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County Notes (March 10, 2021)

The Disaster Money Disaster

The long-awaited discussion of what to do with the nearly $22.7 million that Mendo will get from the PG&E Fire Disaster Settlement Funds appears on next Tuesday’s Supervisors agenda.

Under consideration is a list of projects titled “Prevention, Recovery, Resiliency & Mitigation (PRRM).” Given that the County has had months to plan for the windfall cash, we were expecting some useful specifics; instead, many of “projects” are only vague categories of activity, as are the cost estimates.

For example, one of the “recovery projects” is “Build More Affordable Housing,” which has a “cost estimate” of $30 million, well over the settlement amount, and a “description” which says, “Find and establish transitional housing for those in immediate need.” 

There’s a “project” called “Increase Jobs through Industrial Area Development,” described as “Funding for infrastructure, road, and utilities development for the new industrial park in North Ukiah,” which sounds like a direct gift of public funds to the CEO’s buddy/industrialist Ross Liberty and his fellow investors in the old Masonite site, which has nothing to do with “PRRM.”

We find almost $4 million “per site” for “Public Altert, Warning and Communications.”

Some of the project categories are at least in the ballpark for legitimate consideration, such as “repair damaged public roads,” “remove hazardous trees,” “Safe emergency ingress/egress,” and “hazardous fuel reduction,” But the cost estimates for these “projects” — ranging from just under $1 million to almost $3 million — seem almost like random numbers and in some cases are obviously way too high.

At the end of the PRRM list is a note mistakenly entitled “Options,” which lists three non-“options”: 1. Fund existing Prevention, Recovery, Resilience, Mitigation Projects. (None of which are projects.) 2. Supplement Reserves that have not been funded. 3. Review County Projects and determine priority projects. (Notice the repetitive use of the word “projects,” as if that would somehow make it so.)

The CEO includes as an “option” the even more vague “Supplement Reserves that have not been funded” — which basically means — Just give me the money and I’ll throw it into some reserve funds and spend it later when I feel like it someday. I might even ask you first, if I feel like it.

Although the Sheriff could use a decent sized chunk of these funds for deputies, disaster response and preparedness, law enforcement isn’t even on the CEO’s list of vague categories.

The “Sponsor” of the Agenda Item is listed as “Executive Office,” not the County’s small Emergency Services office, which may explain why the presentation is so ill-prepared and free of specifics. In fact, given the timing, we might venture to say that the only reason it was thrown together was in response to our mention of the topic in our complaint letter to the Board last month about the many important things the Board has asked for but the CEO has not done in the last year or so.

A better approach would be to put out a call for funding applications from various county departments, local agencies and businesses with general guidelines and criteria and award the money based on application specifics, cost, need, etc. Asking the Supervisors to simply “fund existing prevention, recovery, resilience, and mitigation projects” does nothing to advance the question of what do with the PG&E windfall, and leaves the Board in the same position they were in before this lame presentation was prepared.

For example, Anderson Valley has already prepared a detailed plan to upgrade the local Senior Center into a disaster resources center for the next time local people need a place to evacuate to. That kind of thing should just be funded and done immediately, not put off indefinitely while Ukiah officialdom rambles on about what to do with the money.

Will the Supervisors give the millions to the CEO? Will they send staff back to the drawing board? Or will they gently pat staff on their collective empty heads and say thank you while possibly volunteering to do staff’s work by setting up another Settlement Funds Ad Hoc Committee with no deadline? Tune in next week for the next exciting episode of Clueless In Ukiah.

Whichever “option” they choose, despite another looming drought and fire season during a pandemic and economic downturn facing Mendocino County now, at this rate it’s going to be a long time before anything like “Prevention, Recovery, Resilience, or Mitigation” is funded, much less accomplished.

