John Pinches walked into our office Thursday morning. He was carrying the County Budget, or should I say “lugging,” the three pound document. He's bookmarked and annotated it, occasionally opening to a page to make a rueful comment. He probably knows more about Mendocino County's money than anybody currently employed in the County CEO's office.
The North County rancher has twice been elected 3rd District Supervisor. If he's elected again, he'll have set a County record for repeat stays in office. He had to take a break after his second term to recover his health. He looks strong and he definitely wants another shot at the job.
Pinches is totally focused on Mendocino County, which he pronounces the way old timers say it: “Mendacina County.” He's also a kind of living history, illustrating his political points with anecdotes from his nearly 70 years of life in a place he's clearly devoted to.
AVA: Top priority if you're re-elected?
PINCHES: Number one, housing, real low cost housing. We haven't built a mobile home park in Mendocino County in many years. Some people look down on trailer parks, but I know from my mom's place in Willits it was pretty darn comfortable and they are affordable. Most people can't go out and buy a piece of property and build a small wooden house on it anymore. Too expensive. You can buy a $40,000 mobile home or a $240,000 mobile home but you need a place to put it. Look how big this county is, and all of a sudden we don't have room? I have four grandkids. In a decade, they're going to need a place to live. I don't want them living under a blue tarp somewhere.
It's got to be easier to build on smaller parcels for second units. There are lots of things we can do at the County level to get homes for people. The biggest cost is land cost. We need to find a way to place second and third units on existing parcels. The way we're headed everybody's going to be living under a blue tarp. One place where there's plenty of room for high density housing is just north of Willits where all that dirt was moved around for the Bypass, but there are places all around the County we could put people in small houses or trailers. We don't even have any place for tourists to stay in the North County, no campgrounds until up around Leggett.
AVA: Where else can we build housing?
PINCHES: There are lots of buildable lots in Brooktrails, but the way they're set up, the necessary infrastructure is unlikely to be developed. The people who own lots there like to have vacant lots next door. I think Brooktrails has plenty of water now. If we could get back to building a couple dozen houses a year in Brooktrails it would be good for the economy out there. Outfitting and equipping houses is good for local business.
AVA: Are mom and pop marijuana businesses finished?
PINCHES: The tanking of the pot industry is negatively affecting the whole County. I think it is all moving to the Central Valley, and all that money that used to circulate in this county is going, going gone. I was always for the small growers. For example, business in Covelo is off about 40 percent. It would help Covelo economically if the road over the hill — Highway 162 — was paved over to I-5, but that's not in the cards. We're surrounded by millions of people but our National Forest? No one knows about it. Covelo would be helped a lot if the National Forest became more of a destination.
AVA: The more money spent locally on mental health seems to result in more mentally ill people wandering around the streets, although hard drugs and alcohol are responsible for many of the walking wounded. Try as we might, we can't begin to gage the effectiveness of the annual millions spend by the County on mental health.
PINCHES: The mental health budget is $25 million. What it does do, though, is give the same level of service to all the communities of the County our people are going out there. I think we're doing a pretty good job on mental health. I worry, though, that with the passage of Measure B all the money and services will be centralized in the new facility wherever it's located. People forget that Ronald Reagan made sure that mental health services got a percentage of the sales tax and the recent tax on big incomes also is dedicated to mental health. There's a lot of money there. And how do you gage how effective they are? I think Reagan did a good thing closing the mental hospitals. Just because people are a little fetched doesn't mean they should be locked away forever. I'm pretty conservative financially, but I think money spent on helping people is always justified. I voted against knocking back general assistance help when I was supervisor and I'd do it again.
I'm worried that the new mental health facility will be over centralized and draw all the services into the cities. The most effective mental health service we can provide is the outreach program that goes and helps people in their homes. It's hard to know how to judge the success of that, but I think the outreach service is a good program.
AVA: What do you think of the County Budget overall? Is the money mostly being spent how it should?
PINCHES: When I was supervisor in 1995, the Budget was $102 million a year. We had two resident deputies in Covelo and a road maintenance facility in Laytonville. The budget now is $278 million and there is no resident deputy in Covelo and no road department in Laytonville. I think every district, all five districts, should each be getting $60 million in services, but I don't see that happening. I'm opposed to all the money being spent on consultants and outside studies. I think supervisors should know the County well enough not to have to job out basic information. Hell, look at the pot rules. I could write the rules on the back of a bar napkin, and now look what's happened. It's so complicated nobody can figure out what the hell. The small growers are being driven out and the whole business is going to big interests.
AVA: You've got what? Five opponents in the Third District race?
