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Good Ship Mendo Heads for the Fiscal Rocks

Full steam ahead, Captain Angelo!

Patrick Hickey, Service Employees International Union field representative for Mendocino County, effectively set the stage at Tuesday's supervisors meeting for the upcoming budget/salary negotiations that the Supervisors and the CEO will have to address in a few months:

"County employees are fed up. They are fed up with the delays, fed up with the double standard. They are fed up with the justifications and excuses. They have watched as the board voted jaw-dropping wage increases for themselves and for county managers. I might just mention a few examples: a 40% increase for yourselves in January of 2018, a 24% increase for the Director of HHSA in August of 2018, an 18% increase for the Director of Planning and Building in August of 2018, a 22% increase for the Assistant Agricultural Commissioner in October of 2018, a 22% increase over four years for the CEO in October of 2018… Do you see a pattern here? I should also note that when these comparisons and increases were approved the board only looked at salary comparisons, not at benefits. Why do you only include benefits when you look at the lowest paid employees in the county? We expect the same methods and criteria to be used for county employees as was used for board members and managers. Or, you may need to revisit some of these exorbitant raises and claw some of them back. Today, after repeated delays, we were told that the report looking at wage rates for county employees would finally be released. But once again that was not true. Instead of transparency in data, we get generalities and excuses. Including benefits in comparisons is always problematic. Does the comparison include retiree health benefits? Healthcare for extra help employees? Education reimbursement plans? Housing assistance programs? We don't know because the information has not been released. If the administration is unwilling to provide the voters with the actual information on wage rates here in Mendocino County, we are happy to step in and do it for you. Just how far below market are wages in Mendocino County? Let me give you a few examples: account specialist supervisor 40% below market, animal control officer 29% below market, branch librarian 37% below market, child support specialist II 30% below market, departmental analyst I 37% below market, employment and training worker II 29% below market, program specialist II 46% below market, staff assistant III 18% below market…. I could go on, but you get the picture. What is even more confounding is that most of the money to increase wages would not be coming out of the general fund. Why in the world would you not bring more money into Mendocino County from state and federal sources? You can bet that other counties make sure they get every single dime. Why are you shortchanging Mendocino County? Supervisor Williams asked about comparators. Something that should be an embarrassment for all of us is that Sonoma County recently reached a settlement for their contract and they asked that Mendocino County be removed from their list of comparators because it was dragging them down. So we are asking you to stop stalling, stop saying you appreciate county employees when you are stiffing them. You can take action today to correct this inequity. The only question is if you have the will.”

Mr. Hickey received a polite round of applause from the employees in the audience which was followed by Board Chair Carre Brown scolding the applauders because applauding is not permitted in the Board Chambers and that they should instead silently twinkle-wave.

In his recitation of the recent self-awarded “jaw-dropping” pay raises the Supes and top officials gave themselves, Mr. Hickey forgot to mention County Counsel Kit Elliott who got a big raise last year on top of her earlier raise the year before and who now makes $140k/year plus generous benefits. That particular pay raise was given in closed session.

Recall that back in 2009 when the Great Recession hit and the employees were forced to take 10% pay cuts, Supervisors David Colfax and Kendall Smith, alone among the Supervisors and other top officials, refused to take cuts commensurate with the cuts they were imposing on their employees. Several of Colfax and Smith’s colleagues pointed out at the time that their refusal to take cuts like everybody else looked bad and made employee relations that much harder. But now, nobody seems to care how they look. 

Last Tuesday, after wasting hours on the climate committee dog and pony show featuring a self-ratified group of climate "activists" headquartered at Supervisor McCowen's donated building at 106 West Standley, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors didn’t have much time left to sort out the County’s looming financial crisis. 

After giggling through a salary survey consultant’s mathematical gaffe, the County's leadership ignored the much bigger gaffes accompanying the truncated budget discussion, which ended prematurely when Board Chair Carre Brown said she had “an important conference call” and had to adjourn the meeting. 

In what was supposed to pass as budget discussion, the Board asked their “general government” committee to look at sales tax proposals aimed at extending the current library 1/8 cent tax, and extending the Measure B tax beyond its five year life for roads and/or emergency services. But even if the Supes could convince voters to keep on paying current sales tax rates, these proposals wouldn’t provide any new revenue for several years.

The Supervisors also talked about “full cost recovery.” This is code for “Our fees have not kept up with our self-granted raises and our inefficient time allotments” for the full range of “services” that the County allegedly provides, mostly in the form of already very costly permits. The pot permit program, somewhere between $800k and $2.5 million in the hole, depending on who you ask, is going to see substantial fee increases. Supervisor Williams had the good grace to say he was tired of seeing the County trying to “subsidize this one particular industry.”

