, you're their only connection." Torres, an SEIU member, opposes the proposed addiction crisis program cuts, which include shutting down the hotline from 5 to 10pm.

Family therapist Lin Florinda Colavin says her department is panicking because the county is considering cutting it in half. Colavin is one of four therapists in the Perinatal Substance Abuse Program, which helps sober up pregnant and parenting moms, a societal subsection with a high success rate for addiction recovery. In the words of one of 80 clients, a 23-year-old mom recovering from a nine-year meth addiction, "If they cut this program, where else am I going to go?"

That's a good question, one county managers seem indifferent to. The Public Health Department employs one supervisor for every 7.5 employees. But even after receiving notice of service cuts, department heads recommended adding a management position while axing a rehab counselor and an outreach worker. The evening drug addiction counseling line? They've asked to shut it down.

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From the April 21-27, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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