PINCHES: Funny thing, I don't know any of them except Pam [Elizondo]. She's lived in Laytonville for many years. I've never campaigned on criticism of my opponents. I try to stick to the issues. Whether people love me or hate me I've got pretty good name recognition. You've not only got to know your district, but you have to know the whole County as a supervisor. It's a full time job. People would call me every day needing help with one thing or another. I'd get home finally and there'd be another stack of calls. By the way, one thing I'm proud of getting done when I was supervisor was the trail in downtown Laytonville that runs west. People don't have to walk along the highway anymore. Road and bridge projects are great for the County. The feds pay over 90 percent of the cost of our new bridges and the work pays good. A lot of money circulates if we plan them, and you have to plan way in advance because all these projects are deep in CEQA and are about ten years out. Gotta get 'em plugged in early. I want to say that if I can't support my position on one thing or another, I'll change my position.
AVA: You see the timber industry coming back?
PINCHES: Just before I got here, I drove down to Philo to look at the mill site. There are a lot of logs going out of here still, and now there's no downside because we're past the wave of preserving it all. I think we should be doing more salvage logging, but I know of one problem right now is that there are no young log truck drivers. A lot of the drivers are guys in their seventies. I wish the schools would talk up jobs like this because the jobs are out there for young people, including women drivers.
AVA: Were you ready to run during the Big Fires?
PINCHES: Yes. You've been to my place so you know it takes a while to get in and out. I can walk into Trinity County from the ranch in about ten minutes. That night, my wife and I were out on the deck when the winds started to pick up, and I got worried. Still, though, I really don't see how PG&E can be blamed for 80-mile-an-hour winds. That fire jumped the freeway in Santa Rosa! How far across is that? If that's not defensible space, what the hell is? I see where Mendocino County has joined Lake and Sonoma in suing PG&E. I guess we see a pot of gold at the end of the suit, but it will just eat a lot of money with maybe no return. What a lot of people seem to forget is that PG&E has always been helpful in emergencies — their snow-cat, their helicopters. I thought it was a little unfair for the County to list them in the County Budget as the County's number one taxpayer. They've got about ten listings there for the top taxpayers. I don't think it's anybody's business how much people pay in taxes.
By the way, Mendocino County has now decided to participate in the lawsuit against PG&E. They're going to give 18% of whatever they win to the lawyers. But the timing is bad. We want PG&E to continue operating the Potter Valley Project and relicense it under favorable conditions for Mendocino County, yet we are suing them? I don't think it's a great idea to make an enemy of PG&E right now during the relicensing process.
Water and infrastructure are my primary issues, and I don't hear the other candidates talking about that much. I don't think they are trivial.
AVA: We remember and supported your idea to run the Willits Bypass down the old railroad tracks, but you were an early supporter of the CalTrans Bypass, which is now a fact.
PINCHES: I think it's a good thing the way it came out. People say to me, "I didn't know how big and how beautiful Little Lake Valley was until I got up on the Bypass. Was business hurt in Willits? Business is off a little, but Mendo Mill has expanded and I see Help Wanted signs all over town. No, they're not the best paying jobs, but young people have to start somewhere and the fact that business owners are looking for help is a good sign that the economy is doing ok. I see the rail people have finally said that the railroad might roll as far as Willits again some day, and that would be a great thing for our economy, but that's a ways off.
AVA: The recent raises the supervisors gave themselves? Three of the people who voted for it are out the door, retiring. It all looked real bad, and a couple of those supervisors are lazy as hell, just showing up for meetings and that's all.
PINCHES: State law says the supervisors have to vote their own raises. I think if they'd just given themselves two percent a year there wouldn't have been the shock there was when they got the raise in a big hunk like that that made a lot of people mad. I know when I was a supervisor I think I earned my pay. A lot of the stuff I got done wasn't in the board room, wasn't even on the agenda. I tried to represent everyone whether or not they supported me for election. I always tried to see the other side of things, tried to be available to everyone. I want to give it another go.
AVA: More examples of getting it done?
PINCHES: When I was supervisor I got some tobacco tax settlement money allocated to lights for the Laytonville rodeo grounds, but they turned them down. So the money was used for lights in Harwood Park. I also got the Covelo rodeo grounds lit up and they can now do rodeos at night when it's cooler. These are small things in the big picture but important to a lot of people in the County's small communities.
AVA: That crazy Highway 20 transfer station seems to be on hold.
I'm not so sure. I was the only one who pointed out that Empire Waste said they could do it at their existing facility on Pudding Creek, no problem. But everybody voted to move forward except me. I couldn't believe it. Very frustrating. I spent two or three years getting the County out of the freaking garbage business and rates are better and everything. We are saving millions of dollars a year by not subsidizing the transfer stations and the service is better. And then we want to get back into it, and for this small volume? Remember I fought Shoemaker on the North Fork transportation station? That was a boondoggle. In Fort Bragg we are talking about two loads of trash per day. Two loads a day! The way you get in good financial shape is to make good financial decisions. You don't make a series of bad financial decisions and then wake up and say you are in good shape. It doesn't work like that.
AVA: The County Retirement Fund?
