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Engine Trouble

Three weeks ago, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors spent exactly zero meeting minutes discussing the biggest pay cut for the largest number of employees in Mendocino County history. All five of Supervisors voted to impose the 12.5% cut even after several convincing arguments against the cut were presented by their own employees, arguing that the most hardship would fall on the lowest paid workers.

The Board’s unanimous pay cut vote naturally met with the enthusiastic approval of Mr. Lee Howard, who, representing the “North Coast Builders Exchange” — i.e., Republican contractors based on the North Coast — told the Board that his organization was down from 2300 members two years ago to 1300 members now. Howard told the Board that, based on comments from his members, “The fact that you guys had a 5-0 vote [to whack employee salaries] was amazing to our members the other day when it actually happened on your employment thing. We applaud you for that. It’s a tough one and you’re going to have to deal with it in the future.”

Howard added that the County’s paving operations were “almost to the point of being ridiculous. If one of our members went out on some of those jobs, we’d be grinding for the rest of our lives on some of these jobs that the County has put in. … The quality is not there. There’s no oversight.” Howard also said that the Sheriff’s budget should get the highest priority.

Then, “on a negative issue,” Howard said, “Ms. Chair [Supervisor Kendall Smith], your 10% is very well not accepted out there in the sector. They think that you not taking it like everybody else in the county is and everybody else in the private sector, it’s unacceptable to them. They wanted me to tell you that up front.”

Supervisor Kendall Smith nodded.

“To be a leader people have to be able to follow you,” Howard continued, “and when you do this kind of thing it doesn’t work very well.”

Supervisor Smith replied, “Thank you, Mr. Howard, and I’m certainly willing to meet with your members and go over the salary schedule for elected officials and show you where the rates have been for the last four years for all elected officials; who has taken what cuts, who has received what raises, and where we are in comparison to our surrounding counties. I’m very happy to do that with you, so please take me up on that.”

Rumor has it that Howard and his hard-hat pals may actually take Smith up on her empty offer. We can only hope they do.

Smith's childish rationale is, of course, often invoked by Mendocino County officials who usually add that to ensure excellence their pay should be three times that of the typical Mendocino County working stiff.

* * *

Having spent zero time on employee pay cuts without so much as a pro forma "I feel your pain," the Board spent a half hour arguing about how they should respond to Environmental Impact Reports being reviewed by the City of Ukiah for two Ukiah city projects: the WalMart expansion and the new Courthouse.

CEO Carmel Angelo began innocuously enough: “The Ukiah Planning Commission is apparently going to resume their discussion of the WalMart EIR on December 14. This Board did direct that we review the Courthouse EIR and Planning and Building will be doing that review, and they currently are doing a review and that will come back to this board on December 6; the comment period ends on December 14 so we should have a report from Planning and Building, and if this board chooses you can have the comments before December 14.”

“I recall the discussion differently with Planning and Building,” declared Supervisor John McCowen, explaining that he didn’t recall any such direction to staff.

CEO Angelo asked for clarification.

McCowen: “I believe the Chair gave that direction and I disagreed with it and I don't know that the others weighed in at that time.”

Which ignited Smith, the Board's chairperson, who launched into one of her patented incoherent rambles: “First of all Supervisor, I don't, I didn't give direction to anyone on that. I offered comment, and Counsel is nodding her head, and we then had a general Board discussion that wouldn't have come from the chair but I believe that the CEO is interpreting the Board discussion, not the chair, but that the board asked for staff — for you to go down that path as a — staff as time permits, is that correct?”

Superivsor Carre Brown stuck her toe in the water: “I believe there was direction, Supervisor McCowen.”

McCowen, whose fatal flaw is that he can't resist picking invisible nits, insisted, “There was direction not to review the EIR but to look more into the issue of the current courthouse and what our rights and responsibilities are there because that's something that we might have some influence in so I believe that was the direction to have an item come to the Board focused more on the current courthouse and we could also discuss the proposed courthouse. But part of the direction I don't believe was to have planning staff take time that they don't have to do something that they have no control over.”

Brown: “Well, I understood it differently. Maybe Supervisor Pinches—?”

