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Following criticism, county roads leader says they're ready for next mountain storm

Kern County Roads Commissioner Craig Pope addresses the Board of Supervisors at the weekly meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018. (Image from KGOV video)

County Supervisor David Couch didn't seem happy Tuesday asking Roads Commissioner Craig Pope what went wrong Dec. 20 when his department turned down a request for help from the California Highway Patrol.

About 100 people were stuck on black ice late that evening in the Pine Mountain Club region, but no one answered the call to come and help.

"It had basically become quite a mess," Pope said Tuesday.

County roads employees are not required to take after-hours calls to deal with snow or ice. In ordinary circumstances, they are paid overtime on a voluntary basis to come work overnight.

But a recent change to the union contract makes it tough to earn overtime during weeks that include a county holiday, meaning night calls around holidays are paid at straight time. For the 6-10 employees called on December 20, Pope said straight time wasn't worth it.

Ironically, the union workers were confused about the start date of their new arrangement. They would have made overtime that night had they worked. The new policy kicked in a few days later.

But Couch, and people in mountain communities subject to snow and ice, won't have patience for another no-show.

Pope said his superintendent has widened the pool of volunteers from which to draw workers for overnight labor and believes that will remedy the problem.

And if that still doesn't work?

"We have a contractor on board who will respond," he said. "It'll cost us a lot of money, but we will not let this happen again."

Pope later told Eyewitness News that contractor costs more than three times the amount of the union workers.

The new volunteer pool will be put to the test as soon as next Friday, when a winter storm is presently forecast to bring snow to Kern's mountain communities. That storm also falls into a week that includes Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a county holiday.

Pope said there are long-term options to avoid a repeat of December's complaints, but none can be implemented quickly.

They can add something to the union contract that offers "availability pay" to workers who agree to be on call during the night. They can also shift work schedules during the weeks with the harshest weather to nights, but significant changes to schedules require 30-day notices to union employees. 30 days from now there will only be one week remaining with a county-observed holiday, which may or may not have severe weather.

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