Last Monday’s long-anticipated Budget Workshop began with 40-plus people wanting to tell the Board of Supervisors to spare certain services from the budget axe – the Willits library, the County Museum, the Coast Animal Shelter in Fort Bragg, Veteran's Services, and Alcohol and Other Drug programs, all of which have already been cut substantially in previous budget balancing moves.
By the end of the day, the board instructed County Chief Executive Officer Carmel Angelo to take more from those programs – which altogether make up less than half of the General Fund outlays – so they could take less from criminal justice: the Sheriff’s office, the DA’s office, Probation, Public Defender and Alternate Public Defender.
Fourth District Supervisor Kendall Smith tried to point out that further reductions in the already downsized health and human services programs might well decimate them or leave them unable to provide even minimal services. But, as usual, Smith’s rambling, inchoate comments were ignored by her colleagues, perhaps because her colleagues were unable to decode them, perhaps, because they, like many of us, think Smith is 5150 and must simply be indulged, like a crazy old aunt or that television set in the corner of the livingroom, the one that's never turned off.
The Board told CEO Angelo to prepare a four-phase series of layoffs totaling 100 employees; these layoffs would be complete by January of 2011 and are supposed to make a big dent in the County’s estimated $7.6 million deficit.
Angelo said that some of the $7.6 million may also have to be made up by using the County’s remaining reserves of about $1.9 million. (All of this assumes that revenues don’t decline even more and that the State doesn’t grab more county funds, both dubious assumptions as the economy permanently contracts.)
According to Angelo, using the layoff allocations the board chose (by a 3-2 vote, Supervisors David Colfax and Smith dissenting), there would be eight criminal justice layoffs in each phase, five in Health and Human Services, five in General Government (CEO, admin, Clerk-Recorder etc.), and Internal Support (such as auditor, information services/computers, building and grounds, fleet maintenance, etc.), four in other resource agencies (Planning and Building, Environmental Health, etc.) and three from the museum, library and farm advisor grouping.
“We will look at management and department head positions first before we go to front line staff,” Angelo assured the board, although none of her layoff charts mentioned whacking the top pay brackets.
“We do have to look at restructuring, and it is essential that our administration, the top administration, set the example,” said Board Chair Brown.
Management positions were not listed as part of the budget pie that will be sliced and diced to get the $7.6 million reduction.
During public expression two speakers made a point of targeting management before hitting line staff.
Willits resident Jennifer Poole, a key supporter of 3rd District Supervisor candidate Holly Madrigal, said she’d been talking to Willits area people about the budget during the campaign.
“Most people said that part of the solution to our budget problem must be cuts to salaries at the top including management salaries, department head salaries, and elected official salaries,” said Poole. “We understand that there may well have to be program cuts. But they are brilliantly insistent that the people at the top in the County share in that pain.”
Coastal resident and senior Coast Hospital Nurse Louise Marianna agreed.
“150 of your employees make more than $100,000 salaries. If you cut that 10%, most of them would still enjoy a salary of around $100k or more plus their generous benefits. According to your slides and recent newspaper editorials, that would generate a $3.5 million savings. There is no way line workers are going to take a 10% cut unless it's demonstrated that upper management and administration that run this county are also going to take a 10% cut. A 10% loss of a $120,000 salary is not as painful as losing 10% of a $35,000 salary. You need to look at that and you need to start taking money away from the people who can most afford to lose it. Otherwise you are not going to get cooperation from your bargaining unit employees.”
Undersheriff Gary Hudson disagreed.
“Just from the perception of one of the people who makes you allegedly top-heavy, or bottom-light. I'm one of those guys, um, I'm an upper manager. It took a long time for me to get there; I started back when we were bottom-light, back in 1984, and then we got a little bottom-heavier and we grew. But, basically, you know, as with other county departments, we are very much the same in staffing as we have been for a long time. We take a look at growth, we have to judge where is that growth coming from, what's the benchmark of that growth? So another thing that I'd like you to consider, and the main reason I came up today, is that when you talk about cutting from the top down instead of the bottom up, please be careful because you do have job classifications and specifications that were created over a number of years beginning with the main class comp study that basically looked at every classification in the county and defined those in terms of the work performed, the complexity, the scope of responsibility, the decisions that are made, the number of people supervised and so on. It sounds good in theory to leave line staff in place and cut middle managers or cut supervisors, but in practice it's very very difficult. The real charge for those of us responsible for making the organization wobble around is to find that appropriate mix. If we have to downsize, to find the appropriate configuration of line staff, first level supervision, management and upper management so that we can still provide the best quality services to the citizens of the County and yet also carry out our responsibilities to effectively manage the resources of our organization so that we can provide good information to you, to the Board, to our department heads, to the CEO and to the public, please consider that and rather than thinking in terms of just leaving line staff alone finding the best way to meet as many needs as possible.”
