Lack of budget reporting comes back to bite board…
Tuesday afternoon, CEO Carmel Angelo posed this hypothetical to the Supervisors: “Say the Sheriff comes in $1.6 million over budget. Am I going to send him a bill for $1.6 million? And when he says he won't pay it, and he goes public, is the board going to say he's going to have to put up $1.6 million?”
The CEO was roused to what at first appeared to be a bit of whimsy when Assistant CEO Darcie Antle reminded the Board that “California state government code and county policy — that the county has never enforced — puts personal responsibility on the official authorizing the obligation. It is in County Policy 1, section 1.1, Sources of Authority and Priorities and in the case of a conflict.”
Supervisor Ted Williams immediately asked, “Can we decide today to follow this?”
Supervisor Dan Gjerde agreed: “If it’s county code, I don't know why it's not being followed already.”
Williams: “Maybe we can give direction that we expect county code to be followed.”
As significant as this bureaucratic land mine might be, it's surprising none of the Supes seemed to have heard of it. County code anyone?
CEO Angelo clarified.: “When I started in 2007 [as Health and Human Services Director] this was one of the policies that was explained to me by then interim CEO Al Beltrami. All department heads were very well aware of this policy. This policy has never been enforced. If this board would like me as the executive officer to enforce it, what we would do is, we know when a department, whether it's run by a department head or elected official, as you know when we come back every quarter we can project if the department is going to be over budget.”
CEO Angelo has staunchly refused previous Board direction to do monthly budget status reports, meaning that if budget problems in a department arise, they aren’t dealt with for up to six months given the timing and limited nature of the quarterly budget presentations and the lag in numbers.
Angelo continued: “Let's take the Department of Transportation and say they are going to be $200,000 over budget. I would notify the director at midyear most likely with a written letter that they are projecting a $200,000 overage and attach this policy which everybody is aware of and this makes the department head personally responsible for that $200,000 overage. You can see that it's quite a drastic policy and I understand why it's never been enforced. But if this board wants it enforced we could send it out again and notify the department heads. We could actually have them sign something. The department heads will sign, I don't know about the elected officials. But we could have them sign that they have received the policy and they are aware of it and they understand it and we could attempt to enforce it. That's the best I can say we could do.”
And, given the mutual animosity between the CEO and Sheriff Kendall, it's no surprise that she would dangle him as Exhibit A.
Williams: “I support that. Let's do it.”
Supervisor John Haschak: “If a person goes over they’re going to have extenuating circumstances such as an emergency. How would that be dealt with?”
Angelo: “We could have some type of adjudication process or some type of grievance process that could start with me and then go to the board. Using the Department of Transportation again — I have to say that Howard Dashiell is really good about his budget so it's not — I'm just using him as an example. Howard is projected to be $200,000 over, so we have given him the notices throughout the year and he has been able to bring it down for whatever reason and at the end of the year I hand him a statement along with the Auditor that he owes the County $200,000. He would have the right to grieve it or adjudicate it and it would most likely go from me to the Board of Supervisors and then you would make the decision whether you were going to -- whether the reason that he is $200,000 over is something that is unforeseen and nothing could be done about it or we are going to hold him to the policy. This is an extremely drastic policy. I have never seen this county enforce this policy. The Sheriff comes in $1.6 million over. Am I going to send them a bill for $1.6 million. And when he says he won't pay it and he goes public is the board going to say he's going to have to put a $1.6 million? The policy is a bit unrealistic but it's on the books. We need to decide if we are going to go forward with it or amend it in some way.”
Williams: “As I understand it it's also state law, so the procedure here is to spend within budget. If the budget needs to be modified they can come to the board. If there's an emergency we can deal with that. We don't have very many emergencies. I don't think it will come up that we had to buy bottled water because we had a fire and went over budget. We should have adequate budget for that bottled water. We plan for the basics of emergencies. I am reluctant to not follow state law as far as budgeting. It's not really a budget if you set a limit and then department heads are able to spent outside of the limit.”
