Humboldt County Planning and Building Director John Ford. | Screenshot from the June 16 Planning Commission meeting.




A week and a half ago, shortly after a flabbergasted Humboldt County Planning Commission learned that John Ford would not be resigning to take the city manager job in Fort Bragg, as he had planned to do, Commission Chair Alan Bongio turned to Ford and said, “I hope, however you worked that out, you got a big pay raise.”

Whether Ford personally worked it out or not, the county Board of Supervisors is set to give its planning and building director a 15 percent pay hike at tomorrow’s meeting. The proposed compensation boost would add $23,286 to Ford’s wages, bringing his annual base salary up to $178,526.

A staff report on the proposed increase doesn’t even mention Ford’s about-face on the job in Fort Bragg, a reversal he attributed to family issues. Instead it says the raise represents “compensation for taking on additional responsibilities,” including his department’s assumption of the county Code Enforcement Division and the creation of the Cannabis Planning Division.

“In addition,” the staff report says, “the Planning & Building Department has taken on significant Advance Planning responsibilities including Nordic Aquafarms permitting, Housing Trust Fund, McKinleyville Town Center Master Plan, Sea Level Rise planning, Drought Task Force, Accessory Dwelling Unit Ordinance, and others.”

None of those responsibilities were added particularly recently. Code Enforcement was moved from the County Administrative Office to the Planning and Building Department almost five years ago, and the Cannabis Planning Division was established way back on July 1, 2016, four months before Ford started on the job.

Still, it’s true that the department has grown significantly during Ford’s tenure. In the year before he arrived, the Planning Department had an annual budget of $6.2 million and 40 full-time-equivalent positions. Its budget has since ballooned to more than $28 million per year, and staffing has more than doubled to 84 full-time positions.

County Administrative Officer Elishia Hayes said the department is “a different agency” from the one Ford took over in 2016, and the extra responsibilities and staff he has taken on have grown to a point where the compensation needed updating. 

“John has done a huge amount of work on some of the most important and controversial projects facing Humboldt County, and we have all benefitted from his skill, knowledge and expertise,” Hayes said. “It is clear that the community values John’s contributions to Humboldt County, as does the Board, and we know he will continue to do great work here. Needless to say, the Board was pleased to see he will continue to serve our residents for the foreseeable future.”

Ford’s proposed raise is on the consent calendar for tomorrow’s meeting, which means it’s set to get approved without discussion, along with 30 44 other agenda items, unless staff or a supervisor pull the matter for discussion.

For the sake of comparison, the Outpost looked into the compensation for planning directors (or their nearest equivalents) in the three counties with the closest population to Humboldt’s — Napa, Kings and Madera. It’s important to note that the jobs aren’t apples-to-apples comparable since each county assigns different tasks to its department heads, so take this information for whatever it’s worth. But here’s what we found:

Even Ford’s current base salary of $155,240 is higher than that of Jamie Bax, who makes $137,998 per year as Madera County’s director of community and economic development. It’s also a tiny bit higher than the $154,224 base salary for Kings County Community Development Director Charles “Chuck” Kinney. 

On the other hand, Ford’s proposed raise to $178,526 would still leave him making a lot less than David Morrison, Napa County’s planning, building and environmental services manager, whose annual base salary is $230,235. 

Regardless, 15 percent raises are uncommon among Humboldt County employees, though they’re not unheard of. For example, county payroll employees got a 19 percent pay bump a few years back, according to Assistant County Administrative Officer Sean Quincey. And after recent salary negotiations, the Board of Supervisors agreed to give correctional deputies a 12 percent raise across the board.

Quincey said department heads typically get a five percent bump when they take on a new division or significant new responsibility. The staff report notes, “Other than [a] negotiated cost of living increase, the Planning and Building Director salary has not been evaluated with consideration of the increased responsibility that has taken place in recent years.” 

The report also commends Ford for his skill and leadership in implementing innovative programs and guiding the county through the complex implementation of a cannabis regulatory system, and it says the future will bring more challenges with housing demands and infrastructure growth.

Like virtually every other department in the county, the Planning Department is currently short-staffed. It’s spending only about 90 percent of its allotted salary in the current planning budget, which leaves “plenty of room to pay for” Ford’s raise, Quincey said.

The Board of Supervisors meeting is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Tuesday.