“We've been looking at things exactly that way, Mr. Hudson,” explained an overly patient Board Chair Carre Brown as Hudson's prolonged statement of the obvious finally wrapped up.
So the budget question that’s shaping up is: Will the employees cooperate? Will they take salary cuts? Will they take work week hour reductions? Will they take benefit reductions? Will they take more mandatory time off?
Or will they simply take the layoffs.
Supervisor John Pinches made it clear that the layoffs scheduled to begin in May are a form of pressure or coercion to the County’s nine (!) bargaining units, all of which have contracts up for renewal this year. Several times Pinches pointed out that the 100 layoffs would be reduced if employee bargaining units would agree to significant concessions, adding that he was “confident” they would.
But from what we’ve heard from several bargaining units, they’re tired of making concessions and givebacks as long as management doesn’t give up anything, basically calling the County’s bluff. If that’s what it is.
Fifth District supervisorial candidate Norman de Vall had one other theoretical option:
“Do a better job of collections. … Millions of dollars are being lost. Under the current system the assessor doesn't put property on the tax rolls until Planning and Building puts them in the system. Any open files at Planning and Building should be referred immediately to the Assessor’s office. The amnesty program should include a waiver to existing planning violations. [Property owners with unpermitted structures] will stay out of the system unless or until they get an opportunity to come into compliance with codes,” said de Vall. “You need to get these buildings legal and onto tax rolls.” de Vall called them “escaped property taxes.”
As de Vall finished his energetic proposal there was no reaction from anyone, not the audience, not the Board.
“I expected some applause,” joked de Vall, “but it didn't happen.”
That remark got a few laughs – but no applause.
So what’s shaping up is an unpleasant stand-off likely to become more unpleasant in May when Ms. Angelo’s first list of 25 employees to be laid off hits the street.
Given that positions other than those associated with criminal justice have already taken the majority of the general fund hits, and that patrol deputies are apparently off the table, that would leave only lawyers and support staff to take criminal justice hits. The parade of supporters for the remaining health and human services programs and positions will only get larger and louder when they realize what the next round of cuts look like.
* * *
In a related move, the Board unanimously agreed with a proposal from Board Clerk Kristi Furman to consolidate the Clerk of the Board’s office under the CEO’s office. The Board was so thrilled with the idea that nobody asked how much money the consolidation would save.
The next day sloppy entries started appearing on the Ukiah Daily Journal on-line forum claiming that the consolidation was a trick to get Furman promoted to Deputy CEO with an $18,000 to $20,000 per year raise. We received two phone calls from County workers saying Furman’s $18k raise was a done deal even though the consolidation hasn’t yet been fully fleshed out, nor has a change in Furman’s job title come before the Board.
Then on Sunday the Ukiah Daily Journal ran a lengthy story, based primarily on a note from Employee Union rep Jackie Carvallo, saying that Carvallo was sure Furman was getting the big raise and new title. Carvallo said that her members were more upset about Furman’s backdoor promotion and raise than they were about layoffs or pay cuts.
* * *
At their regular Tuesday Board meeting last week, the Board beat four dead or dying horses again: off-parcel septic easements, the status of the entirely irrelevant housing element of the General Plan, solid waste privatization and, of course The Discussion That Never Ends – Marijuana. An entire morning was spent pointlessly flogging the first three – all three were again put over a week.
In the afternoon, the long-awaited update to County Code Section 9.31, “Marijuana Cultivation” was discussed and, miraculously, approved. In one afternoon!
It's nuts and unworkable, but… But there it is in all its unworkability.
Some pot people were for it. Some had reservations. Nobody expressed outright opposition during public expression. Nobody pointed out the obvious: no matter what it says, it’s wayyyyyyyyyyy too long, too legalistically complicated, too McCowenesque to be enforced – particularly since it does little more than add yet another layer of confusion to the already “unstable” and conflicting pot laws that local cops operate under these days.
