Public Policy Gone Haywire (Dec. 1, 1999)

Bad public policy is like the proverbial ghost; haunting elected officials — and the public they represent — long after its ill-conceived implementation. 

The lure of easy money in the form of so-called “free” tax dollars and grant funds (gussied-up tax dollars) is too addictive a narcotic for public officials: They just can’t say no.

More often than not, the road to bad public policy is paved with easy money. Such is the case with the Board of Supervisors’ social services policy in Fort Bragg. Here’s the story.

At last week’s Supes’ session, BOS chairman Richard Shoemaker explained his reluctant approval of a new lease agreement which calls for the eviction of long-time tenants — all small business owners — from a Fort Bragg building in order to house an expanding Dept. of Social Services. 

“The (former) Supervisor from the 3rd District (John Pinches) questioned very seriously — before I was on the Board — what the County was doing in Fort Bragg in regard to the construction and occupation of a large building that was going to be leased 20 to 25 years,” Shoemaker said.

“I believe he was assured then that there would be plenty of room in that building. I’m caught somewhat off-guard, even though I’ve been over to Fort Bragg and looked at the facilities, that we’re in this position to expand our needs for more buildings there by using this method. To some degree, I feel very short-informed on this and I’m not happy to support it, but I will be voting yes.”

In a similar vein, Supe Patti Campbell, who hails from Fort Bragg, characterized her support of the lease agreement as a “dilemma.”

“These are some of the people we’re trying to work with: These owner-operated, small businesses are what we’re striving to have happen,” she remarked. “And now we’re in a situation that we are dislocating them. On the other hand, the landlord has the option to rent to whomever they please.”

What Campbell left unsaid is the landlord wouldn’t have exercised that option to “dislocate” small business owners if the Supes hadn’t enacted bad public policy in the first place. That’s what Shoemaker was referring to when he said former-Supe Pinches “questioned very seriously what the County was doing in Fort Bragg in regard to the construction and occupation of a large building that was going to be leased 20 to 25 years.” 

Exactly what did Pinches question? In the broadest context, Pinches was concerned about the Supervisors’ hit-and-miss, piecemeal approach to policy-making in the service delivery area. As my colleague K.C. Meadows so aptly pointed out this past week, it’s time for the Supes to don their thinking caps because there is little rhyme or reason when they set about the task of making policy. In a nutshell, Pinches argued five years ago that prior to expanding services in Fort Bragg, the BOS first must formulate a long-range service delivery policy. For example, should services be centralized in the county seat, or dispensed from decentralized locations in Fort Bragg, Willits and other areas? If services emanate outside of Ukiah, where and how are county employees to be headquartered, in leased facilities or county-owned buildings? What are the overall cost-savings and efficiencies of centralization versus decentralization? I might add that the Supes have yet to decide any of these matters.

Back in 1994, the BOS approved the concept of leasing a building for DSS in Fort Bragg. In May of 1996, then-County Administrative Officer Mike Scannell reported to the Supes that, “after months of investigation, the County’s Manager of Buildings and Grounds concluded that there are no suitable buildings to accommodate DSS in Fort Bragg.”

Elaborating further, Scannell informed the BOS, “The city (Fort Bragg), in conjunction with the Glass Beach Company, approached the county with a ‘build-to-suit’ proposal. The Glass Beach Company will construct a 16,400 square foot building to the county’s specifications and subsequently lease that building to the county.”

After that meeting, Pinches spoke with Scannell and expressed his reservations about proceeding with the proposed transaction given the lack of any formulated policy and cost-benefit comparisons. Pinches shared his concerns with other county officials but was advised not to waste his time “worrying about it because it was a done deal.” 

Two months later, DSS Director Allison Glassey appeared before the Supes to pitch the development project which was being shepherded through the process by Campbell’s 4th District predecessor, Liz Henry. At the time, Campbell was on the Fort Bragg City Council. The Glass Beach Company is owned by Dominic Affinito, Fort Bragg’s two-fisted developer who last year settled his political differences with a city councilman by knocking him around city hall.

