Blind Men with Box Cutters

As predicted, County Administrator Jim Andersen has suggested to the Board of Supervisors that they lay off several low level county workers to balance the county budget. Highly paid county employees are safe, including Andersen's prize fiscal year catch, the unbalanced Ralph Freedman, director of the county's deadbeat dad collections.

Freedman, paid some $100,000 a year when his benefits are factored in, is facing misdemeanor charges stemming from high-intensity verbal assaults on two of his employees. Under his auspices county collections, previously the responsibility of the District Attorney, are significantly down, a man whose resume is replete with trouble every place he's worked.

Unsurprisingly, the supervisors and their imprudent administrator, Andersen, have demonstrated their neo-frugality by agreeing to pay Freedman's legal bills. Freedman has hired a Santa Rosa attorney although it is clear Andersen did not check Freedman's bona fides before he was hired. (In fact, Freedman was a consultant to the county, advising Andersen, et al, on how to set up his own future department.)

The supervisors have also hired an outsider to direct its 11-years-after-the-fact county water district, concluding a decade after it was obvious to everyone save the Ukiah Chamber of Commerce that inland Mendocino County had tapped out its water supply, and wasn't even doing basic metering. The Ukiah Valley's numerous little water districts, ancient old-boy fiefdoms, are suing each other and basically telling the county that their new water guy, another hundred thou catch, and the county's new water district aren't getting a drop of anything from any of them, water or cooperation.

Mendocino County, then, faces three major crises -- a county pension teetering on the edge of bankruptcy; severe water shortages inland; and a fiscal shortfall brought on by a combination of profligate county management and state mismanagement of state funds, creating a shortfall estimated by the inept Andersen at some $5 million.

These rolling crises occur in a county context of an irresponsible Board of Supervisors advised by an incompetent pair of county administrators -- Andersen and Bruce Mordhorst. Adding to the confusion is a County Counsel and a large staff of six so-called "risk managers" who, partly at the behest of an unfit board of supervisors and partly out of their own tax-funded malice, create legal liabilities for local taxpayers where none need exist.

That part of the public that attempts to follow local affairs then suddenly is presented a county budget by the people who created it much as an unlucky pedestrian is crushed by a grand piano falling from the fourth floor of an apartment building.

But everybody knew this year's cuts were coming, the only thing they didn't know was how big the shortfall was going to be.

So what did Mendo's supervisors do while they waited for the piano to hit the pavement? They stood looking up at it as it fell, arguing about whether they should impose an across the board cut (percentage cuts in each department or employee furloughs), or let the department heads decide on their own how to pare their individual budgets. If the department heads did their own budget cutting the leadership, such as it is, wouldn't have to do anything but limp over under the next plummeting piano.

Supervisor J. David Colfax, PhD, as the board's heavy-hitting deep think and stats man, explained, "We don't look at numbers, we set priorities."

What priorities have been set?

None -- Deep Dave and his colleagues are letting random processes do the figuring for them.

One might have expected that the most extravagantly wasteful programs funded by the county would at least be considered for this year's piano toss. The county pays two garbage agencies although its original one is the only one the county needs.

The second, and an even less defensible expenditure in a time of crisis, is the $550,000 of public money donated to the privately owned wine and tourist business to promote their businesses. This boondoggle spends most of its budget on trips of its two principals on wine and cheese junkets to the Bay Area. (Last year the junketers got a free trip to Germany to allegedly encourage Germans to head west for wine country; nobody checked to see if the Germans showed up.)

The county maintains around 33 department heads, more or less, depending on how one counts them, rewarded at triple the money the average county employee gets for his labor and twice that for comparable private sector managers. Most of our administrators couldn't manage Safeway but the Safeway manager could efficiently manage many county departments.

A county the size of Mendocino shouldn't have more than 20 departments, and even twenty is too many.

The county is paying off its bad debt to the county pension fund at an exorbitant interest rate while investing almost nothing in the local economy.

So did the Supervisors talk about the $550k-plus Mendocino County Alliance budget? Did they discuss consolidating the two garbage agencies? Did they consider a no-brainer like putting the tiny Animal Control department into the Ag Department as is done in several other neighboring counties, eliminating an expensive (and incompetent) department head? Did they discuss consolidating the redundant administration in the county's health and human services departments, as is done in several other neighboring counties? Did they discuss ways to jump start small businesses to increase sales tax revenues?

No. They waited until the last minute to lay off a handful of low-level workers.

On the chopping block for what one has to assume are high priority cuts (judging by Supervisor Colfax's "we set priorities" remark) are two janitors, two DA's investigators, one public defender, one probation assistant ("voluntary"), a code enforcement officer, two vocational assistants, a children's librarian, a reference librarian, and a staff assistant for the Ukiah library, a safety coordinator from risk management, and two trappers ("both federal positions," whatever that means. If it means the laid off trappers are positions reimbursed by federal money, what's the point of laying them off?)

