501 Low Gap Road, March 13th, 2018—early evening. A black, stretch limo speeds west on Low Gap Road, careens into the Mendocino County government complex, and comes to an abrupt stop. Several laughing figures rush from the building with bottles of Dom Perignon. They pile into the limo. The door remains open with the engine idling. The passengers are waiting for Dilly-Dally Sue (Susan Ranochak, Assessor and County Clerk—including benefits, estimated at $150,000.00 annual, take home pay.) But, Dilly-Dally Sue is late again, still counting votes from the last election.
The door slams. The limo screeches away.
Inside the party vehicle, Big Money (Carmel Angelo, CEO of Mendocino County—$300,000.00 annual take) pops a cork and makes a speech. She’s a Rubenesque lady with a beautiful, Tuscan face. Unelected, but some believe she’s the puppet master behind the scenes, yanking the strings of the often clueless Mendocino County Board of Supervisors. Big Money’s a clever gal.
“Buckle up, kids, it’s time to party.” Big Money says with a smile. She looks at Taxi Shari (Shari Schhapmire, the county tax collector—$133,000.00 annual take) “Taxi Shari, what’s the take this year?”
Taxi Shari, beams. Peachy checks, shoulder-length, auburn hair. Taxi Shari could be a cousin of Susan Sarandon from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Every year she increases taxes. Taxpayers get a pittance in return in Mendocino County’s version of their financial horror show. “Big Money,” Taxi Shari responds, “We took in every buck we could—squeezed their wallets and bank accounts until every dime dropped out. Millions! County taxes were due on Saturday. It’s Tuesday. If they haven’t been paid by now, delinquency fees apply. That’s more money for us!”
Cheers resound from the leather seats.
“All right!” Big Money shouts, shimmying her shoulders for affect. Let’s party all night long!” With that, she pours herself a glass of bubbling champagne.
Delighted that the money’s in, Doctor Kitty (Supervisor Georgeanne Croskey—$80,000.00 take) beams like a Cheshire cat. She has a perky, youthful face. Governor Jerry Brown mysteriously appointed her to the board. There’s speculation that Doctor Kitty was the veterinarian who operated on the Jerry’s dog before poor Sutter passed away. Jerry’s notoriously cheap. Was she appointed in lieu of her fee?
Baby Face (Supervisor Dan Gjerde—$123,000.00 total take) twinkle-fingers with his hands. He’s forty plus years of age, but his face looks like seventeen.
Handsome Dan (Supervisor Hamburg—$80,000.00 take) languidly pumps his fist. With his service dog on his lap, he lights his medicine up. “Activist” is the name of his dog. Long ago, Dan Hamburg was a congressman. People Magazine proclaimed that Dan was a “face to watch.” If they could only see him now with furrowed frowns upon his forehead and the beginnings of a chicken neck. Dan often looks depressed, out of touch with his once quixotic, progressive inner core as he roamed the planet to save the world. Mendo-liberals all adore him, but they might be jiving him, too.
Taxi Shari extends her plastic glass.
Big Money pours a drink; turns to Happy Hayride (supervisor Carre Brown—$128,000.00 take) offering to fill her glass. Happy Hayride is a ranch gal, and she has a ranch gal’s face—plain and pleasant and unadorned with hair the color of hay.
“Not for me, Big Money,” Happy Hayride refuses the pour. “On the ranch we call that puppy lap.” Happy Hayride reaches into her cowhide purse, pulls out a silver flask and downs a shot of Jack.
“Hold on,” River interrupts the fun. (Supervisor John McCowen—$113,000.00 take) River was John McCowen’s nom de guerre when he ran around with the radicals of Earth First, before trading militancy for a suit and tie. River seldom smiles. His face is sharp and sardonic. His ears appear to fly away with his skinny head. “What about those cheats from AirB&B?” River asks, annoyed. “Have they coughed their occupancy taxes up? Have we put them out of business with our onerous Use Permit?”
“River, not to worry. We’re close to wiping them out,” Taxi Shari reassures. “We’ve hired snitches from out of town. They’re…”
“River, lighten up,” Big Money interrupts. “Have some bubbly, pal. Try to enjoy the ride. Taxi Shari’s on the job. The county’s in wonderful shape…that is, if you stay off the county roads. We have fourteen hundred employees. We’re the biggest business around. Many of our retirees rake in over one hundred grand a year, and that’s before benefits, which we hide from everyone else. River, one hundred thousand bucks is three times the average pay of an average worker in the Mendocino market place before we skim the county tax if they own a home of their own.”
River begins to loosen up.
