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County Budget Notes

NO PROBLEMO! Negativity has been vanquished! That was overall the takeaway from Tuesday’s first-day of the well-choreographed budget presentation for the July 2019-June 2020 budget year. Lots of generalizations and good intentions supplemented by some carefully selected departmental info highlighted the show. Several departmental presenters made a point of noting that CEO Angelo had required them to keep their presentations short by excluding certain of their info charts, supposedly for the sake of brevity. The Supes seemed pleased and impressed — they either had no questions at all or, if they did, they offered up wiffle balls cooly smashed out of the chamber by this or that chirpy staffer. A few department heads — especially Public Defender Jeffrey Aaron — asked for more money or staff, but they did so in such sedate terms that they seemed resigned to the likelihood that they wouldn’t get anything. Even the usually hard-to-deny District Attorney David Eyster felt compelled at one point to ask CEO Carmel Angelo if it was ok for him to go off script. (It was, of course.) Everybody patted everybody else on the back for their wonderful work. Revenues are on target. Efficiencies are being pursued. Some departments said they had magically reduced costs since the last report. Sheriff Allman said overtime was under control and new hires were either in place or on the way. More carefully packaged good budget news is expected on Wednesday when the bottom line will be obfuscated as usual. 

DAY TWO of the Board of Supervisors discussion of next year’s County budget included the following ominous remark from County CEO Carmel Angelo as she was explaining why the County needed to implement a hiring freeze for all “non-mission-critical” general fund positions: “I’m concerned that 18 months from now we’re going to tank.” After extensive but unnecessary discussion (the freeze was a fait accompli), with Supervisor John McCowen arguing that they didn’t need a hiring freeze because they were already having trouble filling positions as it is and it would be hard to distinguish “mission critical” from the rest, the Board agreed to the hiring freeze which means nobody gets hired without CEO Angelo’s express written approval.

NOT ONE COUNTY OFFICIAL, Supervisor, CEO or Department Head, however, asked about workload or backlog or what effect the hiring freeze would have on services. Supervisors Ted Williams and Dan Gjerde noted that Mendo has more employees per capita than other rural counties — without wondering why (the board never gets any staffing level reports by department) — although Supervisor Williams seems to think that if the County upgrades its computers it would somehow save lots of work and positions. (Studies have shown that the opposite is true.) Williams said that County staff is stressed because of not enough automation and too many people and too much paperwork. But Williams did note that upgrading the computers to the tune of upwards of $4 million is also necessary to replace obsolete equipment and help respond to emergencies. 

THE ONLY MENTION of workload problems came from the SEIU Local 1021 rep Patrick Hickey who talked about work backlog and delays while saying that the staff shortages that were causing the backlogs were the result of low pay. (To Hickey all County problems are based on Mendo’s comparably low pay.)

ON WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON the budget crunch that had been so cheerfully avoided on Tuesday became more apparent as the Board dealt with a list of things they couldn’t afford. Solution: try the hiring freeze, and postpone most of those unaffordable items for three more months when, perhaps, more revenue data will be available. 

TO CLOSE THE BUDGET GAP, the Board also decided to cut everybody’s services and supplies budget by 5% and increase the assumed amount they may to get from the Cannabis minimum tax. (They say they’re going to get at least $2.5 million.) This plus the hiring freeze and — presto! — balanced budget! The employees — especially the general fund employees (about half of which are law enforcement) — will just have to accept the “placeholder” amount of $5 million more however that gets spread out after labor negotiations. 

IN WHAT TURNED OUT to be the most controversial, if minor, aspect of the budget discussion, Supervisor Dan Gjerde proposed funding Supervisor John McCowen’s pet Climate Action Committee at $7500, not the $110k that Supervisor McCowen so desperately wants. McCowen, who seemed particularly aggrieved at Gjerde’s $7500 proposal, rambled on and on about how important the committee was, claiming that $7500 would be just “throwing money at it” and not provide “adequate” funding and would “hamstring” the committee from their important work in slowing down global climate change. Williams sensibly said the $110k item should be pulled entirely and voted on later when the budget picture was clearer. McCowen immediately insisted that that would delay the important work of the committee. McCowen even bemoaned the Board’s lack of “consensus” — i.e., agreement with him. 

IN A DRAMATIC MOMENT toward the end of the day on Wednesday in which there was some expectation that Board Chair Carre Brown would be the swing vote on giving the $110k to McCowen’s committee — McCowen apparently assumed that Supervisor Williams was on board — the final budget vote was 3-2 for the $7500 CAAC version of the budget with Gjerde, Haschak and Williams voting for the $7500 version over the objections of McCowen and Brown. 

BUT that’s hardly the end of the story. The eight bargaining units are going to want more than the $5 million placeholder — especially since county officials have already given themselves much bigger raises than the employees are asking for — and the computer upgrade was left seriously underfunded and a bunch of other issues were kicked down the road for three months in hopes that the revenue picture will improve and that the hiring freeze and/or the pot program will produce some freed-up money for the unfunded items. Those three months will also give Supervisor McCowen time to work on Williams to try to bring him back on board Alicia Bales’ $110k Climate Action Express. 

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