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Supes Notes (April 22, 2020)

After an hour and a half of muddled discussion, the Supervisors decided to keep their interim Health Officer, Dr. Noemi Doohan, on full pay until June 1 after which the doctor will start her new job in San Diego but remain on call to Mendo. The Board decided to allow Dr. Doohan to decide where she will perform her duties until then. Dr. Doohan made it clear that she would not stay on as Health Officer past June 1 whichever way things went. Apparently her home in San Diego was damaged by a recent heavy rain which delayed her previously expected Sunday return to Mendo, and if she had returned she’d have to quarantine herself for another 14 days.

Dr. Jim Flaherty, the Assistant Health Officer, said he’d returned from retirement to help Dr. Doohan out, but he didn’t have a public health background and would only be willing to help with the transition to a new health officer which the County is currently trying to recruit. 

In a blunt statement to the Board Dr. Flaherty said he was not trained as a health officer and only willing to serve as interim health officer as a bridge to whoever they may hire as long term health officer. "I came out of retirement to help her, a friend and colleague, overwhelmed by the work of being our only Public Health Officer, and to help our community. On a practical level, I am well aware every day that I am the oldest person in the EOC, and I don’t have the stamina that I used to have. If you do not find what I can do as acceptable, then today is my last day of work,” Dr. Flaherty concluded.

Sheriff Matt Kendall and DA David Eyster both said that Dr. Doohan was doing a good job. A Coast caller named David Gurney demanded Dr. Doohan’s immediate termination but didn't offer any ideas on who should replace her. 

Left unsaid was the reason Dr. Doohan was hired as “interim” Health Officer in the first place: I.e., Mendo had a homegrown public health officer, Dr. Gary Pace, but he quit when CEO Carmel Angelo abruptly fired Public Health Director Barbara Howe. Dr. Pace resigned in solidarity with Howe and saying the firing was uncalled for and he didn’t want to work for Mendo anymore. Dr. Pace, who lives in Mendocino County but now works in Lake County, could probably do both jobs and save both small counties a nice nickel, but we doubt he’d be willing to come back to work for CEO Angelo under the circumstances. The CEO’s record of abruptly firing people for no announced reason has cost the County a lot, especially now in public health, leaving the County in a difficult situation such as this virus response — which, we will add, has been handled competently by Dr. Doohan.

Overtime was a subject of particular interest at last Tuesday’s board meeting as well. County Budget official Darcie Antle told the Board that the County is using about 2000 hours a month of overtime related to the virus situation. But she didn’t know what the “weighted” rate for the OT is, so she didn’t estimate that extra cost, but she made it clear the county is paying time and a half for it. Antle said she expects 75% of the OT cost to be reimbursed by FEMA emergency funds.  Supervisor Gjerde wanted to know what was being done to reduce it. CEO Angelo said she had “begun reducing” overtime in the Emergency Operations Center “when we are able to” without offering any numbers or categories, adding that she will come back to the Board with some numbers. We guess the hourly loaded rate for the senior people in the EOC to be upwards of $70 an hour or more. 2000 hours at ($70 + $35) would be more than $200k per month of overtime, so that maybe $50k per month that the County will have to cover.

Supervisor Ted Williams said he didn’t think the Board was sufficiently involved in decision making, adding that budgeting for the new reality needs to begin now and that there is no guarantee of any federal or state bailout. “The public is sensing that we don’t have clear ownership,” said Williams. “Who is managing this public health emergency?” 

We gather that Supervisor Williams doesn’t think CEO Angelo’s self-designated title of “incident commander” is leadership enough. Williams also noted that the Board gets daily reports but he wanted to share them with the public. “There’s not enough transparency,” Williams said, adding that for the first few weeks the lack of Board and public involvement may have been necessary, but not so much now. “As time goes by we need to exercise more ownership. What is the overall expense of this? What will the total cost be so we can look at where to cut or where to shift funds?”