Pinches took the bait and began an even longer ramble, taking a several minutes to point out the obvious — building the new courthouse where the County library now sits would dislocate all sorts of existing structures and businesses and, wherever the new monstrosity is placed there will be an enpty courthouse less than a block from the abandoned hulk of the old Palace Hotel, and well, hell.

Back and forth, round and round, over and over they went, McCowen having failed in his attempt to save staff a little time. Then it was time for the other EIR.

McCowen: “We also have the issue of the Wal-Mart EIR which has been continued by the Ukiah Planning Commission to December 14, creating an opportunity for this Board to have an agenda item on December 6 for discussion and possible direction regarding submission of comments and there certainly are instances in which that potential development will impact County citizens, and so I would request that we have an agenda item and again just for the limited purpose of deciding whether the board wants to submit comments and perhaps Supervisor Brown and I could work with staff to prepare a draft rather than have staff do a bunch of work on this and then the item can come to the board for full Board consideration — if that's acceptable.”

Of course it wasn’t.

Smith launched another garbled riff about things being “staff driven.”

McCowen was visibly annoyed: “Some of us are used to reading documents and making our own comments and again whatever—”

“Yes! All of us are, Supervisor,” snapped Smith.

McCowen: “And again whatever is presented would be for the Board to consider.”

Smith: “I just want to make sure that we have the technical expertise, that's why we hire licensed professionals that deal with land use, and I would like to get their input if we are going to be commenting on something like the Wal-Mart EIR, if that's the direction the board wants to go.”

Brown tried conciliation: “I would be happy to work with Supervisor McCowen as well on the Wal-Mart EIR and then submit our comments along to help staff with—”

Smith: “Sure.”

Brown: “…the job of bringing something back.”

Smith: “Surely. Would you like to proceed?”

Just when it seemed like the two decisions to be decided could be decided by the Ukiah City Council and not them, Supervisor Hamburg said, “I don't understand what we just did, because, yes, because I tend to agree with the Chair that if we are going to have an agenda item brought to the Board for making formal comments regarding the Wal-Mart EIR that we should have the input from staff. And that's definitely not to cast any doubt on any of my colleagues and their skill at analyzing documents, but I just think that it's kind of the way we do things here, that we're so close to the deadline on both these things that it does put a big load on staff, and has our staff — this is a question to the CEO — has our staff looked at this Wal-Mart EIR and the effects that it will have? Certainly there's going to be major effects in terms of our economy, in terms of traffic, in terms of, all those things, from this Wal-Mart expansion."

Angelo replied that staff had not looked at the WalMart EIR yet.

Hamburg said in his opinion that when the Board is going to make comments on an EIR those comments should "come through the staff.”

Angelo said she agreed.

McCowen soldiered on, trying to save staff time. “Any Board member may bring forward an agenda item without the approval of the Board, and so I believe that rather than continuing this rather pointless discussion where clearly we disagree on what is appropriate, that I believe Supervisor Brown and myself will bring forward an agenda item for December 6 that will involve a draft letter which the Board may consider, may amend, may reject, whatever it wishes, but we will have something for the Board to consider. It's really not necessary to have staff review the EIR. The identifiable concerns are pretty obvious — it's stormwater runoff, it's traffic congestion, it's possible blight creation from the effect of shifting business from County areas into the city and what is being done to address that, so it's more raising a list of concerns and expressing the, the hope that they will be appropriately dealt with should the project go forward so it's really a pretty straightforward issue; it doesn't require special expertise to review those very common issues that we deal with repeatedly.”

Pinches then took several minutes to gripe about the County having voted down the mall development at the old Masonite site last year, adding that if Ukiah wants to let WalMart expand then the County will have to “sit there and eat the dust.”

McCowen couldn’t let that go by: “I will just say for the record that I disagree with a lot of your comments and I don't think the vote was against good planning.”

Smith repeated that she wanted a “work product” from staff on the WalMart EIR.

McCowen was obviously frustrated with Smith’s intransigence: “Madam Chair, when we had staff your direction might be appropriate. But we don't have the staff to have them produce this 'work product' that you would like them to produce. I think it's a very simple item for Supervisor Brown and myself to bring a letter forward. If the Board does not agree with it, the points in a letter, if they don't think that there is adequate information to support the letter, they can reject it. It doesn't have to be a big assignment for staff to run around doing on top of everything else that they have to do with short notice and produce this so-called work product."