Handsome Dan offers River a medicine hit.
“No thanks,” River responds, as Big Money fills his glass. “Tom Allman may have bugged this car.”
“Who cares?” Handsome Dan relies. “I’ve blown smoke in his face before. Buried the wife in the backyard, shook off the hook with my crop. Besides, the medicine’s legal now. But, River, where’s your heart? Don’t you have some pity for those little folks who rented out a room on behalf of AirB&B to make an extra buck to help pay their county tax?”
“Absolutely not! Pity’s not a word a politician should ever use,” River answers harshly, before downing a gulp of champagne.
“Absolutely not!” Baby Face echoes Rivers words. “Affordable housing is the goal. The people of Mendocino must learn to share their homes. To hell with property rights; we choose the renters who live in their rooms. Cheaply paid workers that toil in the wineries and tourist trade need a place to live. It’s called learning to live with diversity with our south-of-the-border slaves.”
“Hey…knock it off, you guys,” Big Money intervenes. “This is a tax party. No politics tonight. Everybody…have another drink. There’s an extra case in the trunk. Enjoy the ride. Be happy. The taxpayers work for us. ”
“By the way, where are we going?” Doctor Kitty asks.
“Well, that’s a big surprise,” Big Mama responds with a cunning smile. “Handsome Dan has booked the place. Out of county is all I’ll say. It’s a legitimate travel expense.”
All eyes turn to Handsome Dan. Dark memories begin to intrude. Happy Hayride, Taxi Shari, and Doctor Kitty are looking vexed.
“Hell no!” Happy Hayride barks. “I ain’t going to no place like that. The Mountain of Attention…no way! That naked, hot springs resort over in Lake County where Handsome Dan hung out with that creepy guru Adi-Da? Mister Brown owns a shot gun, Handsome Dan.”
“And my husband is a cop,” Doctor Kitty adds.
Handsome Dan shakes his head. “Take it easy ladies. The Avatar sleeps in the clouds. We’re going someplace else.”
“Where?” Happy Hayride insists.
“Off to a big resort. Big Money’s got it right—travel, food and lodging, on the county tab.”
Again, cheers erupt in the limo. But the driver of the car shuts the glass partition to the party sounds. Turns out, he’s a bummy, aging writer, who writes for the A-V-A. His brow resembles a Neanderthal’s, and his face is flushed like an Irish Drunk’s, and he’s overweight from eating rice and beans because he has no county pension, and the Supes wiped out his rental listed with AirB&B. He drives limo to make ends meet. There’s a party in the back seats, but there’s something else up front.
Later that night—much later that night—we’re at the hotel and spa of the Auberge du Elite. ($800.00 take per room) The inn overlooks the Napa Valley beneath the stars. There’s accent lighting amidst exotic plants and scrubs. After three figure meals, most of the guests are asleep in their cozy, expensive rooms between luxurious, Egyptian sheets. But, outside in the soaking spa, beneath a crescent moon, empty champagne bottles occasionally make a clink as they float around in the heated pool. Above in the open-air pagoda room, music can be heard. That’s where we find our leaders who make Mendocino County great.
All are dressed in ivory, terry cloth robes, compliments of the upscale spa. There are scented candles here and there, as Big Money and the politicians dance around the room to an old time tune—Johnny Mercer’s Fools Rush In. The ladies have towels on their heads. Big Money and Handsome Dan are dancing cheek to cheek. Looking like mother and son, Happy Hayride waltzes with Baby Face. Taxi Shari and Doctor Kitty dance together, respectively at arms length. River dances alone, but the music is winding down.
As the music stops, Big Money raises her arms. “Kids, isn’t this the best tax party we’ve ever had?”
Cheers resound in the night, waking other guests up.
“Let’s take a little break. There’s something we need to discuss.”
All sit down in a circle, circa Mendocino, 1976.
Big Money has the floor. “As you know, three of you will be absent from this party next year—Handsome Dan, Happy Hayride, and Doctor Kitty. From my heart, I will miss every one of you. Thank you for your service and obeying all I said, although I did it with hints and cajoling to make you believe you did it on your own. You’ll be moving on to better things. Happy Hayride to your ranch, Doctor Kitty, seeking sanctuary from our sanctuary state, and you too, Handsome Dan, moving on to Sonoma Clean Power to help the environmentalists capture the national, power grid. Others will take your place, seeking guidance from me.”
“I wonder who they’ll be?” River ruminates.