Those speaking during public expression with reservations – particularly Pebbles Trippet and Dan Hamburg – said they didn’t like the fact that the ordinance was still based primarily on a nuisance law framework which is not only a purely subjective assumption it's a violation of the privacy rights of patients and growers.
Two pot advocates were for it – a young, sharp fellow named Matthew Cohen and one dull old guy, the One True Green Richard Johnson. Johnson was so enthusiastic you'd have thought the endless ordinance was equivalent to a sudden recipe for eternal life.
Cohen is the owner of an outfit called Northstone Organics, a cannabis “consumer cooperative” with outlets all over the Bay Area and up the Coast to and including Mendocino County. He's also probably the smartest guy in the pot business in this county where a whole lot of smart people are also engaged because he apparently is convinced the ordinance will help his business. Which is the pot business, all the bushwah about cooperatives and organics aside.
Cohen said he preferred regulating marijuana with land use regs and zoning and permits, as he had tried to do last year when Norm de Vall and Pebbles Trippet tried to propose it. But that effort missed the General Plan input deadline and was scrapped.
This ordinance, however, The McCowen Plan if you will, was still “excellent,” Cohen said. “It addresses most of the concerns of you, the community and patients abroad. It will generate tax paying jobs, sales taxes, zip tie revenue, and co-ops can operate like a regular business.”
Hamburg, the leading candidate to replace Colfax as Fifth District Supervisor, objected to the nuisance framework, adding that even though this ordinance was supposed to regulate collectives and cooperatives, “Collective protections are nowhere to be found. These restrictions are not what Proposition 215 or SB-420 intended. Constitutional rights are lost with the nuisance framework. Growers lose the right to trial by jury. They lose the right to a warrant for entry, for corroborating evidence. Instead, summary abatement and destruction can occur based on a single deputy’s discretion. Patients lose their right to innocence before guilt by being charged a non-refundable fee of $1140 just for the right to appeal.” Hamburg prefers land use/zoning regulations with major and minor use permits.
Fifth District Supes candidate Wendy Roberts thought the new ordinance was ok, on balance. “There are legitimate needs of different groups of people here,” going on to make the unsupported claim that the wine industry is heavily regulated while the pot people ignore the rules entirely whatever the rules are.
“Those people [medical marijuana patients and growers] would like to have no limitations on their behavior,” said Roberts, citing a position uttered by no one in the room. “Nobody gets to live that way,” continued Roberts. “Wine growers don't! Nobody gets that! There will have to be limitations. This is a good faith effort to move forward. I favor this ordinance as an interim step.”
Wine growers do their share of paperwork, but they suffer no real regulation of their operations. Basically, that’s what the pot people are moving to as well. Neither situation is in the public interest. But it’s crazy to say that the Mendocino wine industry is regulated in any practical way.
Third District Supervisor Tony Orth said he preferred land use regulations also. Why? “Nuisance? Anyone can just drive around Brooktrails and generate nuisance complaints,” said Orth, quite correctly. “Neighbors should generate complaints,” insisted Orth, “rather than a drive-by situation. Land use with minor and major use permits for the future is a better way to do this.”
Farm Bureau rep Devon Jones said that “medical marijuana should be subject to the same sort of regulations that agricultural commodities are subjected to. If you're going to say you’re on the same realm [sic] as ag, that you're not necessarily a nuisance… We are subjected to nuisance laws. We are subjected to odor control, dust control, vapor from any sort of spraying that we do. There’s an intensive list of regulations out there. I just wanted to bring that up.”
The youthful Ms. Jones is apparently unaware of the County’s “right to farm” policy which formally declares that all the “nuisances” she rattled off are NOT nuisances, but a normal part of farming.
“We're facing some pretty restrictive rules right now in agriculture,” she said.
No, you're not, Ms. Jones.
The Farm Bureau killed the minimal grading ordinance that a special committee spent years on. The only thing pending is a teensy possibility that grape growers will have to make sure there’s enough water in the Russian River for the fifteen fish that still live there before they turn on their frost protection pumps.
“Water will be a limiting factor as we more forward,” continued Jones. “There has been no county agency that's been deemed to verify state water board right, regional right, fish and game right. Just saying that you're legitimately diverting water doesn't mean that you're legitimately diverting water.”
Well, she got that last part “right” anyway.
