Mendo’s Unstable Budget (Sep. 10, 2003)

The just concluded County budget hearings saw the supervisors institute an across-the-board 10.1% spending cut. Everything got whacked that much. Redundant departments?  Excessive pay for department heads? Crazy spending? 

No. 

No real cuts at all.  

Don’t fill vacancies but tell the rubes you’ve trimmed ten percent of the fat from local government. Issue a second press release that blames the budget shortfall on the state, which is partially true but exempts Mendocino County managment from any and all responsibility for the deficit. Certainly don’t explain that most of the ten percent allegedly cut was achieved by simply adding up the salaries of the unfilled job slots and calling the sum total “a spending cut.”

And whatever you do, don’t cut any of your own goodies, especially tax-paid travel and conference funding. It’s really, really important to the welfare of Mendocino County that Patti Campbell gets a free trip to Washington D.C. to talk to our Congressman about Mendocino County’s “concerns.” And David Colfax really, really needs a tax-paid office in downtown Boionville to talk to his constituents; he couldn’t possibly meet them in any of Anderson Valley’s dozen restaurants or coffee shops or in one of the free public buildings in Boonville. 

It’s really, really helpful to have two garbage agencies instead of one and, naturally, the taxpayers should pay a lawyer from Santa Rosa to defend a County bureaucrat against two misdemeanor charges of being nuts on the job. And won’t County employees be surprised when their under-funded pension fund finally goes belly up because the supervisors haven’t been putting enough money into it for years now.

All of this is leadership, Mendocino County style, and the board hearings were the usual front-to-back sham.

“The $181 million budget is tight,” declared a Mike A’dair in The Willits News, unaware that a “tight” $181 million budget in Mendocino County is an oxymoron.

The same reporter wrote that “Director of Social Services Alison Glassey explained what effect the belt-tightening has had on her department, which has shrunk by 43 positions over the past year. “We're trying to do the minimum that we're required to do,” Glassey said. 

Candor at last! Minimum effort on behalf of the doomed has been County welfare policy since at least 1970, but what Glassey meant was that social workers wouldn’t be able see their “clients” every six months like they’re supposed to. And why are they supposed to see their “clients” every six months? To make sure the cunning devils aren’t living it up on their $297 a month! Some single mother might be trading her kid’s food stamps for weekends at Orr Springs or the Mendocino Hotel. 

The whole point of welfare bureaucracies in this or any other place is making poor people prove they’re poor. 

“If next year's constraints are as serious as this year's, I think it will be a very dangerous time for our department, for the clients and for the staff,” Glassey said.

Kick a dog long enough and the dog will bite back.

Mental Health Director Beth Martinez, trying valiantly to pick up the pieces of a department riddled with incompetents and badly managed for two decades because supervisor Shoemaker inserted his pals in the department’s key positions, said her department will be $1.8 million in the red this year, adding that she was confident that she’ll be able to pay back about $300,000 of that amount. Martinez said that most of Mental Health’s clients are eligible for Medi-Cal, hence state reimbursements. Very few people who are not eligible for Medi-Cal present themselves to Mental Health; well-to-do mental cases pay for private assistance. 

“5150s” — cop code for persons deemed a danger to themselves or others, or are considered to be in “crisis” (suicidal or seriously depressed) are not required to present proof of insurance for their initial screening and their referrals for help, which is the same department policy in place before the budget crisis. (And as if a dangerously crazy person were together enough to bring his paper work along with him or even know where it or he was. 

Mental Health had been authorized for staffing up to 170 people. 45 positions were cut, but only nine of those were actual staffers and they volunteered to be laid off.

The Sheriff’s Department presently bears the burden of caring for the aggressively deranged. That task proved to be beyond the capacities of the County’s helping professionals. Which is just as well; the average deputy at least brings commonsense, real life experience and human sympathies to work with him. At the County-run mental health unit therapists were locking themselves in their offices and frantically dialing 911 for the cops whenever a “client” went off. And clients were going off all the time because their tax paid therapists were driving them crazy. (Many of our therapists graduated from the more depraved sectors of the local counterculture, deriving, then, from a kind of socially sanctioned insanity that would have rendered them totally, permanently unfit for public employment in any other country in the world. Not here. They have allies and friends on the Board of Supervisors.)

