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Casey Christie / The Californian

Kern Medical Center.

Kern Medical Center officials are looking to cut $6.5 million from the hospital budget, triggering panic among staff that their pay and benefits are threatened.

But top county administrators say they are not planning across-the-board salary and benefit cuts as the county's largest union has claimed publicly, but are looking to use hiring freezes, voluntary furloughs and other methods to match KMC spending to its budget.

The panic was prompted by an email sent to KMC staff by County Administrative Officer John Nilon outlining some of management's thoughts about changes at the county hospital.

"KMC will immediately reduce its salaries and benefits budget by 8 percent, review all services and supplies for similar reductions, and take aggressive action to improve its revenue generation," wrote Nilon, who is also serving as KMC's interim chief executive officer.

Some -- including leaders from the county's largest union -- took that to mean workers' paychecks were being targeted.

Ernest Harris, regional director for Service Employees' International Union, Local 521, said the union also heard from employees that they could face other impacts such as a cut in hours.

Vicki Avila of Local 521 -- which represents many KMC workers -- wrote a Community Voices piece published in The Californian Wednesday decrying the county's lack of fiduciary care and their plan to fix their own missteps by penalizing workers at KMC.

"Recently, an email was sent from John Nilon to the employees of KMC. One of his cost-saving measures is to cut employee salaries and benefits by 8 percent across the board," she wrote.

Sandra Martin, the chief financial officer at KMC, leapt to correct Avila's letter.

"I would like to clarify a misunderstanding that the hospital plans to cut all salaries by 8 percent to achieve the $6.5 million in expense reduction for the remaining months of fiscal year 2014 (October 2013-June 2014)," she wrote to KMC employees. "No base salary reductions are being proposed."

Instead, Martin said, KMC management is looking for every way it can reduce spending without major impact to staff and programs. To put it simply, she said, the hospital has been over-budgeted for years and must now be re-sized to fit a more accurate budget estimate.

Martin said that the hospital will be looking at staffing levels and determining where work isn't needed.

"To actually reduce our spending by the $6.5 million, management is freezing hiring, reducing use of overtime, asking for voluntary furloughs and evaluating staffing in each department," she wrote. "Reductions in all other line items of expense are also being identified, but might not have the immediate effect that reducing salaries and benefits will."

Ultimately, Nilon's initial email said, layoffs may have to be discussed.

"These actions won't be easy, they will require sacrifices and each area within KMC is asked to share the burden. We hope that restricted hiring, voluntary furloughs, supply reductions and improved revenues will be enough, but we also have to be prepared for possible layoffs if ultimately necessary," he wrote.

Regina Kane, president of the Kern County chapter of SEIU 521, said that the union has sent the county a letter demanding that it participate in collective bargaining on any personnel actions at KMC.

The union also wants a seat at the table as KMC tries to fix its chronic budgetary problems.

On Tuesday, Carmen Morales-Board, a nurse practitioner at Kern Medical Center and a member of SEIU Local 521, spoke at the Kern County Board of Supervisors meeting.

"Notices are going out that there will be unilateral austerity measures at the hospital, causing much turmoil and fear. Everyone agrees that KMC needs fixing," Morales-Board said.

She urged supervisors to listen to their workers.

"It's time to bring in the experts who know the hospital, know what the financial issues are, understand how the problems are kept hidden and know how to make things work for the benefit of our patients, the county, the taxpayers and this board," Morales-Board said. "No one -- and I mean no one -- knows our hospital better than the workers, the members of SEIU 521."

Nilon acknowledged the value of staff contributions in his Friday email.

"A few weeks ago, I kicked off a KMC staff involvement campaign called 'I'm In.' The intent is to seek input from all of you on your ideas to improve our hospital," he wrote. "While the campaign is just getting started, I am pleased to let you know we've received dozens and dozens of really good ideas and even more of you telling me you're 'In.'"