Supes Mask Up While Mendo Burns

Small fines for not wearing a face mask in public was the primary item on Wednesday’s Board of Supervisors agenda and got plenty of attention both from the Supes and the public at large. But the County’s large and growing virus-related budget problems got almost no attention.

Darcie Antle, the county’s budget analyst, told the Board about a “sobering” “revenue gap” that is developing around the high number of staff hours and expenses being logged for the county’s pandemic response versus how much of this effort is reimbursable.

Antle said that the feds (via FEMA) only reimburse for overtime hours, not regular hours, responding to the virus; and of that, only first line workers, not management time, is reimbursable. In addition, lost revenue is not reimbursable, nor is paid time off if employees have to stay home when quarantined. 

So far, more than 10,000 hours have been logged as “paid leave” for employees who have stayed home for one reason or another. 

At the same time, according to one of Ms. Antle’s expense charts, Mendo has racked up over $4.5 million in covid-19 outside contract expenses (mainly testing and about $1.2 million for motel rooms for homeless and quarantined residents).

So far, only about 5% of the over 50,000 covid response hours — representing about $5.3 million — are categorized as “overtime.” As Mendo’s virus response costs increase with more and more people either infected or in contact with an infected person or testing positive, this has created the growing “revenue gap” that Ms. Antle referred to. Although Congress is working on another large bailout bill, which may help cover unforeseen local government expenses, it’s unknown when or if Mendo will get more federal bailout money than the partial amounts now being promised, and how much.

The Board showed very little interest in this grim news or in what’s being done to mitigate it. 

CEO Carmel Angelo, logging in from her bedroom where she’s self-quarantined herself due to possible virus contact (she like many others is still waiting for her test results), insisted to the Board that her staff is trying really, really hard to keep expenses down, but that the response simply requires lots of hours. (When the CEO acknowledges a problem with versions of “we’re working really hard on this” — it’s always a sign that the problem is worse than is being reported.)

These newly detailed federal reimbursement limitations are on top of the previously reported basic limits of 75% of eligible emergency costs. Together they translate to millions of dollars the County has spent and is spending with no clear idea how much will really end up being reimbursed, or when. Of course, these gaps are on top of reduced property, sales and bed tax receipts associated with the growing economic impact of the virus.

In an odd, and perhaps even more disturbing, footnote to one of Ms. Antle’s Covid response summary charts (in a very small font, we should note), she reported that in 2020, so far, the County has held nearly 3800 (!) virtual meetings taking up almost 11,000 hours of meeting time with a total of about 20,000 “participants” — about 350 people averaging 57 participants per meeting (208 of the 350 were “active users”). That’s about 55 Mendo meetings PER DAY since Mid-March! Nobody asked how much of these meeting hours were reimbursable. But in general Mendo’s Most Important Product — management and officials sitting around in unproductive meetings, not doing actual work — is probably not going to be covered by the federal bailout package.

The incredible virtual meetings numbers may be exaggerated by the way the technology keeps count, but it still shows what Mendo’s top brass, virus or no virus, spends most of its time doing: meeting — with very little to show for it.

Summarizing, Ms. Antle said that Mendo has incurred almost $13 million in total covid expenses to date. Plus, she estimated an additional $2 million in lost revenue in the last fiscal year (ending June 30) and at least $2 million more in lost revenue for the current fiscal year (July 2020-June 2021). For a staggering total of almost $17 million of virus-related “fiscal impact.”

Ms. Antle said she “hopes” to get some $3 million in undefined “realignment” money from the state in October that will cover some of the “revenue gap.” She also expects to get about $8 million in federal reimbursements which, she noted, is “only a minor dent” in Mendo’s virus response tab. “We have a long way to go on this,” said Antle, adding that she is “continuing to track this so that we can recoup as much as we can.” Antle said there may be a few more dollars coming in for law enforcement reimbursements, but it’s not much and even then not clear at this point. Antle said she’d be back with new covid response numbers for the Board’s July 21 meeting.

At the conclusion of Ms. Antle’s “sobering” report, Chair Haschak said, “Thank you.” No other supervisors said anything on the subject.

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