The circle grows pensive for a moment. What’s swirling in their heads as they ponder the hopeful candidates? Will they run on the same old things—protecting the ocean, global melting, building community—which means all must toe the line and think alike—and more money for the homeless bums so that they can purchase meth? Or will the candidates just be opportunists, trying to bag some cash, now that the supervisors voted themselves a $20,000 dollar raise?
Happy Hayride, speculates. “One things for certain—they’ll all promise to fix the county roads. “
Loud laughter resonates.
“But, Big Money, what’s this something we need to discuss?” Doctor Kitty asks.
Big Money looks at Taxi Shari. Taxi Shari’s lowers her head. Big Money looks distressed.
“What?” River asks.
“What? Baby Face asks.
There’s trepidation in Big Money’s eyes, but, somehow, she summons the courage to speak. Big Money’s a gutsy gal. “Well…recently, I was trolling the internet looking at spring fashions for bureaucrats. Accidently, I happened across a website—YourPublicMoney.com. Astonishingly, it was about the county where we live. What I learned was this: Mendocino County with 88,000 people, is scheduled to fork out $450 million over the next twenty years to eliminate our unfunded pension dept. $450 million! That’s two-thirds of a billion bucks! That’s $450 million dollars that won’t be going to mental health or other county services including county roads. In the next five years we’ll have to fork out $100 million to fund the debt. Got it? Every woman, man and child who continues to breath our county air owes about $7,500 smackeroos! A baby born tomorrow is already in the hole.”
There’s shocked silence in the pagoda room.
“But why?” Doctor Kitty breaks the silence to ask. “I just arrived. How could this happen to us?”
“According to the website, it happened long ago, during the Colfax reign. An off the agenda item significantly increased county pensions, which began to balloon the county debt. It was kept from public view. The supervisors unanimously voted to increase pensions—including their own! The horse was out of the barn. County debt was running loose. The county’s unfunded, pension debt is 87% of our assets now. Of the twenty-one counties in California, along with Fresno, Mendocino County is at the bottom of the barrel.”
“What will happen to me,” Baby Face asks alarmed. I’m young. I need my county check. Without it, I’ll be working in Fort Bragg folding tacos at Taco Bell.”
“Take it easy, Baby Face,” River interjects. “I’ve looked at that website. It’s full of fake and misleading statements—lies, lies, lies.”
“River, numbers do not lie,” Big Money replies. “Check the books. Add it up for yourself. Something has to be done.”
Handsome Dan clears his throat. He takes his medicine out and lights another one up. All wait. They know Dan’s about to speak. Handsome Dan has something in mind. “Nikolai Chernyshesky,” Handsome Dan finally says. “His 19th century novel transformed Vladimir Lenin’s life. It was called What Is To Be Done. Yes, what is to be done, I say?”
Silence. The circle waits for something more—something to be done.
“Tell us, Handsome Dan…please,” pleads Taxi Shari.
“Tell you what?” Handsome Dan replies. “I’m out of here. It’s not my problem now.”
“Lenin—Colfax? Which one was the communist?” Happy Hayride asks. "No sense worrying over spilt milk. I’m out of here too. If the pension fund goes bust; if there’s no more money for the cops and schools, on the ranch, we can survive off the land. Hey, back to the old time ways.”
“But, something must be done,” Baby Face states with alarm. “I can’t live off the land. What can really be done?”
Big Money raises her hands for calm. “I have a proposal for what’s to be done, but you must keep it to yourselves. Raise your hands, and swear to keep the secret of what’s to be done.”
All raise their hands and swear.
Big Money stands and straightens her robe. “Now, this is only a suggestion. My job is evaluation. I’m simply offering input on what’s to be done. Since you’re the leaders, what’s to be done is up to you. I do what’s necessary to keep the finances looking good. Understand? Looking good is what’s to be done. Keep the lid on tight. Beat around the numbers bush. Do whatever you can, but above all—pretend that everything’s cool, and that nothing needs to be done. There are no dark clouds in the sky raining county, financial ruin. Handsome Dan is right—forget about it. Kick the can down the road. Keep the numbers and truth to yourselves. Lose the facts in bureaucratic babble that puts everyone fast to sleep. River can help you out with that. Does every one understand—not to understand?”
“We do,” all announce with a unified voice.
“Good. Then it’s back to party time! Bring on more champagne.” As Big Money speaks, the music comes up again—Money For Nothing by Dire Straights. “Let’s tax party to the sun comes up! For breakfast, there’s caviar and toast, and we’ve got a late checkout for two o’clock.”
“What about the limo driver?” Doctor Kitty asks. “He’s been waiting all night long.”
“Forget about that clown,” River scoffs. “He’s making minimum wage. What more can he possibly want?”