Antle replied that the County has filed for over $2 million in claims to FEMA for 90 days of EOC operation. The county, Antle said, is also expecting to be reimbursed for an “Alternate Care Facility” which cost $500k to get up and open, and another one on the coast is up next. 

Sheriff Matt Kendall said his Sheriff’s office is in decent shape financially because the lower population at the jail and the closure of most of the courthouse has meant that he has staff to cover what otherwise might have cost more overtime.

Supervisor John McCowen mentioned a following letter from the Ukiah City Council asking that the County do more about the homeless situation in the Ukiah Valley. In the letter Ukiah City Manager Sage Sangiacomo said, “For more than a month, the City of Ukiah has sought information on the County’s sheltering plan and risk mitigation strategies to limit COVID-19 spread among the homeless population in Mendocino County. There is a noticeably larger number of unsheltered individuals in the county that has emerged during this public health emergency. This is likely due in part to the modifications to intake/releases in the correction/judicial system, along with modified service delivery of homeless related services by County Health and Human Services and contracted service providers. There is undoubtedly an increased risk to the homeless population from COVID-19, and as such our first responders and heath care resources are at significant risk from a major spread event. A preemptive and coordinated county-wide response is imperative.”

Sangiacomo said that while the City “appreciates the County’s work to develop a hotel voucher program for homeless individuals who are elderly or medically vulnerable or otherwise at high risk, and a quarantine/isolation plan for when individuals become sick,” they “fail to address a mitigation plan that must include sheltering, which has been identified as imperative, during this emergency for the greater homeless population and encampments. In fact, the County’s Health Order specifically identifies the importance of providing shelter and/or other proper COVID-19 mitigation measures. It is important to note that all homeless and health/human services, resources, and funding are provided at and through the County. Our rural cities are completely reliant upon the County’s administration, management, and delivery of these services.”

“Details of the County’s efforts to address sheltering and mitigation for the homeless population have been slow to materialize. There remains a lack of a unified approach among the County Office of Emergency Services, Health and Human Services, the Continuum of Care (CoC), and the County’s contracted services providers; resulting in duplication of services, an inefficient utilization of already-scarce resources, and significant gaps in service.”

“…the Council requests the County identify a point person with sufficient authority and scope to undertake a unified and coordinated response for this effort, and be appointed and empowered to report directly to the Executive Office and the Board of Supervisors. 

“We want to further emphasize that this has been and remains a county-wide issue, not just a Ukiah issue, and currently the most apparent impact is in Ukiah on the north end of Runway Safety Area at the Ukiah Municipal Airport [i.e., the Hastings Avenue encampment]. This current issue grew from 15 people to well over 60 people since the onset of the COVID-19 emergency. 

This encampment and others throughout the county will continue to grow with the piecemeal delivery of services and efforts. It is unfair to place the burden on local law enforcement when the lack of coordination and oversight of County services is enabling illegal camping/sheltering, including the collection and distribution of tents and expansion of mobile services. Furthermore, business and property owners in our community are experiencing increased levels of vandalism and theft, which can be directly attributed to this issue. 

“…the City Council requests a detailed plan for the appropriate services at the encampment in the Runway Safety Area and for the remaining unsheltered homeless who remain vulnerable to COVID-19 and thus, represent a significant risk of community spread. Within the plan, please provide specific detail for the transition to appropriate sheltering and a specific end date for services in the Runway Safety Area, which is critical to the safe and continued operation of the Ukiah Municipal Airport.”

* * *

McCowen’s response to the Ukiah letter was predictable: Another ad hoc committee on homelessness made up of himself and Supervisor Dan Gjerde who will meet with another ad hoc made up of the people from the Ukiah City Council as well as Fort Bragg. But nothing remotely about the requested “detailed plan.”

Ukiah City manager Sage Sangiacomo told the Board during the meeting that the “current level of service [in Ukiah] is inadequate. There’s not enough sanitation. More mitigation measures are required. And Mendo needs a plan to … “ at which point his three minutes were up and his on-line connection was abruptly terminated. (It's another bit of gratuitous rudeness from the supervisors that speakers are summarily cut off as it's obvious they are concluding their remarks anyway.)