Gjerde: “It is drastic. But as long as there is a procedure for explanation or appeal, etc. that's there. County Counsel -- or somebody needs to be brought in to provide some guidance as to what would be a fair adjudication process. This is the time to do it. It's part of the budget process. People would get advance notice from day one when their budget is approved. It's likely that any department head who sees their department over at the end of the year is going to say, Well, I asked for more money and your budget didn't approve everything. So that will be the argument made. But they certainly will have known what their budget was at budget approval time. It is pretty drastic. But on the other hand management employees and department heads and deputy department heads are paid top dollar — they may not think that but I think they are by Mendocino County standards — and with that comes responsibility. So I don't think it's that drastic in some respects. I think people should be able to manage their budget one way or the other and they need to make choices.”
Supervisor Glenn McGourty: “How widespread a problem is this? How many departments go over budget in a typical year?”
Angelo: “Usually very few. Sometimes some of the smaller departments with smaller budgets that might be $45, $50, $60,000 over. We know historically the Sheriff's office is over. And they are over by a lot of money and a lot of times that is because there is some event and they had to put in overtime that was unanticipated. Not very many departments. You have department heads and elected officials. Are you going to hold all of the department heads and elected officials to this policy?”
County Counsel Christian Curtis: “This is not just county policy, it is state law.”
Curtis tried to summarize the budget process using words like “expectation,” but failed. Curtis’s office is one of the offices that goes over budget because he and the CEO routinely hand off uncomplicated matters to outside lawyers.. Curtis also confirmed that the policy applies to elected officials like the Sheriff.
Gjerde: “There needs to be a process approved by the board which would set that expectation. We need consultation from you [Curtis] and your office or outside counsel or wherever to help us establish that process. It's pretty serious.”
Williams got on his high horse: “It's not our money, it's the people's money. State law gives the authority to budget the people's money to the supervisors. It's a mistake to allow these overages. The board is never in a position to say, No, you cannot spend that money. It's already been spent. We need to align with state law.”
Excuse me, but if the Board required monthly budget reports, these overages would be routinely addressed and if there were unexpected or unauthorized expenses, they could be dealt with as necessary. Including the frequent “retroactive” expenses in Health & Human Services, Social Services and Camille Schraeder’s many retroactive Mental Health contract amendments.
Haschak: “What happens if you have the board — theoretically if you have the budget and its low or really tight for a department or an elected official and then that person really struggles to keep their budget in line but can't because of extenuating circumstances? Then what happens? They are responsible for the budget? We need to make sure that all department heads and elected officials are communicating clearly what their budget needs are throughout their year and having regular meetings with the executive office and the finance officer and whatever to make sure their budget is in alignment and on track. We want to be on track with what we set out as a goal.”
Williams: “This is not for us to decide. This is state law. This is what we need to follow. We don't have the liberty to say that a department has a tight budget and decides to run over. We have to live within the budgeting process. If you have $100 in your budget, you don't spend more than $100. Or you come to the board through the process and the board will approve it.”
Or not, Williams failed to note.
Haschak: “We have to have proper communication so that the budget reflects what's happening. We have not followed this in the past. I understand that it's the law. But let's make sure people are communicating frequently with the parties so that we are not surprised at the end with a $1 million bill for some department head.”
Gjerde suggested another ad hoc committee.
CEO Angelo suggested that the question be referred to the General Government standing committee “and a timeline be given to bring a recommendation back.”
Chair Gjerde immediately so directed. But, of course, no timeline was given. As a standing committee, the General Government committee meets in open session and complies with all Brown Act public meeting requirements. So it will be interesting to see if the Board realizes that this is a problem of their own making and the solution is the ordinary monthly budget reporting that CEO Angelo refuses to do.
* * *
SUPES TALKING WATER AGAIN
Will a re-born County water agency do anything to help Mendo’s water woes?
Short answer: No.
Long answer: No.
