By Joe Tash
A proposal by a member of the Santa Fe Irrigation District board of directors to cut the board’s compensation and health care benefits met with silence at the panel’s Feb. 21 meeting.
The motion by Director Greg Gruzdowich, who was elected to the board in November and has been a vocal opponent of water rate increases imposed by the district in recent years, died for lack of a second, with no discussion by Gruzdowich’s fellow board members.
In a written proposal distributed to the board at Thursday’s meeting, Gruzdowich suggested cutting per diem payments received by board members from $200 to $100 per meeting; eliminating free medical and dental coverage for board members and their dependents; not reimbursing board members for travel expenses — including alcohol — incurred by spouses or guests; and capping per diem payments to $7,000 per year.
District officials pointed out that current district policy prohibits reimbursement for such expenses as alcohol or costs incurred by spouses.
Gruzdowich said board members are eligible for up to $20,700 worth of medical benefits per year, a practice he questioned.
“This isn’t right. As a board, we need to be more frugal and careful about how we spend our money,” Gruzdowich said.
Including this year’s 6 percent rate increase, the district has raised rates by a total of 74 percent in annual increments over the past six years.
When dental benefits are included, directors are eligible to receive a total of $23,545 in health benefits for themselves and their dependents per year, said district General Manager Michael Bardin in an email. In the current year’s budget, the district has allocated $79,153 for director health benefits, $35,600 for per diem payments and $4,000 for travel expense reimbursements.
In a report to the board, Bardin said director compensation totals less than one half of one percent of the district’s $20.9 million operating budget for the current fiscal year.
Gruzdowich, who has opted not to accept per diem payments or district-paid health benefits, said the board should set an example for other agencies, and cited the Valley Center Water District, which he said does not provide health benefits for board members.
“We’re all multi-millionaires in the Ranch, why do we need to take this?” Gruzdowich said.
After his motion failed, Gruzdowich said, “It’s disappointing to hear the board is not willing to vote against their own personal interests in this matter.”
Board President Michael Hogan said after the meeting that state law allows compensation for elected officials, and each board member has to decide what compensation to accept.
“I’m not going to sit in judgment with regard to other directors’ choices,” he said.
Hogan said that he takes only coverage for himself, and has decided to cap his own health benefits at 2010 levels, meaning he pays for any increases in premiums out of his own pocket.
Under a new contract with district employees, the highest-priced health plan will be eliminated in 2015, which will save the district money because employee health benefits are tied to the average cost of all plans offered by the district, Hogan said.
He said the Santa Fe district has been working to control its costs, and in relation to the county’s 24 water agencies, Santa Fe’s rates are in the bottom 25 percent.
“Compared to other water agencies, we’ve controlled our costs more effectively than the rest,” Hogan said. “I’m proud of what the board has accomplished.”
Director Alan Smerican, who was elected in November along with Gruzdowich, also sees nothing wrong with the compensation provided to board members. He accepts per diem payments and has signed up to receive health benefits, but is weighing whether to keep them (although not based on the issues raised by Gruzdowich), he said.
“After air, water is the most important thing that supports life. In other words, what we do is really important. The board makes decisions that affect the quality of life and the health of all the ratepayers,” Smerican said.
“The directors bring great value to the district and the public. If they were paid commensurate with their professional skills and experience, the district couldn’t afford them,” he said.
However, Smerican said he would vote to do away with director compensation if his constituents were against the benefits.
Directors Andy Menshek and John Ingalls did not return messages by presstime seeking comment.
Also at Thursday’s meeting, directors failed to support several proposals made by Gruzdowich regarding changes to the district’s monthly board meetings. The proposals included moving the district’s monthly board meetings from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., so that people who work during the day can attend meetings; removing presentations of employee awards from future agendas; and adding a new monthly report to board agendas, listing director compensation for the prior month and cumulatively for the fiscal year.