The Board of Supervisors were told Tuesday the county’s finances are in pretty good shape following a mid-year budget review. The real question, though, is how long will that healthy condition last?
According to Acting County Administrative Officer Jim Anderson, the county “will likely end the fiscal year in a balanced financial position.”
Dennis Huey, Auditor-Controller, predicted that when the books are closed out on June 30 revenues will probably be “over-realized” from original estimates. Huey pointed to increased property-tax transfers and timber yield taxes as the main sources of the expected surplus. Also boosting the bottom line are several one-time revenue enhancers. The Dept. of Social Services, Anderson said, may realize as much as $500,000 in savings because the “healthy economy has assisted in reducing the number of residents requiring financial assistance …” Healthy economy or not, Social Services is still in the expansion mode. Some months back DSS acquired new office space in Fort Bragg, dislocating several small businesses in the process. Just two weeks ago, the BOS approved 800 grand for the purchase of the old Yokayo Supermarket, once again to meet DSS space needs. Remodeling costs for the old store add another million dollars or so to the price tag. The Yokayo expansion is described in a master facilities plan as “short-term” given that “long-term” planning calls for the construction of a $40 million campus-like complex to house Social Services, Public Health and Mental Health.
Try as I may, I just can’t quite wrap my brain around “Welfare Reform.” Apparently Bill Clinton has been very successful in “reforming” folks off the dole, yet Social Services administration continues to grow like topsy. The bureaucrats tell you the reason for this apparent anomaly is that in order to gain the full measure of “reform,” one must deal with all the new regulations and the red tape they’re wrapped in. Hmmm. Why not eliminate the regs, the red tape, the big buildings and the bureaucrats and staff who occupy them, and then just give the money to poor folks. In other words, cut the middleman out of the process. It would certainly reduce to zero all overhead costs, other than cutting the checks.
Anyway, I digress. Back to the reality of budgets.
The Supes got into a bit of a philosophical debate over the DA’s budget and the relationship of staffing to revenue generation. Anderson stated there was a potential $200,000 shortfall in the District Attorney’s budget. As Anderson explained it, “Although it appears the District Attorney is maintaining expenditures within approved appropriations, revenues are not being realized as anticipated.”
Richard Shoemaker asked for additional details, such as what area of the DA’s operation was responsible for the shortfall. Huey replied, “It’s tied specifically to the DA’s activity in the Civil Division.”
The Civil Division, under Deputy DA Barry Vogel, was created last year by DA Norm Vroman. The main objective of the division is to prosecute environmental and white collar criminals. Last summer, during a somewhat contentious budget hearing, Vroman received BOS approval to provide the newly-minted Civil Division with a paralegal to assist Vogel. During the budget process, the DA estimated certain revenues resulting from fines and penalties growing out of Civil Division prosecutions. Vogel sent out several press releases promising he would get tough on environmental and white collar crime. The fairest assessment of the Civil Division’s performance to date is the jury is still out. Early promises to cast CD’s enforcement net far and wide have resulted so far in catching just a few small fish. Perhaps the lack of large fish to fry is an encouraging indication that Mendoland waters are free of white collar sharks and environmental pirates. To make a long story short, projected revenues from the Civil Division are $200,000 below original estimates. Anderson said he would be meeting with Vroman to discuss the matter because there’s always concerns when “estimated revenues don’t materialize.”
Tom Lucier remarked, “We have departments such as Animal Control saying because they have to reduce staff, they can’t increase revenues because they don’t have the staff to follow up on fines and licenses.”
Turning to the DA’s Civil Division, Lucier said, “Then we have a department like the DA’s Office where we provide funding for a paralegal to go after these civil things, and those (efforts) don’t become fruitful. So, it gives you a whole different perspective as to where the benefit actually lies with increasing staff.”
Shoemaker told Lucier, “I agree with you that the fruit has not come from the tree yet on that one. But, I wouldn’t want to not enforce laws because we didn’t make money doing it. I don’t think that’s necessarily the DA’s role in enforcing laws — to create revenue for the general fund.”
Another area of concern for the Board is employee compensation. At Tuesday’s meeting, the Supes were given a run-down on the so-called Slavin study, a 15-month analysis of county employee classifications and salaries. The consultant-produced study concluded that county employee compensation is roughly 10 percent to 15 percent under the going rate in a composite market comprised of 19 other governmental agencies.
County officials are assuming that employees must be brought up to “market level” or risk losing them to other counties and cities. It’s an interesting argument, but it’s also an expensive one.
County Administrator Jim Anderson advised, “The process of restoring our employee compensation to a competitive level, in an effort to promote recruitment and retention of employees, will certainly come at a significant cost.”
How significant? Well, if the Slavin study recommendations were put into effect tomorrow, pay raises would amount to approximately $6 million. That’s a big chunk of change when compared to a total discretionary budget of only $40 million. Anderson discussed a first step phase-in of pay increases totaling some $2 million beginning next July. But he also warned the Supes they will have to “immediately begin to establish policies and to form decisions in a manner that will promote the availability of financing for employee compensation increases.”
My colleagues K.C. Meadows, of the Ukiah Daily Journal, and the Anderson Valley Advertiser’s Bruce Anderson, raise a cogent argument regarding county employees’ compensation. They both maintain the study is flawed because it assumes that the so-called “market(s)” against which compensation is measured is outside of Mendocino County. Meadows and Anderson maintain that county worker wages and benefits should be compared to Mendoland’s prevailing compensation rates and standard of living. Measured up against that yardstick, county workers stand rather tall. It’s also speculated that the Supes uncritical acceptance of the Slavin study may be related to year-long efforts to boost their own salaries by some 40-plus percent. Obviously, that suspicion is cynical in the extreme.