Tuesday morning, the Supervisors discussed re-forming the County’s toothless Water Agency which had been shut down in 2009 in the wake of the Great Recession budget cuts. Most of the talk was about applying for grants and hiring an administrator and the general obvious desirability of water supply projects to develop into grant applications.
As usual, the discussion was purely abstract, and totally ignored history. We recall three candidate projects that were initiated by former Supervisor John Pinches, the only Supervisor in recent memory who gave serious thought to water in Mendocino County.
Pinches' ideas were either outright opposed or died from the indolent inattention paid them by his fellow supervisors.
Pinches proposed developing Scout Lake east of Willits to supply the perennially thirsty Gateway to the Redwoods and points south. He also identified and suggested a Redwood Valley swale that he thought might catch a useful amount of annual rainfall if dammed; and Pinches' idea to run a pipe from Dos Rios to Willits and Ukiah along the rail track right of way to divert limited high winter flows from the Eel River South Fork when flow rates were high sent David and Ellen Drell and Eel River/Humboldt supporters into a state of shock, and tapping the winter flow of the Eel was rejected out of hand. (What's left of the Eel is also federally protected as wild and scenic.)
As we recall the Scout Lake project foundered because the “leadership” was unable to arrange agreements between the City of Willits, the Boy Scouts (property owners), and the pipeline waterway right of way.
The proposed Redwood Valley project foundered when Environmental Impact Report requirements were raised, and then the County lost interest (and creative thinking) when Pinches left the Board.
The point is, more agencies, more admin, more meetings, more grant applications, and more grant money are all irrelevant if there are no realistic projects and someone to push them day to day and week to week, hurdle after hurdle. Well paid admin types are too willing to take no for an answer or accept that every i be dotted and t crossed to take as long as they like, drought or no drought.
Tuesday’s Supe's water discussion was heavy on magical thinking which assumed that yet another new bureaucrat would magically enhance the county's water supply.
Viable proposals from the hardest hit inland and coastal areas like Redwood and Potter Valley and the town of Mendocino are required, and these areas and their water customers have to be willing to pay a reasonable rate to both encourage conservation and store and maintain whatever water they can find.
Further, the word “conservation” was never mentioned during Tuesday’s discussion. Mendo’s current water usage patterns have to be scaled back, more dry farming required, large users ordered to conserve. If not, no amount of water supply and storage projects — on the off chance a bureaucrat can find one — will address the longer term problem.
* * *
Supervisor Glenn McGourty opened Thursday’s first meeting of the Mendocino County Drought Task Force with this bleak assessment: “There’s a stark possibility that water throughout Mendocino County and Fort Bragg can actually cease to exist here in a few months.”
You’d think that kind of forecast would set off some alarms. But no, as expected, the virtual confab showed no sense of urgency; a pall of complacency hovered over the rest of the meeting like a damp dishrag. The participating bureaucrats chatted cheerfully about the lack of water, but no reductions were ordered, no metering proposed, no projects mentioned.
A professional looking young man named Joe [first names were used a lot] from the Resource Conservation District summed up the purpose of the meeting (paraphrasing): We are asking for ideas. We have a list of 30 projects ranging in cost from $10k to $7 mil. There are 300 projects in the county that need to be identified. [How would he know that if they are not identified?] We are gathering information of what our needs are. We have to find out what’s out there. We expect grant funds. People have to get their projects on our list. Email: email@example.com and give us the status and timeline and cost estimate. etc. We will maintain the list to put dollars on ground when it’s available.
McGourty then made this startling observation: “We have to start thinking about storage.”
“Start thinking”? They haven’t even started yet?
McGourty then said that Mendo had “a great body of people with great knowledge.” But somehow that great body hadn’t started thinking about storage yet.
Elizabeth Salome of the Russian River Flood Control District (which she said wholesales Mendo’s portion of Lake Mendocino to farmers and municipal retailers in the Ukiah Valley) said the Eel River Diversion to Potter Valley and Lake Mendocino — already at just a trickle — is about to be cut off, but nobody knows exactly when.