Planning and Building is going to see fee increases too because, as CEO Carmel Angelo inartfully put it, “There has been a belief that if the fees are high in the Planning Department, Environmental Health, whatever — when it comes to building and development that actually works against the economic development. We have not had fees at full cost recovery. And we still don't have economic development. I'm not certain what the connection is there.”

Translation: “Let’s jack up the fees to cover our own unjustified raises and time allotments because I can’t see where they do any harm.”

The Board also spent a good deal of time denouncing the courts, saying they’re too generous in waiving fees for the public defender and alternative public defender. (No apparent awareness that the courts largely deal with paupers.) They also think that they shouldn’t have to pay for the recent $200k settlement in the case where a woman injured herself on the courthouse’s internal staircases. And, they blame the courts and judges for having to keep their grotesquely expensive Juvenile Hall open where a dozen or so delinquents hone their criminal skills.

The closest the Board got to examining their own operations was when Supervisor Ted Williams, alone among his colleagues in realizing the seriousness of the problem, made a couple of observations and suggestions to cut costs.

Williams first suggested a hiring freeze. “We have about twice as many county employees as Sonoma County per capita. And you look at the other counties in the state and that trend seems to follow. I don't want to lay anybody off, but I think if we keep hiring eventually we will box ourselves in and we will have no option and at the same time we won't be paying market rates. This is the pivotal decision we need to make with this budget cycle.”

Supervisor John McCowen, however, didn’t like that idea saying that he and his colleagues don’t have enough information — they never seem to have enough information — so Williams’ hiring freeze suggestion quickly died.

Williams also asked, “At what point do we go through those [the services the County offers] item by item and decide, We are not going to do this. We have a smaller staff so we cannot ask fewer people to do the same workload we have today. Let's cross out some of our functions.”

That suggestion also died on the spot without the slightest response from anyone else in the room. 

CEO Angelo told the Board, “We balanced last year's budget with a 10% vacancy rate. It's quite possible as we go through this year that that 10% vacancy rate did create a structural imbalance and that was almost a false balancing of the budget. It gave us the false sense that we have the money. As we move forward for next year we have to really deal with a realistic budget.”

The leadership has yet to “deal with a realistic budget.”

Toward the end of the day, a budget staffer presented a simplistic chart that said the departments want about $10 million more than is available.

CEO Angelo commented, “We are talking millions of dollars of money we don't have for priorities.”

Later CEO Angelo noted, “It would be good to have direction from this board as we move forward on what your priorities really are. When you look at not having an additional $10 million or so for additional programs. We are looking at cost-cutting measures.”

The departments have asked for $10 million more than the allocation CEO gave them. But so far the departments have not itemized their requests.

And the “measures” CEO Angelo referred to are unspecified and invisible. 

Add to that the employees’ long awaited salary survey which shows that Mendo is something like 20-25% “below market” in salaries overall and that all eight bargaining units are due for substantial raises this next year.

Chief among the “departments” which have asked for $10 million in non-existent funds will be the Sheriff and the District Attorney who together spend more than half of the County’s general fund. If history is any guide the Sheriff and District Attorney will come to the Board during the upcoming, long-delayed day of budget reckoning and say that Public Safety comes first and the Board cannot cut their budgets.

And the Supervisors will cave. Count on it. So somebody is going to get cut.

And then came CEO Angelo’s neat little trick of responsibility-shifting.

Angelo: “At this point we are still in the process of working with the departments. I have said No to all departments. You will have an opportunity to know who is asking for what and still needs what because eventually they will come to you since I have said no. That will happen probably soon.”

So the CEO mismanages the budget, does essentially no real department by department reporting, let’s things get completely out of hand, doesn’t even say (yet) which departments want what, and then when crunch time arrives she tells the Board that it will be up to the Board to tell the departments that there’s no money left — especially law enforcement.

(Oh, and by the way, the $10 million does not factor in the pay raises the employees are expecting soon.)

Angelo concluded, “Possibly [sic] by May 7 we can have additional information to share [sic]. The budget process happens all year, we start in January developing the budget for the next year. It is not uncommon for the departments to come in and ask for $10 million over net County cost. This is absolutely the standard process. We usually work with those departments and get to some number that we both can agree on. But this year will be different because for the past few years of course we had a little bit more money [sic, they had millions in reserves they no longer have] and the departments did get additional revenue. This year, we don't have it and we are not planning on giving them additional revenue.”

Over to you, Board. And don’t expect fee increases or future sales taxes or vacancies to solve this problem. The Board let the CEO dig this hole but now she’s telling them it’s their problem.

One Comment

  1. izzy April 24, 2019

    Almost a century and a half ago, piggybacking on the 14th Amendment and a later case involving Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad, corporations were effectively granted the status of artificial persons. The corporate model, essentially hierarchical, undemocratic, and dictatorial – always with an eye towards manipulating the bottom line – has taken over government along with everything else. It’s been down hill ever since.

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