Aside from salaries, the Supes were given more bad news regarding another employee benefit. The county’s health insurance, which covers some 1,400 employees, is approximately $1 million in the red. Anderson informed the Board, “Although the County is negotiating with its respective bargaining units to increase the amount of the premium paid for dependent coverage, it appears that we have just begun to enter into a prolonged period of escalating health care costs. Given the fact that the County shares in any increased health care costs with its employees, this phenomena will impact both organizational and employee finances.”
If you do the math on just the budgetary items discussed here already, you’ll find next year’s budget is beginning to swell at the seams just a tad. Of course, nothing has been said yet about other pressing needs, such as the deplorable condition of the county road system. Transportation staff estimate a walloping $70-plus million is required to fix everything.
Again, Anderson’s review of the roads issue was anything but optimistic.
“Staff holds firm to its position that our road system cannot be maintained or expanded utilizing general purpose tax revenues,” Anderson explained.
Currently, the state Legislature is considering a constitutional amendment that would place a 20-year, one-half cent sales tax for road projects on the November ballot. Anderson said if “such actions fail, the Board may wish to consider placing the issue of road financing before the local voters in the form of a dedicated increase in the sales tax.”
The punch line is, one way or the other, if folks want their roads fixed they’re going to pay more taxes to do it. It’s the same situation with schools and other local infrastructure such as sewers and water systems. If you want it, you gotta pay for it, even though the feds and the state of California are swimming in surpluses. You explain it to me.
One bit of good news came right at the end of Tuesday’s session. County Counsel Peter Klein told the BOS he needed their OK to finalize the tobacco lawsuit settlement. The Supes without hesitation pushed their green “yes” buttons. Thus, Mendocino County in the near future will receive annually approximately 1 million bucks over the next 20 years. The Board will decide later how the windfall is to expended.
Now that the County has resolved its garbage transfer station problems, it’s time for the Supes to tackle two other issues.
First of all, the North State Street property owned by the Mendocino Solid Waste Management Authority should be sold immediately. Once the Supes approved the Willits and Ukiah transfer station projects, all of the county’s waste stream will be processed at those sites. Therefore, MSWMA is no longer in the transfer station business. It had no business being in the business in the first place, but that’s all water under the bridge now. Ratepayers should no longer be on the hook for paying for a piece of property whose reason for existence was extinguished by the Supes okaying the two transfer stations.
Secondly, there is no earthly reason to saddle taxpayers with the burden of supporting two separate solid waste bureaucracies. MSWMA and the county’s Solid Waste Division should be collapsed into one, single entity. As former Supe John Pinches said time and time again, “Mendocino County decided a long time ago to get out of the garbage business, so why are there two, overlapping agencies involved in solid waste matters? It’s a rip-off of the taxpayers.” Amen.
It was the end of a long day at the Supes’ regular session this past Tuesday. Everyone was packing up to go home pending disposal of the day’s final routine matter, appointments to various committees and boards.
Oftentimes committee slots are designated along supervisorial district lines. As a matter of courtesy and custom, these so-called “district appointments” are cut-and-dried affairs, ratified unanimously, with little discussion other than the appointing Supe singing the praises of his/her nominee.
Tuesday evening David Colfax informed his colleagues he was ready to fill the 5th District vacancy on the Mental Health Board, the state-mandated citizen-oversight body for local mental health affairs. As everyone continued departure preparations, Colfax announced that Norman deVall was his nominee. As they say, that brought things to a stand-still, literally. You could hear a pin drop, literally.
While everybody kept their thoughts to themselves, I’m certain I wasn’t the only one thinking, “What grievous act has the Mental Health Board committed to have a notorious windbag of an old fraud like deVall inflicted on them?”
If Colfax wanted to appoint deVall to something, why not a cemetery district board? That way no one could accuse deVall of boring people to death.
Don’t leave yet, I’ve one more item. It’s about our good friends at the North Coast Railroad Authority. Just to show you that I don’t make these things up, here’s a few excerpts from Thursday’s Eureka Times-Standard concerning the latest follies at the Northcoast’s only publicly-owned railroad.
“John Darling, president of Rail-Ways Inc. (hired by the NCRA to operate the Northwestern Pacific), said repairs are complete to a little north of Petaluma, but cash flow problems won’t allow his company to continue working. Federal Railroad Agency inspectors are scheduled to inspect the repairs on Feb. 28 or 29.
“The railroad should be able to resume service during the week following the inspection, Darling told the board, “but we’re unable to purchase the necessary parts, tools and instruments. For that reason, resumption of train service has been deferred indefinitely until the NCRA can pay more what it owes us.”
A couple of years ago when the NCRA braintrust hired Rail-Ways to run the NWP, I said it was big mistake. Rail-Ways was a store-front operation in Elgin, IL. Its principals most recent claims to fame were earned at two bankrupt Midwest railroads. It was clear at that time that Rail-Ways had neither the resources or the know-how to get the job done here. Railroaders derided the Rail-Ways outfit as a bunch of Midwestern “flatlanders” with no experience of running a line over mountainous terrain. Unfortunately, events since then have borne out those fears, in spades.
Darling is a real piece of work. He tells the NCRA, “We got the tracks fixed (at least for the few miles up to Petaluma) but we ain’t going to run the train until you jerks fork over more dough.” How’s that for a little basic extortion?
The Times-Standard also reports, “The tracks north of Willits are unlikely to be repaired this year, Darling said, even if the money were available. Necessary environmental permits will take many months to obtain. Storm damage is continuing in the Eel River Canyon and elsewhere between South Fork and Eureka, including a slipout near Shively. The slide near Dos Rios has gotten worse, and there is a lengthy section between there and Kekawaka in Trinity County that cannot be reached and where nothing is known of track conditions.”
I kid you not, the lunatics are running the asylum.