Most of the meeting was various Mendo water bureaucrats introducing their great bodies and offering information about their particular area of the County or expertise. Our impression from the roundup was that most rural areas are suffering shortages with Round Valley, Redwood Valley, Potter Valley, and the Town of Mendocino in the worst shape. Willits, Ukiah, Laytonville, Fort Bragg, Elk, Point Arena and Gualala were said to be not as bad. although Fort Bragg has ordered 10% cutbacks so far.
A woman named Christina of the Mendocino Town Community Services District which somehow oversees 420 independent wells said they were already at their maximum Stage 4 restriction level. Individuals and businesses are already trucking water into the town and she hoped that they might get some water from Fort Bragg later in the year. Apparently some commercial operations on the South Coast are so short that they’re taking their laundry to Fort Bragg.
Supervisor McGourty was particularly worried about the impact of the water shortage on tourism than he was on Coast residents saying that the Coastal tourism industry has been hard hit by covid and now here comes the drought. And — gasp! — the County might take a hit on its bed tax!
* * *
COUNTY BUDGET NOTES
COUNTY BUDGET HEARINGS for next fiscal year (July 2021-June 2022) concluded last Wednesday with the usual vague approval of “the recommended action as amended by today’s discussion.” Which means CEO Carmel Angelo and her Budget Team will fill in the many budgetary blanks and return for final Board approval on June 22. Following the practice of recent years, in place of a draft budget, the Supervisors are entertained with a carefully orchestrated presentation of selected highlights from selected departments. Tuesday was strictly from the perspective of the Executive Office. Wednesday featured presentations from the District Attorney, Planning and Building Services, the Sheriff’s Office, the Cannabis Program and the Department of Transportation.
WEDNESDAY SAW A RENEWAL of the tough talk from Supervisor Williams about holding Department Heads personally liable for not staying within their assigned budget. Undersheriff Darren Brewster was standing in for Sheriff Kenall who was in Sacramento attending a State Sheriff’s meeting and speaking to the new Attorney General. The Sheriff’s presentation was preceded by newly anointed Assistant CEO Darcie Antle emphasizing that the County continues to invest in Public Safety. Antle claimed the Sheriff got “most” of what he wanted. What he didn’t get, per the CEO’s recommendation, was funding to replace high-mileage patrol vehicles that were timing out.
UNDERSHERIFF BREWSTER detailed crime stats, noting that through an 11 month period the Sheriff’s Office had logged over 61,000 calls for service, over 800 of which involved violent crimes, including homicide, sexual assault, child abuse, domestic violence and assault. The Sheriff’s Office budget specialist detailed the differences between the Sheriff’s Office proposed budget and the CEO recommended budget, noting that there was a gap of over $1.5 million, primarily in vehicle replacement. The Sheriff’s Office proposed budget included $1,278,500 for vehicle replacement, noting that 17 patrol vehicles have over 100,000 miles. In contrast, the CEO recommended nothing for vehicle replacement. No explanation was offered for this omission. The Sheriff and CEO both included $1,161,185 for overtime. The Sheriff’s Office budget specialist noted that over the last five years overtime never went below $1.4 million. She also noted that overtime was sure to go up based on salary increases approved by the Supes.
SUPERVISOR WILLIAMS, having just heard a detailed description of the structural deficit built into the CEO recommendations, opened the questioning by asking Undersheriff Brewster “Can we get a handshake that the Sheriff’s Office will stay within budget?” Brewster replied that he would love to but it was difficult to do so knowing a structural deficit was built into the budget from day one. Williams persisted, citing his usual platitudes about spending the public’s money before insisting the law required that departments stay within budget.
WILLIAMS TURNED TO County Counsel Curtis for confirmation. Curtis hemmed and hawed in his usual manner, citing “a few nuances,” but concluded generally, yes, departments must stay within budget. Curtis never mentioned the point brought up by former Supervisor McCowen in a recent online comment that the State Constitution gives the Sheriff authority to incur necessary expenses which the County must then fund.
