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Skyrocketing Fees & Mendo Mismanagement

At last Tuesday's mid-year budget presentation the Supes reviewed five contending "budget priorities," one of which was: "Board of Supervisors directive to prepare a report on how Planning and Building service fees are developed. (Discuss with Board of Supervisors during 2019 budget presentation.) 

As soon as he saw it, Supervisor Ted Williams immediately jumped in: 

"I love this item because I've heard a lot about these recently. Especially where Flynn Creek Circus was charged four times what the fee was a few years back. I think part of the problem is when you don't increase fees for a decade and finally make the adjustment it’s sticker shock. So I kind of shrugged it off as that being the case. Later I came to understand that they [Flynn Creek Circus] take out these permits all throughout the state and ours is the highest of any county. And that kind of struck me as maybe that one is out of line. I know we have a fee hearing coming up, but I think being more transparent with the public even if there is some expense in developing a document that explains why they [the fees] are what they are and what work is behind the scenes that comprises that fee. This has also come up in discussions with West Company. A lot of their clients find that it's a long process. I walked through a store recently which took almost 11 months to get a permit for a retail operation. It was about the wrong number of feet for this location, or about you need a use permit or you don't need a use permit. But there was also an element of the aggregate of all the fees kind of putting the small business under before they even open shop. If you can kind of distill this into an action item I think we should have a guide that talks about why the fees are what they are and how to best work with the system and make it efficient and maybe work with the applicants to be more efficient with staff time so we can lower the fees long-term." 

Supervisor Dan Gjerde suggested lower fees for smaller houses to make them more affordable, adding, "I think building fees in Mendocino County — to build a house, just the permit fees are not really excessive. But the Flynn Creek example is sort of startling to see a one-time event, even if it's a recurring event, a special event, I don't understand the logic in having a fee one third of which is the media or records retention. It's not like it's a house that you’re going to buy and you want to look at the records for what did the inspectors say about this house I'm buying. It's an event that takes place and then disappears. So I think we ought to think about how to present to the Board the fees that we see because when we did approve the building permit increase fee increases I don't think we saw how it was actually rolled out for a small event like that. I think we saw elements of the fees but I don't think we had it brought together as a real-world example about how the fee increases impact the public. I think we ought to have a more thoughtful discussion by the board and by staff on how these fees all coalesce and hit the public because when we are doing multiple fee increases all at once the net is greater than what was presented to the board." 

What’s going on here is mass unaccountability. Whether it’s the self-awarded pay raises for top officials or the permit fees. If you turn everything over to staff and ask them how much they think they should be paid in salary or how much they can pad a permit process to make it look like it’s a lot of work — without even any risk of pointed questions being asked about it, you get this kind of out of control ballooning cost of everything Mendo. If Mr. Williams or Mr. Gjerde applied for a permit themselves they’d discover that not only do the departments exaggerate how much time something takes, but they add steps that are not necessary, take longer creating delays, and jack up the cost. Then they apply their ridiculously high salary and benefit rates to those already jacked-up hours and add in overhead and management costs and — presto! — $6,000 for a home permit, $1,000 for a septic permit, $2,000 for “records retention,” $300 for “management review,” etc., etc. Then the Auditor comes along and says, Oh yes, those hours and those rates and that overhead is the “actual cost.” 

It's all a kind of low intensity war on the people County government is supposed to be serving. No wonder small businesses and ordinary homeowners are having trouble getting going. (And the same thing’s happening to pot permits, btw.) 

At a minimum, the Board should require Planning and Building (or one of the CEO’s several seriously underworked and overpaid “Deputy CEOs”) to compare Mendo’s permit costs to HumCo and Lake County and maybe one or two other small counties. But they won’t do that because that would require work and — gasp! — criticism of staff! It's much easier to just politely talk about it now and then with no follow-up, nothing done and letting it get worse. 

Three years ago we bought a large empty lot in downtown Boonville. The simple process of hauling in a couple of modulars was ridiculously complicated and expensive, with contradictory advice a constant. We even felt it necessary to hire an "expediter" with experience "dealing with these people." The process was expedited but remained nightmarish. After paying for a (county-required) septic system engineer (producing his own separate $1,000 “report”), we also had to pay an Environmental Health permit fee which resulted in nothing more than a young woman staffer driving over in a nice new truck, looking at a couple of lids in the ground (not opening them, of course) for a few minutes in a process that the County called “final inspection.”

Another plunge through the looking glass Tuesday as the Supervisors and staff considered the “mid-year budget review.” 

