County workers give back

Combined Fund Drive a way for employees, retirees to help others

By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Paula Shimizu often has donned a costume around this time of year, but it hasn’t been to celebrate Halloween.

Instead, Shimizu has dressed up — her latest garb is that of a clownish cowgirl — to round up support among her fellow Sonoma County government employees for their annual charitable giving campaign.

Paula Shimizu and John Haig during a barbecue earlier this month to celebrate county employees’ charitable giving. (Jeff Kan Lee/ The Press Democrat)

“It’s just a fun thing to do for a worthwhile cause,” said Shimizu, 55, of Windsor, a 24-year county employee who recently retired as deputy director of the General Services department.

Each year the campaign, called the Combined Fund Drive, helps employees and county retirees make payroll deductions or one-time contributions to hundreds of organizations and causes.

Now in its third decade, the program is managed by United Way of the Wine Country, which partners with city governments in the area on similar campaigns. Among those, the county’s is the largest, which is no surprise because of its much larger 3,500-member workforce.

Quietly, and in the face of criticism aimed at soaring public-sector pay and benefits, the county campaign has become a prominent force in local charitable giving.

Since 2002, it has raised more than $3.1 million, with donations going to a wide range of efforts, from groups serving veterans, seniors and the homeless to health, education and environmental causes.

The largest beneficiary over the years has been a group of foundations that support the county’s regional parks, the Valley of the Moon Children’s Home and the county library system.

This year’s two-month campaign is in its closing days — it ends Oct. 31 — but officials say it is on track to equal the nearly $260,000 donated last year by more than 850 employees and retirees.

Sonoma County Redevelopment Manager John Haig, like Shimizu a long-time volunteer with the campaign, says it extends the community-service dedication of his government colleagues to bolster the work of nonprofit groups.

“It’s a painless way for employees to provide a cash stipend for continued good works,” he said. “That resonates with me.”

Through the program, Shimizu has given to her church and to the AIDS LifeCycle Ride, which she participated in last year. Haig, 57, of Rohnert Park, has given to the American Cancer Society, honoring close family members battling the disease, and a pre-school program once attended by his now-adult children, as well as environmental causes.

Across Northern California, Sonoma County’s campaign ranks third in giving, behind only wealthier San Francisco and Santa Clara counties.

Amid the recent economic downturn, which has resulted in layoffs and pay concessions for county workers, it’s heartening to know the effort is still thriving, Haig said.

“Things have been tough for a while,” he said. “But county of Sonoma employees keep stepping up, keep making donations. I’m proud of being a part of an organization that does that.”

(You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.)