WILLIAMS NEXT ZEROED in on IT (info technology), expressing the hope that the Sheriff’s Office IT operations would be coordinated with the County, decrying the perceived duplication. Supervisor Gjerde, ever alert to stake his claim as a fiscal conservative, said it didn’t make sense to have two IT departments. Undersheriff Brewster pushed back, stating the Sheriff’s IT system was separate due to the need to maintain confidentiality, but was not duplicative. Williams returned to his principle theme of holding departments accountable to stay within budget. County Counsel launched into an extended and repetitive riff on the topic, noting the issue of holding department heads accountable had been referred to the General Government committee the day before.
SUPERVISOR MULHEREN advocated that overtime and vehicle replacement ought to be included in the budget. Supervisor Haschak brought up Covelo and the need for more deputies and increased support for the Sheriff’s office. Haschak wondered if there was anything in the budget for that. His question went unanswered.
WILLIAMS NEXT QUESTIONED the appropriateness of 100,000 miles being the trigger for patrol vehicle replacement. Brewster, who has had his share of high speed felony chases, had already made the point that the last thing you want a Deputy thinking about in the midst of a felony pursuit is vehicle malfunction. Williams wondered if the patrol cars couldn’t just be maintained or independently certified. Brewster patiently explained the patrol cars are maintained by the County vehicle department but the nature of many rural roads in Mendocino County and constant operation over long distances at high speeds takes its toll. Brewster didn’t want to be responsible for injury to a Deputy resulting from vehicle failure knowing the vehicle should have been replaced.
THE UNFOCUSED DISCUSSION meandered on with the CEO asserting that the County had a vehicle replacement policy and they need to follow it. Assistant CEO Antle pointed out the policy had been adopted in 2007. Deputy CEO Janelle Rau offered to review the fleet policy with the Sheriff’s Office, implying that the lack of funding in the CEO Recommended Budget was somehow the fault of the Sheriff’s Office. Williams lamented that the Supes give direction, they pass a budget then it gets ignored. Is the budget just advisory or is there an expectation that departments stay within budget, Williams wanted to know. More circular bafflegab from County Counsel.
AT SOME POINT Assistant CEO Antle said the gap between the Sheriff and the CEO was not $1.5 million but was only $500,000. Except the one page summary posted with the agenda showed a gap of over $2.2 million, including over $600,000 in additional revenue that the CEO was projecting for the Sheriff’s Office. Antle never explained why the $1.5 million (0r $2.2 million) gap was really only $500,000. CEO Angelo pointedly said that she had only one department that she wasn’t in agreement with — the Sheriff. Angelo neglected to mention that with few exceptions, the Sheriff being one, she can fire any department head who disagrees with her.
WILLIAMS SAID HE READ IN THE NEWSPAPER that the Sheriff and CEO are not meeting weekly. He said the CEO needs to be responsible for the whole County while the Sheriff has a much narrower focus which leads to tension. He said the way to alleviate that tension is to have weekly meetings. He would like to see the CEO and Sheriff meet and agree on a plan for IT. Mulheren earlier said she wanted to see the CEO and Sheriff meet and come up with a plan for vehicle replacement. Brewster was all in favor of meetings but made vague references to things being pushed off or not completed. He said he couldn’t speak for the Sheriff but he knew Matt Kendall was for the people and did not want to argue and fight.
SHERIFF KENDALL also doesn’t like being lied to. Especially by the CEO. Angelo lied to Kendall about the Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Or at least told him one thing and then decided another without bothering to tell him. Kendall found out the hard way, in a public meeting where the CEO pulled the rug out from under him. As a result, Kendall published a letter about two months ago saying he would no longer meet with the CEO because of a lack of trust. Kendall seems to have concluded, if that’s what he gets out of weekly meetings with the CEO, then he’s better off not meeting with her. Kendall strikes us as an old fashioned lawman in the best sense of the word. Plainspoken, earnest and straightforward, Kendall values honesty and personal integrity. He also defends his department and its financing needs.
