shortly after completing the program for significantly higher-paying jobs at
other utilities," Byrne wrote.
The department says the problem has been worsening for a decade.
--Less reliable water delivery. The State Water Project doesn't have enough dispatchers to run pumps at full throttle during the best times of the year to minimize effects on fragile ecosystems.
"This directly reduces (the project's) ability to deliver water," Byrne said in the letter.
--Higher operating costs. Between 2011 and 2012, Byrne said, the water project spent an extra $70 million for energy because it didn't have enough dispatchers to run pumps during non-peak hours when power is cheaper.
--Higher contracting costs. To backfill the staff shortage, the water department contracts out jobs that state employees could do, a practice restricted by state law.
"The last time we challenged one of those contracts, we lost," said Tim Neep, director of the operating engineers union that represents the state's skilled trades and craft workers.
The state's winning defense was, Neep said, "not enough bodies."
Byrne's letter also ties the water department's shortage of dispatchers to a Thanksgiving Day fire at the Thermalito Pumping/Generating Plant near Oroville.
The five-floor plant was destroyed, costing the state millions of dollars in lost power generation and "potentially hundreds of millions in clean-up costs and reconstruction," Byrne wrote.
The fire might not have been as devastating, he said, "had adequate personnel resources been available" to provide on-site staffing.
To help fill the jobs left vacant by those who leave, the department has reclassified the work and lowered qualifications in some instances.
The career path to senior water dispatcher used to take 14 years or more. But with some many lower-level dispatchers leaving for better-paying jobs, water project employees with as little as four years of experience assume those duties under a different job title.
The International Union of Operating Engineers, which represent skilled trades employees at Water Resources, has lobbied the governor's administration for higher pay. Its contract, like those of 18 other state employee bargaining units, expires in early July. All of those groups are negotiating new deals.
The union says the problem is serious enough to warrant a 45 percent pay raise. It's a touchy subject for Brown as he enters contract negotiations involving tens of thousands of employees throughout state government.
"They're worried about setting precedent for the other unions," said operating engineers lobbyist Tim Cremins. "And they're worried about public perception."
Byrne's letter didn't specifically call for wage increases at Water Resources, and Curtin also steered clear of taking a position on boosting pay for key water jobs.
But there's plenty of precedent. Several years ago, state prison nurses and engineers received substantial raises to make the state more competitive with the private sector and local governments.
Other professional groups such as state attorneys and computer programmers have argued for similar pay parity, but their wages remain well below the market standard.
Brown's budget proposals for the coming fiscal year don't hint at any big raises or a wave of new hires for the Department of Water Resources.
The administration has consistently signaled that Brown's agenda doesn't include a round of raises for state employees.
Julie Chapman, the administration's top labor relations official, suggested little will change when she was asked during a recent legislative committee hearing to forecast the outcome of labor talks.
"The governor has made statements," Chapman said, "that he's not going to spend money he doesn't have."
(c)2013 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)
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