Redwood Valley Supes watcher Jim Houle said he didn’t really follow the pot issue too much but he had one question: “If you go to the 99 plant limit, and then at harvest they only need 20 or 25, what do they do with the remainder of their plants? There's nothing in here about that. Now, they simply sell them commercially and make a few bucks off them. This reflects that there's medical use and recreational use, and it's all kind of a mushy area.”
A Ukiah woman named Maureen Martin said pot growing “should be managed as co-ops with bylaws and rules. You should encourage co-ops. This would take the onus off of the Sheriff’s Department because they would have to police their own members. Excess medicine could only be reimbursed within the co-op. That would make a closed loop.”
Colfax was right on task for a change:
“This is an attempt to rationalize the irrational,” said Colfax. “Yesterday I saw this board cut support for the poorest of the poor, the neediest of the needy. [A reference to the disproportionate cuts to Health and Human Services] Well, we have to get rid of people. But we're not going to touch certain categories of people – certain categories are exempt. We are about to strip Mendocino County of its health and human services capabilities. … This is trying to make sense out of an insane situation. … My kids come up from San Francisco every couple of weeks and they say, Please, don't turn on KZYX. We don't want to hear about marijuana. We don't want to hear the discussion, the endless topic in Mendocino County.…
"This is one of the most intrusive documents to come out of any administrative body I have ever seen!" continued Colfax.
"This just says, Hey! Come on guys! Stick it to me!
“What's the old saying? Have the wisdom to see what you can change and what you can not change. Is this entertainment? My kids think it's entertainment. Please, let's not spend any more time on this topic. I'm done with this. I told John [McCowen] here I don't even want to say anything about this. Because quite frankly I think this is a horrible waste of time. This document is a dream document for an authoritarian state.”
McCowen thought the fact that reactions to his dream document were varied meant that it was good.
“Various people are in agreement who might not otherwise agree,” said McCowen. “This is a big improvement over the status quo. This is a balanced approach to address the needs of patients and those who have suffered the negative consequences of marijuana. There is nothing new here. This is not the last word. But it is an opportunity to take this off the front burner where this board is not perpetually bombarded with marijuana related issues.”
If the Board has been “perpetually bombarded” with pot discussions it’s because McCowen keeps bringing it up.
Supervisor Pinches was strongly against it.
“I totally don't support this ordinance. We tell the Sheriff to cut his costs. But now this puts the Sheriff’s office in a totally different phase of what the Sheriff’s office should be doing, an administrative phase kinda like what your building inspectors out there are doing. I don't support that. How can we vote that medical marijuana is legal but now we want the Sheriffs to go into people’s houses and bedrooms and stuff? That's not the concept of what legal means. There are two things that affect law enforcement: demand and the level of law enforcement. Legalization will come with its own set of problems. This won't settle everything. We have a stack of laws now and this won't affect anything out there. The cat's outta the bag. We have to live with marijuana period. As Bruce Anderson eloquently [sic] labeled it, ‘The Devil Weed’ of Mendocino County. It's here to stay. Some people love it, some hate it, some people are all over the middle. No ordinance of this county will… I'm saddened by the fact that this has taken hours and hours of staff time and supervisors' involvement that I'd like to support, but I just can't. Is this going to go on and on and on? We don't have the money or the desire to put a greater level of enforcement on [marijuana]. And if we did, we don't have the money to run them through as court cases. And if we did run them through as court cases, we certainly don't have the money to incarcerate them at the state level or the county jail level. So where are we going? We're taking money away from our other services that we drastically need to basically prop up the price of marijuana. Which I don't support. There are lots of other reasons. But I can't support this.”
Sheriff Allman wrapped up.
“This will be the fourth different marijuana ordinance in my four years as Sheriff,” said Allman, adding that there are court decisions pending, voter initiatives coming up this year which will change the pot landscape yet again. “I wish you luck!” said Allman to giggles from the audience. “We're going to have a thousand smell complaints this year. We're going to have home invasions. We still have unsolved homicides. They are tough to solve. 99 plants would attract outsiders to come here and do violence to our taxpayers. … I don't think we've figured out how to crack this nut yet. Public safety could go either way. In some ways it’s safer, but more violence will be attracted. 25 plants per parcel is one of the best ways to control greed in Mendocino County. These days nobody grows 26 plants. It’s either 25 or 150. And lots of people are in voluntary compliance.”
Chair Brown called the question and McCowen’s Dream Document was approved 3-2 with Pinches and Colfax dissenting.