THE EOC has traditionally been set up in the Sheriff’s Office training room. Which means each time there’s an emergency it has to be recreated and numerous contacts with sister agencies and departments remade. When Covid began, Angelo pitched to Kendall that he could move the EOC into a building at the County Administration Center. Before agreeing to make the move Kendall sought and received assurances from the CEO that it would be permanent. Over a year later, Kendall was in front of the Board of Supervisors requesting $600,000 for the complete buildout of the EOC, including his plan to then convert the training room to a courtroom, thereby saving $500,000 annually in prisoner transportation costs and increasing safety during transport.
ANGELO INTERRUPTED the Sheriff to say the building currently housing the EOC was not available, that it was being turned over to the Cannabis Program. Kendall, in contrast to former Sheriff Tom Allman who was famous for blowing his top when crossed, took the news without making a scene. Angelo next ordered the EOC packed up and delivered to the Sheriff’s Office training room. This unilateral move by Angelo has resulted in short circuiting the establishment of a permanent EOC and denied the Sheriff’s Office $500,000 annually in cost savings by precluding conversion of the training room to a courtroom. Is this what the Executive Office means when they say they are investing in Public Safety? Do the Supes think their frequent, if empty, calls for efficiency are being heeded?
CONFIDENTIALITY is a plausible explanation for the Sheriff’s Office maintaining a separate IT system but it likely goes beyond maintaining confidentiality of criminal investigations and personnel records. Former Assistant CEO Kyle Knopp was known to have access to the entire County email system. With IT professionals in place, there is no reason for Executive Office staff to personally access employee email. CEO Angelo professed shock at the news at that time but does anyone think her Assistant CEO would take this step on his own initiative? Fast forward to the present and who is directly in charge of IT? CEO Angelo’s trusted right hand, Deputy CEO Janelle Rau. There may be technical and legal reasons for the Sheriff’s Office to have a separate email system. But going back to lack of trust, you can bet the Sheriff does not want Carmel Angelo and her minions reading his or his department’s mail.
SUPERVISOR WILLIAMS surely knows the history of mistrust between the CEO and Sheriff. Williams professes to be the peacemaker by calling for the CEO and Sheriff to resume weekly meetings. But he seems intent on setting the County up for a collision course with the Sheriff. During three years of Budget hearings Williams has scarcely had a question for any other department head, never questioning vehicle requests or other expenditures. By his own admission he has “capitulated” in his request for Mental Health performance data. But he zeroes in on the Sheriff and threatens to hold him personally liable to an unrealistic budget. The CEO, who is supposed to work on behalf of the County as a whole, is content to watch this trainwreck unfold. Or even encourage it. And County Counsel Curtis, whose job is to protect the County from liability, seems eager to cross swords with the Sheriff. Meanwhile, the rest of the Board drifts along, with no one questioning the wisdom of picking a very expensive and public fight with the Sheriff.
WILLIAMS WANTS to micro manage the Sheriff’s Office budget but didn’t bat an eye at recreating the Water Agency at a cost of $700,000. The County has no water to manage so what will the water agency do? Um, well, there’s a drought. And a drought task force. Maybe the Water Agency will develop new sources of water? Supervisor McGourty mentioned constructing pipelines. From Ukiah (which has plenty of well water for the time being) to Redwood Valley. Or from Fort Bragg to Mendocino. Forget the cost and complexity of constructing pipelines. Or that it would come too late for this drought cycle. There is still no water to put in the pipeline.
THE SUPERVISORS GENERALLY seem happy to go along and get along with few questions. No one asked why the Supes were not given the proposed budget details although it came out in discussion of the Sheriff’s Office budget that the CEO and the departments have detailed line item budget information. Information that is very selectively shared with the Supes. Too much info might lead to more pesky questions.