And the trappers weren't laid off after all because, and true to their spine-free form, when real people showed up at their lightly attended work hours Tuesday meeting last week -- day meetings are to accommodate them and county staff, not the public -- to complain that the trappers shouldn't go because they keep the county rural by keeping critters off livestock and thus keep the remaining ranches intact, the supervisors kept the trappers on.

When supporters of the library complained that the library should be spared, the supervisors gave the library people back one librarian.

"The board is not here to interrogate staff," commented Supervisor Colfax. "It's not our job to look at the numbers."

In fact, the Supervisors couldn't "look at the numbers" if they wanted to. The county does such a bad job regularly reporting on routine things like department staffing levels, lost time accounting, position vacancies, outside contracting, consulting, temporary help, and on and on, that Supervisor Delbar recently exclaimed that he was "surprised" that the Mental Health Department had somehow ballooned up to 140 staffers.

A Supervisor is surprised at how many people he's allegedly supervising?

But the Supervisors have informed us that their first priority budget cuts are janitors, DA's investigators, a code enforcement officer, a public defender...

Conversely, since there's no discussion of the big ticket budget busters -- wasteful spending on useless bureaucracies like the Mendocino County Alliance, the redundant Mendocino Solid Waste Management Authority, the do-absolutely-nothing Local Area Formation Commission (LAFCO), the County Wellness Office (Yes, "wellness"), and an excess of overpaid department heads must be high budget priorities.

And how do county employees feel about the budget situation?

Funny you should ask.

It turns out that a few months ago newly seated Supervisor Hal Wagenet asked the county employees union (Services Employees International Union, SEIU) to survey their members and come up with "creative ideas" to deal with the budget problem.

The SEIU's energetic Paul Anderson (also Ukiah City Councilman) presented the results of the survey to the Supervisors last week.

Seventy percent of the responding employees "don't feel the board is concerned" about them; 85% have no confidence in the Supervisors' ability to resolve budget matters; 59% are uneasy about their jobs. Only half the employees feel they have enough information about the county's budget. There is strong opposition to centralized services in Ukiah. Most prefer furloughs to layoffs and increases in the transient occupancy (bed) tax. There is very low support for increased sales taxes. A significant number mentioned closing early on Fridays, cutting car and housing allowances, turning off lights at night -- and a pay cut for Supervisors. And -- surprise! -- employees prefer cutting waste and administration to layoffs and reduced wages.

In other words, at least some of the employees are aware that literally no one is at the wheel of the county ship.

(By the way, at present, Supervisors make $44,000 a year. And in July of next year it goes up again to $48,000 per year, plus generous medical and pension benefits, and another example of the county's oft-stated policy of "rewarding excellence." These are the people who recently wondered out loud why there were suddenly some 400 more county employees. Who hired all these people?, the supervisors wondered. Why weren't we informed? They seemed genuinely perplexed.)

New sources of revenue suggested by employees include: taxes on wine grape production, cigarettes, alcohol, and casino income.

Thanks, Mr. Union Rep Anderson, but these survey generalizations are not very helpful, nor are they likely to produce any changes that will benefit county employees.

First off, only 200 of the more than 1200 employee union members even bothered to respond to the union's survey. Yet Mr. Andersen presented the 200 as if they were representative of the 1200 -- an unlikely conclusion since the 200 who did respond were likely to be the employees who are most dissatisfied with county government. The rest -- a large majority -- apparently just don't care. (Or maybe the union isn't much of a union, or isn't keeping them very well informed.)

Mr. Anderson's survey summary did mention "strong support for organizational development as well as maximizing fees and payments," and that employees "strongly favor reducing waste and inefficiency and cutting administrative expenses." The accompanying charts refer to "organizational improvement," and "[cutting] department heads," and "reducing waste." One bit of fine print even mentions taking a look at the Mendocino Transit Authority, another black hole of unexamined county revenue that the Supervisors never bring up.

But what specific organizational improvements were recommended? What waste do the employees think should be cut? What department head cuts were recommended?

If the members or officers of the employees union expect to change the county's fatuous budget cutting strategy of firing janitors and code enforcement officers, they'll have to do better than generalized recommendations. They'll have to be specific and make their demands part of their upcoming contract negotiations.

But given the quality of the leadership, and given the statistically documented passivity of most county workers, the county will run right up on the fiscal rocks before anyone in county government acts on behalf of effective local government and ordinary fiscal responsibility.

Mendocino County is badly served by its supervisors and their administrators, but don't expect the people responsible for the ominous present drift to suddenly get serious about arresting it. The piano will fall on all of us before they do anything more than collect their high pay for showing up at a meeting once a week.

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