Nothing For Covelo Either

Lew Chichester writes

Re: PG&E Disaster Settlement Funds- It was certainly disappointing and sadly completely expected that the county officials have not reached out to local groups who are directly connected to the needs for community preparedness. Here in Round Valley we have a disaster preparedness study group which has met extensively the last few years and has a detailed list of community needs and existing resources so we would be more adequately prepared in an emergency event. Did the county, in preparing the list of “projects” ever consult the Round Valley Area Municipal Advisory Council? Nope, seems like whoever made up the recommendations just made stuff up, and we assume the money will be spent on salaries for people in Ukiah. Nothing for actual physical improvements to existing infrastructure which with some actual capital investment would provide substantial resiliency in a local disaster. I hate Ukiah, the office people there use the data and metrics for county wide needs and then spend most of the money on themselves, applying for more grants, going to meetings, preparing reports. We have a town here with no fire hydrants, a community center with potential facilities for disaster preparedness with no backup generator, and a need for brush clearing along county and private roads. These are real, quantifiable, justifiable needs of our community. A cost analysis could be produced in an afternoon. County, just ask us what we need. We can tell you.

Notes On The County's 2021 Mid-Year Budget 

We’ve become accustomed to a general lack of meaningful information in the County’s budget presentations, so we were not surprised to find copious data gaps in the CEO’s “Mid-Year Report & Adjustments” budget report in next Tuesday’s Supervisors Agenda packet.

After a self-serving introduction about how the County has “re-engineered how work is done,” and “is learning to adapt” and “rising to the new challenges” associated with the pandemic, we waded through a virtual swamp of buzzphrases like “focusing on fiscal stability,” “financial sustainability,” “organizational development…” “rising costs,” with no solid ground ever reached, as the CEO’s introduction goes on for page after page after page without providing a single actual county budget number, even going so far as to claim that they “conduct regular monthly budget monitoring” — a demonstrably false statement made worse by its lack thereof.

In fact, it’s not until page 31 that we get tangible budget info in a list of Capital projects for fiscal year 2020-21, most of which, we weren't surprised to learn, are said to be under or on budget. Whether they are or not, especially the bigger ones which are still in process… Well, just try and find out.

On page 34 we get a partial list of departments which are included for being significantly over or under budget, but not the actual departmental budgets themselves. 

Predictably, with crime being the County's only growth industry, law enforcement and the judicial departments are over budget, with the DA and Public Defender being over by almost $1 million each. (Out of how much total budget? We’re not told. Presumably the Sheriff’s deficit is a smaller percentage of his budget than the DA’s and the Public Defender’s.)

There are no concluding remarks. No recommendations about what to do about the over-runs, if anything, or which reserve funds might have to be tapped to cover them, or if anything at all can be done to mitigate them, or what will be done about them next year.

The Sheriff’s office budget is said to be about $1.7 million over budget in total and it is only here that we finally get some useful numbers and relevant budget information: 

“Budget Unit 2310 – Sheriff-Coroner

At mid-year, the Sheriff’s Office now projects their budget will be $1,695,496 dollars over budget. Overtime is projected to be over budget by $1.5 million, due to unusually high demand and an unrealistic budget estimate [which they do every year to artificially “balance” the budget]. Other 1000 series accounts are projected to offset that overage with savings of approximately $335,000, for a net overage for the account series of $1.165 million. Retirement contributions are projected to be $340,000 under budget, though the department has no control over the budget estimate or the actual costs. In the 2000 series, the forensic pathology services contract has spent 50% of a 5 year contract consumed due to a higher need for autopsy services in 2020 and 2021.

Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO)

At Mid-Year the Sheriff’s Office Field Services Budget is projected to suffer a budget deficit of $1,392,000, for FY 2020- 21. This budget deficit is for three (3) reasons: the amount of overtime field services had to expend while assisting in the natural disasters the County of Mendocino has faced, the large increase in violent crimes (homicides, robbery), and the amount of Coroner’s cases and the corresponding autopsies which had to be completed. The Sheriff’s Office staff continues to work to reduce the overall budget deficit, through a number of budget efficiencies that have been implemented this fiscal year, and last fiscal year. The Sheriff’s Office goal is to maintain the highest levels of service possible to the Mendocino County community; and continue to find ways, through these budget efficiencies, to reduce overall costs to the County’s General Fund. These cost saving methods include:

Reorganizing the Professional Standards Bureau (PSB) to assist with background and employment processing. This has significantly reduced the length of time for each applicant application and background process, increased the speed in hiring new personnel, and almost completely eliminated the need to contract with outside (contracted) investigators; which has resulted in significant savings to the County. 