PINCHES: The retirement system is doing very well now with the stock market the way it is, way up. I reminded Carmel Angelo [County CEO] the other day that we need to keep the County employment numbers at around 900 people. That's what we need to do to keep retirement payouts at a solvent level. With all the new hires they’ve brought it up to around 1200 people. That puts a big burden on the pension system. The economy in this County cannot afford more than 900 people on the County payroll. And we still don't have a resident deputy in Willits. The Laytonville Road yard is basically closed. Where is the money going? And of course Covelo hasn't had a resident deputy for years. And the County is hiring more and more consultants. I asked how much that cannabis consultant is costing and Angelo didn't know. Nobody seemed to know. Basically, the guy said that for him to go further he needed more money. He's a consultant! Of course that's what he would say! The first meeting they get the contract, the second meeting they come back and say they need more money. Pretty standard. People forget that when I was on the board we took out the retiree health-care provision from the pension fund. We put most of them on Medicare. We had to fund a gap for a few people that were not eligible for Medicare. But now that's gone. That saved the pension system almost 50% of the liability. Nobody even noticed it. That was a huge deal. But we are still paying $7 million a year on the pension obligation bonds and we don't want to go through anything like that again. Our population, our economy, it has not grown, so how come County staff is growing this much? When I was a supervisor the last time, we had a full crew road crew in Laytonville and two resident deputies in Covelo. Now that's gone. But the County budget has gone up. How is that possible?
AVA: You think the new County Courthouse has been killed?
PINCHES: Have you ever seen the government kill anything?
AVA: Getting back to the pot ordinance…
PINCHES: It’s 38 pages! Have you seen this? [Waves a copy of it.] All these rules and staff and there's no road yard in Laytonville and they say they can't hire County employees to staff it. But here's their last ad. Have you noticed that their help wanted ads do not advertise for road workers? There you go. [Pinches opens another article from a Sacramento Capitol Hill columnist]. Quote: "The California Department of food and agriculture is going to inspect annually every cannabis cultivator in the state." Can you believe that? From the state? Impossible. I don't understand why they'd even say something like that.
The pot business has contracted a lot in the last couple of years. It's hard to sell and the prices are down. You don't see those big truck loads of soil going out into the hills anymore. My brother’s septic tank pumping business is off. He goes all over the County. This will affect everyone. Nobody knows where the bottom will be. People are still going to use pot of course and they will make other stuff with it. But I don't think Mendocino County is going to be the hub that they say it will be. I don't think cannabis tourism is going to amount to much. We need to keep the County economically diversified.
AVA: You are the only candidate I've ever seen who carries around his own copy of the budget.
PINCHES: [Flips pages] Look at this chip seal chart. This  is what they were doing when I was on the board. And this  is what they are doing now. (About 10% of 2013.) And look at this. Look at the road and bridge replacement chart. This  is when I was on the board and that's  what they're doing now. [Also about 10% of 2013]. I would be ashamed to put this out in a public document. Why? Because there's nobody there to push it. Now there’s the SB-1 tax infrastructure money. It just went into effect. I guess the law required them to say what they are going to do with the money, the projects. But look when they are planning to do it. 2022! No projects for 2018. Nothing. That means they are going to collect $4.5 million a year for five years and just sit on it! Roads have always been my issue. This should not need pointing out, it's right there in the budget book. If that's not thumbing their nose at the taxpayers, I don't know what is. And people wonder why I'm running for supervisor? There you go. It's just not acceptable to me. I put 12 years of my life into trying to get this County moving straight and it's not there yet. My health is better now and I'm not ready to see things go downhill. I hope the other candidates are paying attention to this kind of thing. Roads are the foundation of economic activity.
AVA: Other needs?
PINCHES: We need resident deputies in Covelo. Sheriff Allman says he has nobody who wants to do it. I wouldn't hire a guy unless he said he would work in Covelo. There is a $5000 a year incentive for that job. But I do give credit to the tribal police in Covelo. They seem to be pretty doing pretty well. I'm looking forward to the public and other candidates to come forward with issues and solutions. That's the good thing about campaigning. We can get into these things. Bring the level of involvement up. I think people need to bring very specific ideas to their campaigns.
I shouldn't say this, but I think Carre Brown is the most ineffective supervisor we've had in a long time. She thinks going to meetings is her primary function. She's very nice. It will be interesting to see who comes out to replace her after she retires in two years. Maybe there will be some good candidates. Marvin Trotter's wife comes to mind. She called and asked me about things already. Devon Jones is a smart gal, and if she lives in the First District she could be a good candidate. She would be a lot better than Carre Brown is.
The Board of Supervisors never really questions Howard Deshield [Director of Transportation]. They really don't know what he's doing. They don't pay attention. So how can they question him? I had hoped that Dan Gjerde would pick up the transportation ball, but so far not much. Sometimes you have to be more vocal and really come out strong to get attention paid to things.
Most of these problems stem from poor management. Who do you blame? Do you blame the CEO? Do you blame the board? Ultimately it does come down to the Board of Supervisors. It's so popular nowadays in politics to sit on your butt and keep your mouth shut. It's only when you try to do something that you get the criticism. So it's easier to do nothing. But things need to be done.