Stop me if you've heard this tune before, but it seems there's no end to the ongoing drama at Kern Regional Center.

KRC is one of 21 regional centers which are nonprofit private corporations that contract with the Department of Developmental Services to provide or coordinate services and supports for individuals with developmental disabilities and their families. These facilities play an important role providing much needed services.

Three years ago, DDS issued a scathing critique of KRC, which in its words, "identified serious and questionable activities by the KRC Board of Directors and Executive Management." This included the lack of management internal controls, questionable pension and deferred compensation activities, and the lack of oversight by both executive management and the board of directors.

One of the hotter issues now is over the employee pension plan. KRC management issued notices two weeks ago informing employees it was "freezing" their pension plan as of July 1 and would replace it with a 401(k) plan. Now employees are threatening to walk out of their jobs, authorizing to strike if necessary.

How did we get here?

KRC maintains it's a matter of financial solvency, invoking a provision in its collective bargaining agreement with Service Employees International Union referred to as Article 40. It states that when the state or any other funding agency does not provide monies sufficient to fund the economic provisions of the contract, KRC has the right to reopen the contract to renegotiate new terms.

When SEIU refused to renegotiate, KRC then simply terminated the collective bargaining agreement citing its right to do so under Article 40.

But SEIU isn't buying it. "It's a pretext to bust the union," said Stephen Curry, regional director of SEUI Local 521.

Curry said he does not believe KRC is facing any deficit in its current operating budget of $22 million. SEIU filed a charge of unfair labor practice with the National Labor Relations Board claiming KRC refuses to provide necessary and relevant information as requested.

"The fiscal situation is due to the agency not being able to stay within its' budget," said Michi Gates, who took over as KRC executive director in March.

According to Gates, KRC is under a special contract with DDS bound by the Lanterman Act, a state law that gives people with developmental disabilities the right to services and supports that enable them to live a more independent and normal life.

"We are required to meet a certain case load ratio, and we are far from meeting it right now," Gates said.

The state ratio at regional centers is one service coordinator for every 62 clients. At KRC, the ratio is one staff member for 80 to 90 clients, Gates said.

By freezing employees pension plan, KRC figures to save around $1 million to hire an additional 24 service coordinators to lighten the case load.

KRC employees aren't taking this news sitting down and fear KRC's action jeopardizes their health and other benefits.

"This affects us, our families and our clients in a very direct way," said KRC employee Corrine Rojo.

The issue arises when there is also conflict on the agency's board of directors. Some contend KRC management has a history of purposefully keeping board members in the dark about actions already taken, and because of management bureaucracy vital client services such as respite care are either non existent or difficult to obtain.

Further, some claim it is DDS that is pulling the strings instead of letting the board of directors do its job. Board president Kurt Van Sciver resigned last week citing he needed to focus his energy elsewhere.

DDS essentially dismissed my inquiries about these concerns.

"DDS is aware of the issue at KRC. However, because it relates to ongoing discussions between KRC and SEIU, please direct your questions to those entities" was the email reply by Nancy Lungeran, assistant director for communications at DDS.

But this goes beyond just the employees. More than 8,000 clients depend on KRC for services. Essentially it is the clients and their families who stand to lose the most should push come to shove.

There is some hope the two sides can still work something out. Both SEIU and KRC have agreed to take the matter up before an arbitrator in the near future. Stay tuned.

Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a news anchor/reporter for Telemundo Bakersfield and KGET. Email him at elcompa29@gmail.com. The views expressed are his own.

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