Smith: “I agree that that's—”

McCowen: “We simply don't have the staff.”

Smith: “I agree it doesn't have to be a big, a big project. It certainly doesn't need to be.”

Angelo: “Madam chair, I'm clear on both of these EIRs, what we need to do.”

Smith: “Great.”

Angelo: “So thank you.”

Smith: “Thank you.”

McCowen quietly seethed. He had lost both arguments.

* * *

In the wake of the County Retirement Board’s decision to withhold about $660,000 they had promised to subsidize the County’s retiree health insurance, the Board discussed terminating County-subsidized health insurance for all 200 or so of non-Medicare eligible retirees. Several speakers complained that the agenda item did not make clear that termination was contemplated, although County Counsel Jeanine Nadel insisted that it was mentioned in the fine print, therefore legally sufficient.

The Board predictably bemoaned the fate of the doomed 200 retirees without accepting any responsibility for it.

So it fell to retired County Clerk-Record Marcia Wharff to point out the obvious: “I think it would have been more honest to just say [on the agenda] that it was to discuss cancellation of the program because maybe the paper would have picked it up and maybe more people would have been able to show up. But talking about honesty, I think we all need to recognize that those of us who were hired before 1998, it was in all the retirement books that you, the County, were to provide us with a retirement health program. Now we are not even talking about us paying for it. Now we're talking about canceling it altogether. That's just wrong to me. It's about time that we are finally having a discussion on the other alternatives. We have been asking for that for two years. I came to a meeting in April and I thought that was going to be the discussion. Come to find out, Oh no, that day we were talking about MCWOW [Mendocino County Wellness Program] because they moved the discussion on retirement insurance to some other place. Then I went to come to another meeting and you moved it to a Monday, so when I checked for the time on the agenda for Tuesday it had already been heard and we never even knew about it. So it's not because retirees have not tried to take an active role in trying to find some solutions. There were two options that you could have taken a couple of years ago that would not have brought us to this point. One was blending [merging retiree's insurance with active employee insurance]. And one was allowing people who were hired after 1998 to join the system. None of that was ever brought to you for discussion! I mean, it's just wrong. I don't know who is in charge, but it seems like nobody was in charge of this. It just never got discussed. So now here we are. Most of us cannot get insurance on the outside. The numbers [retirement administrator Sue Goodrich] gave are pretty much useless. Unless you are healthy, you will not find insurance on the outside. If they can find you a policy it will be well over $1000 a month if they can even insure you at all. The other thing that I think is lacking, that is missing in this staff report, is, What do you think that dropping us totally is going do to your self-insured health plan that you have for active employees? Once you drop us, your employees are going to have to work until they're 65 and can qualify for Medicare; they will have no other option available to them. They will use every sick day they can, productivity is going to go down, and you'll pay for their higher health costs as they age and have to stay working. That was not included in this today. However, if you blend, which is what I would recommend, at least they can move from one place to the other."

Ms. Goodrich then told the Board that “blending” would require upwards of $20,000 to have a consultant figure out the cost per person if the retirees were added to the County’s active employee health insurance rolls.  (Like no one in the County can do simple math?) Goodrich added that because of the Board’s holiday schedule and the amount time it would take to organize a committee which included retirees to study the options, the committee couldn't get started until January at the earliest. By which time some of the retirees will be dead and the County will need two consultants to calculate the new numbers.

Supervisor Smith resorted to self-serving revisionist history about how she had “mentioned” and “pushed for” blending retirees with employees years ago, “but unfortunately the County didn’t follow up on that. It’s unfortunate.”


Add up all the unfortunates the Supervisors cause themselves and Mendocino might just be the most unfortunate county in America. Can you even imagine the howls from the Supervisors if they were suddenly informed their lush bennies were being — "unfortunately" — nicked upwards of $922 a month?

