Money down the drain at the South County sewer plant
November 23, 2016
OPINION by JULIE TACKER
While expenses at the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District continue to climb under a new administrator, the public is seeing little or no benefit and a decrease in transparency.
The district currently pays its new Administrator Gerhardt Hubner a $12,500 salary, a $350 car allowance and a nice retirement and benefit plans that equate to over $16,000 a month. He was hired to work full time; in anticipation of some large projects the district is undertaking — which differs from all previous administrators. Yet, in my estimation, based on telephoning the plant, asking neighbors and friends, Hubner is at the sewer plant less than 20 hours per month.
In comparison, the last district administrator, Rick Sweet, was hired to work 10 hours a week and was paid $4,000 per month. Before Sweet, Paul Karp was hired to work six hours a week for $4,000 a month. Neither received a car allowance or benefits. Both of them spent more time at the plant than they were paid for.
The district’s interim administrator, Plant Superintendent, John Clemons, held the ship steady for eight months for just $800 over his monthly salary.
Prior to Hubner’s employ in April, the district was operating smoothly. Most of its troublesome issues of the John Wallace years had been settled or nearly resolved.
Under Hubner, recent board packets lack substance or have had contracts to outsource work; work that one would expect him, as a full time administrator, to do; including tasks as mundane as writing a newsletter.
Keep in mind, the sanitation district has a single purpose, to treat wastewater to its highest quality at the lowest price to its ratepayers. Current staff which includes a bookkeeper, superintendent, lab tech, operators and engineering consultants perform most of the district’s administrative work.
When the district advertised for Hubner’s position, it wanted someone who had, “Techniques for providing a high level of customer service to the public, elected/appointed officials, and District staff, in person, electronically, and over the telephone.” He was supposed to have skills in “personnel and employer-employee relations and principles of supervision, training and management.”
Hubner has snubbed the public records act; he denied access to his resume for over four months, triggering legal bills that cited irrelevant case law. He finally presented the resume, made a big production of it as if he was doing the public a favor. His abrasive personality has triggered two employee grievances and a number of complaints filed.
There is a full blown investigation being done by an outside legal counsel, and I am aware some of the staff has joined a union. All this in just six months on the job, leads one to believe that Hubner has very poor leadership skills. Including his handling of the board members, instead of bringing the board together he seems to have exacerbated their differences.
Hubner has complained about his working conditions in spite the fact that his job description states, “Works in the administrative office of a wastewater treatment facility, which may require working in or near collection system environments; some exposure to water, chemicals, fumes, airborne particles, hazardous materials, and noise…”
To avoid these working conditions, Hubner leased a 60 foot long, temporary construction trailer. The trailer arrived in August, to date, it remains unoccupied, but for the $5,000 worth of new furniture – and the raccoons living underneath it.
In terms of projects, the district is working on all the same projects it was when Hubner was hired. Updates to the personnel policy, which were well underway, seem to have stalled. Concerns over other post-employment benefits (OPEB), the benefits received by an employee when he or she begins retirement, including health care and life insurance premiums, and deferred compensation also seems to have fallen off the table. Staff had been working on OPEB for a year; there’s been no mention of it since Hubner began work. Perhaps that’s Hubner’s plan, to change nothing.
If nothing changes and Hubner’s three year contract runs its course, he will walk away with 100 percent paid medical for himself and his family for the remainder of their lives. This equates to at least $24,000 annually for the rest of his life.
Administrative costs have increased significantly since Hubner arrived; worst of all are its skyrocketing legal bills associated with unhappy employees. Additionally, Hubner has hired numerous consultants (including a public information officer to write a newsletter that highlights Hubner).
The Board of Directors should revisit the fiduciary wisdom of having a full time administrator; clearly define what an administrator is expected to do for this district and set parameters for Hubner with measurable expectations.
It seems as though the District is losing its way, it’s beginning to look a lot like the last few years of John Wallace’s term as administrator, excess spending, increased legal bills, and unhappy employees. These ratepayers have seen a lot of money run through this district over the years, it began to steady itself over the last three to four years, but that footing is lost with Hubner at the helm. Can the board make a bad fit better?