Sheriff’s Office staff has continued their focus on the hiring of new Field and Corrections Deputies to fill open sworn positions. Maintaining a full work force, helps the Sheriff’s Office control overtime costs, work related injuries, job stress and burnout. 

Last year, and this year, the Sheriff’s Office has expanded its Deputy-In-Training Recruitment Program, selecting current Corrections Deputies for training as Field Deputies. This strategy of selecting local, already proven, already employed, internal candidates has increased the likelihood of success in completing the vigorous Basic Academy and FTO process, and helped with the long-term retention of personnel. These efficiencies have reduced overall costs in developing and training personnel and helped to significantly reduce the high costs associated with personnel who once hired, cannot successfully complete the field-training program. 

The Sheriff’s Office continues to try to keep the Dispatch Center fully staffed, which would help reduce overtime and training expenses. At this time the Dispatch Center is short one position. The Sheriff’s Office continues to review staffing patterns and is researching options to increase efficiencies and maximize possible savings within the Dispatch Center. 

The Sheriff’s office continues to provide direction to the sector commanders regarding the removal of the four hours of overtime associated with 12-hour shifts. This change has resulted in a reduction of overtime hours. 

The Sheriff’s Office has asked and received assistance from the Auditor’s Office regarding payroll related issues. This transformation will not only assist the Sheriff’s Office in time management regarding payroll, but also assist in less overtime for the Auditor’s office. 

The Sheriff’s Office continues to give direction to schedule mandated training (Range, Defensive Tactics and Driving) for all sworn staff during their regularly scheduled work weeks, to reduce overtime expense, reduce liability and meet all required mandates. 

Close monitoring of Sheriff’s Office overtime and personnel training costs is continuing. To help reduce overtime and training costs, Sheriff’s Office personnel continue to work to have mandated training courses certified by POST and STC for presentation here locally. This change reduces expensive travel related costs for legislatively mandated training.

Purchases within the 2000 series [outside costs/contracts] are being monitored and re-examined closely prior to authorization to determine if alternative solutions, recycling of older supplies and equipment or deferral could occur, prior to expending funds. This work by Sheriff’s office personnel has significantly decreased expenditures within the 2000 series.

During the 2020-21 fiscal year, the Sheriff’s Office Field Division had to re-imagine law enforcement as a whole due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The impacts of the pandemic included but were not limited to the following: Inability to train, overtime associated with the realignment of part of the Bailiff Unit becoming a Covid-19 taskforce, which included sworn deputies, a sergeant and a field lieutenant to oversee the operation. The reality and hardship associated with Field Service employees becoming Covid-19 positive, or becoming close contacts, and the effect this had on the Sheriff’s Office budget due to mandatory overtime to fill the vacant positions. The Sheriff’s Office was able to obtain a grant (Corona Virus Emergency Supplemental Funding Grant) which is used to help fund the office with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The one time grant was for $69,733 and greatly assisted the Sheriff’s Office to have the ability and funding source to keep employees fitted with the needed and mandatory equipment. Crime Calls for Service 2020 - 64,495 Coroner’s Cases for Fiscal Year 2020-21 (7 month period) - 329 Coroner’s Cases. 

For Fiscal Year 2020-21, the Sheriff’s Office has expended $491,353.97 in autopsy costs. The monetary amount for the five (5) year pathology contract is $1,675,000. This pathology contract was implemented December 1st of 2019 and ends December 31st of 2024. Only one (1) year into this contact the Sheriff’s Office has had to expend approximately half of the allocated funds due to the immense increase of Coroner’s Cases and the autopsies associated with these Coroner investigations. 

During FY 2020-21, both the Corrections Division and the Field Services Division have had to handle unprecedented situations never before seen or dealt with due to the Covid-19 pandemic. During this traumatic time, the Sheriff’s Office had 16 Correctional Staff become positive with Covid-19 as well as 131 of the Residents that the Jail has care and custody over. The Sheriff and his staff continually worked hand in hand with the County and Public Health to devise a plan of action to rid this Covid-19 virus from the Correctional Institution. This plan consisted of twice-a-week testing for all Residents and Correctional Staff, releases of all Residents that could be released on either home monitoring or early release, the continual cleaning and disinfecting of the Correctional Institution, wearing of proper and mandated Personal Protective Equipment, and the continual training needed to stop the spread of this pandemic causing virus.” 

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