Sangiacomo later said that his police officers respond to well over 3,000 calls per year regarding homelessness. “Lots of well intentioned people are trying to do good things,” said Sangiacomo. “But piecemeal approaches are not enough. Without public health oversight, there is a strong possibility of more harm.”

Supervisor Carre Brown responded by suggesting that Ukiah was to blame for the problem, saying she thought Ukiah law enforcement should have done more about the Hastings Avenue encampment earlier before it grew to its present anarchic size, adding that Ukiah needs to somehow control new people at the camp. 

McCowen said he had helped organized trash pickups and porta-potties and a handwashing station when that was about all that could be done. But that no other services are being provided. However he added that Ukiah’s letter was somehow “misleading”(aka critical of the County and the well-paid homeless service providers) and volunteered to write a response to it. 

However, nobody discussed Ukiah’s request for a “point person,” so the current disorganized collection of ad hocs and continuums and service providers will continue to muddle along with no specific plan and no one responsible to do anything beyond what those random “well intentioned people” Sangiacomo mentioned feel like doing.

McCowen said that the County’s Health and Human Services agency and its contractors are “committed” to provide “some services” to the camp and to help some of them leave the camp, adding that it will become a law enforcement issue with “some people” who will never be removed from street homelessness. At the moment 105 vulnerable adults and a few children have been “hoteled.” 

Also unaddressed was the necessary transparency upgrade called for by Supervisor Williams.

* * *

WE RECENTLY RECALLED R. Buckminster Fuller’s famous adage from the 60s:

“Our beds are empty two-thirds of the time. Our living rooms are empty seven-eighths of the time. Our office buildings are empty one-half of the time. It’s time we gave this some thought.”

Fuller was referring to how much extra building space Americans maintain which goes unused while a certain percentage of the population goes unsheltered. 

His percentages were still more or less correct until a couple of months ago. Now we’d say our beds are still empty around two-thirds of the time. But with shelter in place and the discovery that lots of stuff can be done on-line at home we’d estimate that that our living rooms are empty maybe half the time. And lots of buildings, including office buildings, are empty two-thirds of the time or more.

We might add that our streets now have a lot less cars and our air is a lot cleaner due to the reduction in commuting.

Even after the virus restrictions are lifted to whatever degree over the next few months (hopefully), there will be a lot more empty buildings where businesses once thrived on top of the already too-high commercial vacancy rate. 

The point? We don’t need any new housing. We need to convert the existing vacancies into housing. California is estimated to have millions of square feet of vacant commercial buildings now, and more in the near future. The owners of those now and soon-to-be vacant buildings will lose substantial revenue as long as they stay vacant. Renters are already down. 

Although they would need some remodeling or conversion, most of the vacant buildings already have water, sewer, internet, heating, air conditioning, bathrooms, and on and on — and at most they’d only need a minor re-model permit to be converted into housing. Not long ago, Governor Newsom said that he wanted California to build 700,000 new homes per year to achieve about 3.5 million new homes by 2025. 

That number sounded like a fantasy to most of us because 1: most homeless people couldn’t afford those “new homes” anyway, and 2: getting that number of new homes built in that amount of time with the mountain of regulation and paperwork and permits required in California is never going to happen.

But with the huge amount of vacant commercial (and government?) buildings now and in the near future, shouldn’t there be plenty of existing facilities to convert to housing for a lot less money and in a lot less time?

Mendo itself will probably face its own version of this as commercial space vacancy rates go up, not to mention the likely reduction in County office space as the likely staff reductions kick in over the next months and years. 

Mendo could start this process by surveying vacant commercial properties in the incorporated cities and seeing how much of the state homeless and housing grants could be used to convert some percentage of them to housing for a lot less than new construction would cost — with a corresponding reduction in rents. 

But what are the odds of anyone in official Mendo — all of whom constantly decry the housing shortage and the difficulty of finding suitable parcels to include in the useless “housing element” of the General Plan — will even raise this much more practical, affordable and faster option? 

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