Ms. Wharff returned to the podium. “I guess I still am confused, and I would like clarification about exactly what would happen if you send out the 90 day notice. That takes us to the middle of February. Are you going to start charging us the $922 a month in January? And then, are you going to raise it again? What's going to happen? Because for many of us having to pay the $922 a month per person for myself and my spouse and then the deductible in January that becomes very unmanageable if it's going away in February anyway. I mean, I would probably be money ahead to take my $922 per person and put it towards medical bills. So you are not really giving us options if you're just dropping us today. I mean, forming some kind of committee is pretty useless to me. And I still really question the agenda title. It really didn't have anything to do with canceling the plan.”

Right about here, the Supervisors should have hired Ms. Wharff as their consultant, but she's undoubtedly too clear on the prob, too capable of intelligent, focused remediation.

Ms. Goodrich replied, “The $922 a month cost would be in place as of January. The 90 day notification could be put out tomorrow if necessary and we could identify the board's desire to evaluate that so we could tell them there is the possibility [the high probability, actually, that the non-Medicare retiree health insurance program will be eliminated]. But as Ms. Wharff said, that doesn't do anybody who needs to do some planning any good, really. It takes 4-6-8 weeks to do the blending study. And then the establishment of the committee. And again, because of the holidays, because of trying to get people together at the same time we have— do we go forward with an open enrollment? You may desire that as well, you know, to find out how many people would stick with the plan even if it went up to $2000 a month.”

County Human Resources Manager Pat Meeks added to the confusion: “The other piece of it is we need time to establish the new pool and calculate the new rates. And do a 90 day notice with that as well. And an open enrollment. So there are several components.”

Supervisor McCowen: “It's the withholding of the $658,000 [by the retirement board] that means that we have to take this action, otherwise the cost will shift to the general fund. I don't think that the formation of the committee has to come back to this board. I think staff can work with the community to form this committee. … There doesn't need to be a month delay to form this committee.”

After an ostentatiously display of the mimed anguish local liberals seem to practice in their bedroom mirrors,  acting it out just before they stick the shiv in unsuspecting backs, Hamburg reluctantly moved to “discontinue the non-Medicare eligible retiree health-care plan effective upon 90 day notice and direct staff to form a committee … and bring this item back to the board within 60 days for further discussion and possible action.” The Board approved unanimously.

Bye-bye insurance.

* * *

Assistant County Auditor Lloyd Weir and Deputy CEO Kyle Knopp gave the Board the First Quarter budget update (for July-September 2011). Assessed property values are down from last year, but the take from the bed tax is up as are sales taxes. Property taxes are not due until December, so it’s too early to know how much they’ll be down.

The Sheriff’s Office is over budget so far first quarter,  in large part due to the five-week Aaron Bassler manhunt involving lots of cops and lots of overtime. “The Sheriff’s office is short on funds for patrol,” said Knopp, “but there have been savings in the jail. So, combined, the Sheriff’s Office is projecting to come out on budget, despite some of the bad recent events that have occurred.”

Knopp told the Board that health insurance costs are expected to rise by 8% in each of the next two years, translating to about an additional $1 million out of general fund next year and about $1.2 million the following year. The County’s contribution to the pension system is also expected to increase by about $1.2 million next year because stock market returns on the pension fund are lower than expected.

Referring to Obamacare which is supposed to kick in by 2014, Supervisor Hamburg asked, “Will there be any relief from the feds on healthcare?”

“Not that I’m aware of,” replied Knopp, deadpan.

(Of all the treacheries of the Obama regime, Obamacare is perhaps the most treacherous, mandating private insurance coverage at huge windfall profit to private insurance corporations without even any price controls while undermining existing scant public insurance.)

CEO Angelo, in an unfortunate choice of words as she attempted to wrap up the budget-related topics, concluded, “Anything major as far as the deficit, we just want to hit the Sheriff’s Office and then we’re probably close to being done.”

Sheriff Allman was sitting in the back of the room. He threw his up his hands and joked, “That’s right. Hit the Sheriff’s Office!”

Supervisor Pinches wrapped up the money talk with some gallows humor: “Kyle’s presentation reminds me of the airplane pilot who was flying at over 30,000 feet. The pilot comes on the microphone and says, Ladies and Gentlemen, I have some bad news for you. If you look out the left side of the aircraft you’ll see that an engine is on fire. If you look out the right side, you’ll see that engine has fallen off. The good news is that we’re right on schedule.”

Pinches laughed, and we laughed, but we seemed to be the only people amused.

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