After more than an hour reviewing a series of distasteful options involving major cuts to the county's library system, the Board of Supervisors finally voted at its March 22 meeting to put a 1/8th cent sales tax measure on the November ballot to help close the library’s budget gap and forestall further cuts.
The most interesting moment in that discussion was when Supervisor John Pinches came up with a creative way of funding the election costs in case the measure doesn’t make the two-thirds vote needed and somebody (the County? the Ukiah-based “Friends of the Library” group?) has to eat an estimated $59k for putting the measure on the ballot.
Supervisor Carre Brown: “I want a plan and commitment for the Friends of the Library to reimburse the County for the November 11 1/8-cent tax measure proposal.”
Pinches: “I’ll make a personal commitment. If it fails I’ll work for this County for free for one year. You can take my salary and fund this cost. Make sure that’s put on the record.”
After some applause from the jubilant library supporters in the audience, Pinches added, “I hope that alleviates the question.”
Brown: “In between now and the workshop I want a contract drawn up.”
Although this elicited some laughter from the audience, Pinches was quite serious: “If need be I’ll sign whatever you want. I think I’m good for it.” Then Pinches was caught up in the lighthearted spirit and resorted to gallows humor: “But if I die you’ll all be screwed.”
Supervisor John McCowen asked, “What about the other groups with other budgetary needs that are in dire straits?”
Nobody answered McCowen’s question, although Supervisor Hamburg suggested that the library proposal was easier to support because “the library is very popular, and it’s more likely to get the required two-thirds vote.”
Soon after the discussion of the library, the Board had an “informational presentation” on the County’s “risk management” budget of some $1.7 million a year — insurance, a small administrative staff, payments for claims and lawsuits that are below the County’s $150k deductible. In any given year claims can add up to a sizable amount of money.
The County’s General Services Manager Kristin McMenomey told the Board about the big payout the Library has had to make for a costly settlement in 2007. A former library employee successfully sued the County for back wages and loss of employment after she was acquitted of embezzling tens of thousands of dollars from the Library.
Supervisor Pinches thought the whole insurance program was a joke.
“We’re paying $148k for just one year of premiums for the library?” asked Pinches. “Just to pay back the premium? Why call that insurance? That’s just self-insured. You pay yourself! There’s no benefit for the Library to be in the insurance pool. The Library was paying into the pool for years, then this $287k claim came along and they have to pay more than the total claim? Why pay the premium in first place? What’s the point of that?”
Ms. McMenomey explained that the insurance allocation system is imposed on the County by the state auditor and this is the way the County has to do it. But that answer didn’t satisfy the Board. Neither did McMenomey’s statement that self-insurance would cost even more.
Pinches thought the County should look beyond the California State Association of Counties insurance pool for a better deal.
Supervisor McCowen said he had heard that the embezzlement acquittal lawsuit stemmed from bad decisions by “people higher up on the food chain,” and that the Library was being disproportionately charged for the entire settlement bill.
Supervisor Hamburg said that over the entire five year period the library budget had been hit with the increased insurance costs and the total added up to over $500k even though the total amount the County had to pay was about $175k. “This payment does not add up,” said Hamburg, looking very puzzled.
County Counsel Jeanine Nadel: “An employee was prosecuted for embezzlement. After prosecution she was acquitted. The settlement was back wages.”
McCowen: “The allegations were not proven at trial. But someone went down the road assuming she was responsible. The Library is not necessarily responsible.”
Auditor Meredith Ford: “We had to borrow funds for the library payout. It was more than the library could pay so we borrowed.”
Hamburg: “The library didn’t initiate the action against the employee.”
Ford: “The Library made the report. The Auditor did an investigation. The DA decided to prosecute.”
McMenomey: “The amount allegedly embezzled was received by the Library.”
County Librarian Melanie Lightbody: “Library practices were the reason for the claim. Cash handling could have been better.”
In other words, management and accounting was incompetently done, the Auditor’s analysis was screwed up, the DA didn’t really question how the charges were arrived at, and the County was looking for a scapegoat. So they drag an innocent woman through what passes for a justice system and somehow the insurance company is the primary beneficiary.
Great work, Mendo!
Someone "higher up the food chain" should have been fired, but those someones are historically exempt in Mendocino County from any and all accountability. And now, after decades of irresponsibility, the Supervisors find themselves putting the screws to their least paid employees to make up for years of blithe fiscal assumptions, incompetence, ignorance and feckless management.