At that July 1996 meeting, Glassey reminded the Supes that, “In accordance with the space plan for county offices in Fort Bragg, approved by the Board in December of 1994, the Department of Social Services will consolidate all of its operations in the leased facility (the proposed Glass Beach project).”

Aside from “consolidating all of its operations” in the proposed facility, Glassey told the Supes there would be little cost to the county since the state would pay for 85 percent of the lease expense. She described the basic deal as a 20-year lease with Affinito that would pay him $16,423 per month for the first year. Each successive year thereafter, the rental payment would increase by 3.5 percent. At the end of the 20-year lease, taxpayers will have paid Affinito approximately $5.5 million for a building that cost $2 million. Pinches called the proposal “a great deal if you’re a developer but a lousy one for the taxpayers — they’re getting ripped off.” 

Pinches argued that it would make more sense — and a bargain for the taxpayers — for the county to build its own building but was unable to sway fellow Supes, who voted to OK the deal. The Board majority defended the Glass Beach project by arguing that since 85 percent of the lease payments were funded by state tax dollars, the remaining expense was minimal to the county. Pinches sarcastically rejoined he wasn’t aware that county and state taxpayers were separate groups: “I thought government took money from the same taxpayers. I’ll remember that the next time the IRS asks me why I haven’t paid my federal taxes. I’ll tell them here in Mendocino County we only pay county taxes, the rest is all free tax money that comes from other groups.”

Fast-forwarding to last week, Glassey was back before the Supes with a little problem regarding space in Fort Bragg. Actually, there were several problems attendant to Glassey’s appearance seeking approval on a new lease agreement Fort Bragg office space.

First of all, it appears that open meeting laws may have been violated since Brown Act pubic notice requirements seem not to have been followed regarding these latest lease negotiations. I’ll spare you the details, but you should be aware that there may be developments concerning that issue.

Secondly, even though just three years ago, based on Glassey’s firm commitment that the new “build-to-suit” deal with Affinito would result in the consolidation “all of its (DSS) operations” in the $5.5 million leased facility, it never happened. Glassey’s failure to consolidate her operations as promised prompted Shoemaker’s stinging comments that the Board in 1996 had been “assured then that there would be plenty of room in that building.” 

Notwithstanding Glassey’s commitment then, which was captured in Board policy authorizing the original Glass Beach deal, the Supes were once again handling a Fort Bragg Social Services space problem. According to Glassey, DSS Job Alliance staff located in a separate building on Fort Bragg’s Cypress Street, are losing the premises because of safety problems and handicapped access violations. According to Glassey, the operation can’t be consolidated at the Glass Beach building because “the small space still available …is insufficient to house the Job Alliance staff …”

Glassey says her only option is to lease new space at another location. In order for Glassey to occupy the new building necessitates booting out three long-term tenants who have offices in that building, two law practices and an insurance broker. As you can imagine, the trio of professional business owners is not pleased that they’re force to relocate because a county policy to consolidate DSS operations in an expensive, “build-to-suit” facility is not worth the paper it’s written on. 

The most immediate question is why are three small businesses forced to shoulder the burden of what obviously is a horribly flawed public policy? Likewise, why are there no apparent repercussions for a department head who failed to implement the major component of that policy, i.e., consolidate all of her operations in a new facility specifically built for that purpose? 

It’s not only time for the Supes to put their thinking caps on, it’s also way past time for them to start holding department heads accountable. The Board should tear up that new lease agreement and tell their department head to find space in her $5.5 million facility. If she can’t find the space, then they should find someone who can.

One Response to "Public Policy Gone Haywire (Dec. 1, 1999)"

  1. izzy   November 30, 2019 at 8:37 am

    And that was 20 years ago.
    Looks like those “thinking caps” aren’t much better than tinfoil hats.

    Reply

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