Treatment and hospitalization costs have gone up faster than reimbursement rates, and if the treatment and hospitalization is legally mandated, there’s not much left over for early intervention or ongoing service. The financial crunch in Mental Health stemmed from increased mandated costs and lower state reimbursements, leaving little money or staff time for non-crisis mentally ill Mendolanders.

And what are “conserved” people? Low-income adults and seniors with mental problems who are unable to care for themselves and who qualify for assistance under the public guardian through Social Services’ Adult Services department. There are lots of them, too.

Mental Health’s legally “mandated services” include “providing mental health services to students for them to succeed in school.” I.e., the wholesale prescription of pharmaceutical speed like Ritalin and other chemical weapons used almost exclusively on the children of the poor because the parents of protected children would never, ever put their kid on dope.

Medi-Cal covers medical assistance for low income people with mental problems, which in effect means that Medi-Cal only covers psychiatric (primarily drug) treatment, but not psychological help or counseling. Even if competent counseling were generally available.

The Mental Health department is in a uniquely dicey financial position. They get very little federal money; most of their basic funding is state money, which has been seriously cut. They have a staff psychiatrist, Dr. (“Death Penalty” Rossoff, and four part-time contract psychiatrists, all of them wed to Better Living Through Chemicals. More than 50% of Mental Health staff have specialized psychiatric training or qualifications, including nine (present or former) mental health customers who, Martinez said, “have a gift for helping other people who are in recovery.”

Mental Health maintains three “crisis centers” in the county, in Ukiah, Willits and Fort Bragg; the Ukiah center is staffed round the clock backed up by the muscular commonsense of jail staff. There is also staff available to provide court ordered services. 

Even though Mental Health maintains a large staff, more than half its $13 million annual budget goes to pay outside service providers, hospitals and pyschiatrists. There are eight hospitals, primarily St. Helena in Napa, who care for Mendocino County’s seriously ill Mental Health patients. 

But Mental Health’s budget is an annual crap shoot— they don’t really know in advance who will qualify for what services and whether those services will be fully reimbursed, partially reimbursed, or disputed by state bureaucrats, or delayed for long periods because problems with the state’s complicated Medi-Cal billing process.

The Sheriff’s department presently consists of 170 employees and 48 deputies. It’s supposed to take a $270,000 cut by not replacing three resignations or retirements, but there haven’t been any so far. 

The Supervisors accepted Chief Administrative Officer Jim Andersen’s simplistic budget without considering departmental consolidations, eliminating redundant joint powers agencies, cutting department head’s extravagant pay, anybody’s, including their own, travel and per diem slush funds, nor did the Supervisors so much as mention other obvious cost-saving moves.

In fact, no attention was given to what state budget mavens refer to as “the structural deficit” — entrenched bureaucrats like ours who’ve been in their jobs for many years while supervisors have come and gone — are very good at finding ways to convince legislators — in our case the supervisors — to avoid serious critques of their department’s functioning.

But discretionary local program funding took major hits. 

The preposterous Mendocino County Alliance — public money spent mostly to advertise privately owned tourist businesses in Bay Area newspapers and magazines — was supposed to take a major cut from more than $500,000 to $150,000. It got almost all the money it wanted, probably because County Administrator Andersen was one of its prime movers.

The Alliance claims, without any supporting evidence, that they bring tourists into the county. Even if they did, it shouldn’t be the pubic’s responsibility to do the tourist industry’s marketing for them. Nevertheless, the Supes put the MCA budget back up to $300,000 as a “compromise.” An odd three-person alliance of Supervisors Hal Wagenet, Patti Campbell and Michael Delbar, (Colfax and Shoemaker voting no) agreed to the $300k budget restoration after MCA board chair Jim Mayfield whined that $150k wasn’t worth their taking it: 

“Our Alliance board of directors has voted to not attempt to provide a promotional program with $150,000 in county funding. It would be irresponsible to take that inadequate amount of funds — it's a waste of money and our time.” 

Supervisor Colfax objected, declaring, “If $150,000, under these circumstances, is not good enough, we need to give it to someone who will be able to find a way to use it. It is absolutely insensitive, ignorant and arrogant to say this.” 

But even with the County facing a very “tight” budget, no one suggested calling the MCA’s bluff and simply eliminating what the MCA itself calls “a waste of money and time.”

One Response to "Mendo’s Unstable Budget (Sep. 10, 2003)"

  1. John Sakowicz   September 19, 2019 at 9:41 pm

    “Deja vu all over again”…Yogi Berra.

    Reply

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