Very few questions were asked by the Supes who, perhaps, were struck dumb by the unreality of the proceeding. “We don’t have that information right now but will get it to you later," was the meeting's mantra when the Supes occasionally interrupted the usual departmental self-promotion and repetitive boilerplate with few or no actual numbers. 

We summarized the major deficit areas that should require explanation last week, but the Supes listened mostly in silence as staffers droned on and slo-walked through each department’s Powerpoint charts. We wonder if these charts actually mean anything to the people pointing at them, but to watch these sessions is to wonder about a lot of things, beginning with the existential question: Am I dead and assigned to a particularly excruciating hell or is what I'm watching some kind of cosmic metaphor for the Final Act? 

The single biggest reality gap occurred in the budget’s revenue presentation by Auditor Lloyd Weer’s and his preposterous sales tax projection: There are about $1.8 million in receipts for half the year, and yet Weer projects about $6.5 million in total receipts by the end of the year. Not one word about this glaring multi-million dollar gap. Since the Supes seemed unable to rouse themselves to ask about that, you could tell early on that all the other dubious numbers and obviously flawed assumptions were going to go unchallenged as well. 

There are something like ten departments that were overrunning their budgets at “mid-year” (three months ago now), but the only discussion of the overruns was how great everybody was doing at keeping it from being worse! 

County employees better prepare for crumbs when their salary review — which also wasn’t discussed — comes up. 

After CEO Angelo’s staff explained how they calculated a $2.5 million deficit in the County’s cannabis permit program during its first three years, Supervisor Ted Williams asked, "When do we project break even?" 

After an awkward moment, Board Chair Carre Brown broke the silence with a nervous giggle and. CEO Angelo finally said, “I'll take a try at that question. ... That was like, you could hear a pin drop." 

After more laughter at the preposterousness of the idea that the pot program would ever break even, CEO Angelo continued, "I don't think honestly as staff that we are looking at when we will break even. What we know is this figure does not include — and this was actually pointed out by Supervisor McCowen — I don't think this includes any additional tax that we will bring in. Our Treasurer is thinking that we still have $3 million out there. There is no provision for the minimum tax in this calculation. So if by chance we actually get $2.5 million then we would break even. But at this point I don't know — while Ms. Schapmire (Treasurer-Tax Collector) is projecting $3 million that we could bring in, we just have to wait and see." 

The “minimum tax” Ms. Angelo is referring to is the tax pot growers are supposed to pay even if they don’t grow any pot, much less don’t sell any. The growers, obviously, don’t like the tax and have complained frequently at recent board meetings that it’s unfair and doesn’t apply to any other kind of agriculture — to no avail. Nobody knows how much of that minimum tax will actually materialize. We have no idea how Ms. Schapmire calculated that it might be worth $3 million, but we do know that a large majority of Mendo pot growers who applied for permits still don’t have one.

If anything, the $2.5 million is actually understated, because we don’t see where they included the half-dozen or so brand new pot inspection vehicles in their estimate. Staff said about 76,000 person hours at a whopping $151k/hour (!) had gone into the program over three years, which works out to about 12 County people doing their thing on pot permits and inspections, etc. Which sounds about right. And pot staffers are likely secure in their comfy jobs although applications peaked more than a year ago. 

Haschak, John Haschak, white courtesy telephone, please. As we often say here at Mendocino County's sole remaining newspaper of, ahem, any consequence, History begins all over again every day, and you are whatever you say you are. Now Mr. Haschak we happen NOT to be amnesiacs, and we remember you promising during your otherwise issue-free campaign that you would simplify the pot program. So, like, dude, when the subject arose with its $2.5 million shortfall, where were you?

To summarize, class, the pot program is a bad joke, an expensive, failed bad joke. The saps who've signed up regret it, and the outlaws who comprise the bulk of the business remain as far outside regulation as always. To make the big dough some of them make they take the annual risk of getting it to the big urban markets in states where devil weed is still illegal. Here in Boonville, stoners tell us (we're juicers here at America's last newspaper) you can buy a pound of good dope for four or five hundred bucks.


  1. izzy April 4, 2019

    Anther chapter in The Never-Ending Story.

    How to keep the game and high prices going for a formerly illegal market (and still Federally so), in order for the county to swoop in and take a huge cut for their ‘regulation’ efforts. Until all the laws point in the same simple, sane direction, true value will never be determined. At that point, should it ever arrive, prices may well plummet much further. We need another, sturdier Golden Calf.

    Meanwhile, what a mess.

  2. Michael Koepf April 6, 2019

    Without Scaramella we’d all be in the dark when it comes to our county, government crooks.

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