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Politics and low pay are creating a 'brain drain' in Shasta County

A sign in front of a large building with a clock tower on top. The sign says "County of Shasta California, Administration Center, 1450 Court Street."
Roman Battaglia
JPR News
The Shasta County Administration Center, where the Board of Supervisors meets.

There are hundreds of open positions in Shasta County. With such an excess of openings, a newcomer might wonder how anyone could need a job in the far northern California county. But a closer look at the pay and political dysfunction there shows why so few people are filling those seats.

The right-wing majority on the board of supervisors has attracted extremists, who regularly bring chaos to the meetings; shouting, getting into arguments and verbally attacking both supervisors and other audience members.

Last year, the board voted to fire the county’s health officer, a position that remains unfilled. County Supervisor Mary Rickert, one of the moderate Republican supervisors, said since then, it’s been a revolving door for leadership in the county.

“Our new [county] CEO has been here six weeks, and I try to speak with him every day to give him some background as to the history of every issue, because it's very difficult for him,” Rickert said. “He doesn't have the staff to even fill him in on what’s happened because there's been such a high turnover.”

Shasta county’s previous CEO, Matt Pontes, left the county government for a job at Sierra Pacific Industries last year. Pontes led the county through the COVID-19 pandemic. He resigned after he said Board Chair Patrick Jones tried to blackmail him with information about a decades-old felony conviction.

"This last year, to me feels like a decade's worth of departures."

That chaos at the top has trickled down the ranks, leaving managers and low-level workers to seek new jobs, according to Benjamin Nowain.

“I've been here for 10 years,” said Nowain, a staff services analyst for Shasta County’s Health and Human Services department. “And I would say for eight of those 10 years, most of the people I worked with, they weren't going in and out of the agency this quickly. Like this last year, to me feels like a decade's worth of departures.”

Nowain said he hasn’t been particularly strained in his department, but he’s also seen resignations. His director, Donnell Ewert, retired last year, citing politics as one of his reasons for leaving. Nowain said his program manager also resigned from the county last month for a job at a private company.

Nowain isn’t alone. Jeff Gorder was the county’s public defender until 2018. He said there were always staffing difficulties at the lower levels, but nothing like what’s happening now.

“There's just a lot of anxiety out there about, ‘Oh, am I gonna lose my job? What could be next?’ I don't think that was in existence back when I was working for the county," Gorder said.

Since retiring, Gorder has stepped into a new role. He’s one of the leading figures behind the effort to recall County Supervisor Kevin Crye, who took office less than a year ago.

“He promised to be fiscally responsible,” Gorder said. “He promised to prioritize public safety, and homelessness, etcetera. It all sounded good. So give him a chance. And then, you know, he just did a 180 on what his promises were.”

Crye declined multiple requests for an interview by phone and email.

Gorder’s recall committee recently submitted their petition signatures for review by the county elections department.

If the petition is approved, the recall election would likely be scheduled to coincide with the March presidential primary election next year.

Low morale in the county jail

There may not be a more visible example of the impacts of the staffing shortage in Shasta County than the closure of an entire floor of the county jail.

Sheriff Michael Johnson decided to close the third floor of the jail more than a year ago.

“What was going on prior to the closure of that floor was our staff in the jail, they were being forced to work mandatory overtime,” Johnson said. “So they were working six and seven days a week and not getting their time off.”

When Johnson became sheriff two years ago, staffing levels across the department were low. He’s been able to bring in staff everywhere except the jail, where there are still at least 25 vacant positions according to Undersheriff Brian Jackson.

Besides overtime, low pay is also an issue at the jail. Johnson said employees earn the same as other nearby jobs that might offer better benefits.

“For instance a tree trimmer or retail or something,” Johnson said. “And other jobs that they can do for the same pay are Monday through Friday, not shift work, weekends, holidays off and they make the same amount of money. So why would they stay in the jail?”

According to the county’s job board, entry-level correctional officers start at $26.08 per hour. Public Safety Service Officers, which are low-level support staff at the jail, start at $17.48 per hour.

Johnson has submitted a proposal to reopen the jail floor, but it’ll be impossible to execute if nobody wants to apply for the jobs.

Politics over workers

The county’s divisive politics are getting in the way of attracting new workers, according to County Supervisor Tim Garman.

“You have people that may want to come to work here or thought about coming to work here, but it's not very stable at the top,” Garman said. “So why would you want to go put your name in for a job for somewhere where it's not very stable?”

Garman said the right-wing majority of county supervisors have been irresponsibly spending money on wasteful projects, like trying to get rid of voting machines and count ballots by hand, which the county approved earlier this year. That plan currently faces roadblocks, with a new state law banning the practice.

"Why would you want to go put your name in for a job for somewhere where it's not very stable?”

Some county workers, like Amber Keegan, who spoke at a meeting in May, say the board majority’s actions suggest they don’t care about their employees.

“My income qualifies me to receive food stamps, and I’ve been in this job for five years,” she said.

Keegan’s job? Helping people apply for those same food assistance programs.

Garman and Rickert both say that political change is what can realistically turn the tides and bring the county back to focusing on its people.

At least three seats on the county board of supervisors will be up for election in 2024, including moderate supervisors Garman and Rickert as well as right-wing Board Chair Patrick Jones.

After graduating from Oregon State University, Roman came to JPR as part of the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism in 2019. He then joined Delaware Public Media as a Report For America fellow before returning to the west coast.