The Blather Lamp Is Lit

by Mark Scaramella, April 6, 2011

Most of the news coming out of the County Admin Center is bad. How many more layoffs? How many more cops will have to go? How many more millions of scarce General Fund dollars will the County have to chip in to the pension fund next year, and the year after that? How big will the cuts be out of Sacramento? How will the County deal with the Sheriff’s carry-over deficit of more than $800k? How much more in pay cuts will the County’s lowest paid workers have to swallow? How many will quit? What surprises lay in store for the County next year now that reserves are gone?

Not that there's ever a deficit of self-congratulation over even the most minor improvements such as Planning Director Nash Gonzalez’s “pilot program” to improve the way the County handles permit applications.

In a normal County, the Board of Supervisors would look at such long-overdue obvious simplifications and say, “What took you so long?” Or, “I thought we were already doing that!” Or at least “So moved. All in favor? Motion approved unanimously.”

Instead, the Board took several hours on March 22 listening to Mr. Gonzalez, Health and Human Services Boss Stacy Cryer and the County Counsel’s office go over how the “pilot program” will be the best thing that’s happened to local small business since… well, never mind.

Also never mind that Chief Code Inspector Chris Warrick is busy in Boonville hassling small businesses over non-existent disability access complaints and annoying another property owner with the statement that he has too many businesses in one building. Also never mind that Boonville continues to suffer, and Warrick and Gonzales continue to tolerate, a clear and present fire hazard in the form of a rambling, abandoned eyesore abutting other commercial structures and a residential neighborhood owned by an arrogant Little River slum property propagator named Glenn Ricard. As Warrick and Gonzales pound on viable Boonville businesses and responsible property owners, this Ricard character gets a free pass that puts the health and safety of South Boonville at perpetual risk.

So the March 22 Supes meeting ran long because not only did the officials go on at great length about Gonzalez’s new “pilot program” even though the proposals are so obviously long overdue and self-evident that you have to wonder at the sanity of the people congratulating themselves for belatedly considering them, but several members of the public, roving bum nuzzlers apparently, also took turns blathering on about how great the pilot program was.

Whenever the Blather Light is on Supervisor Kendall Smith comes to full alert. Blather is like a drug to her, and since she's Board chair, much of the afternoon was taken up with mutual back rubs about the pilot program.

Therefore, it was almost 7pm by the time County CEO Carmel Angelo finally got around to telling an almost empty boardroom that — oops! — it looks the General Fund will somehow have to come up with another $350k that she'd wrongly assumed would be there.

And again we watched CEO Angelo's bad manners toward her elected bosses. Doesn't this woman realize she's on television, that maybe someone besides the Boonville newspaper is watching these sessions via Ukiah Community Access TV? A few weeks ago Angelo got away with dramatic grimaces and prolonged eyeball rolls at Supervisor McCowen when he asked a perfectly legitimate question about how much the office remodel was costing.

This time it was Supervisor John Pinches who got the “why do I have to explain this stuff to the children” mime show from the CEO.

About halfway through Angelo’s CEO report (which she never includes in the Board packet so you never know in advance what she might bring up should you care to comment on it), Ms. Angelo told the Board that the County “may have an unanticipated expenditure” of $346k for New World Systems, the software company that designed the County’s new gold-plated be-all-end-all database system for law enforcement that was initially paid for out of grant funds and asset forfeitures. “Additionally,” said Ms. Angelo, “we thought some cities would pay into this. But as of yesterday, the word from the Sheriff’s Office is that we don’t have the $346k. GSA is working on this. I hope to report good news on this in the next couple of months.”

No sooner had Supervisor Pinches said, “Madam Chair, I have a question,” than Angelo began rolling her eyes as if to say, “Why do I have to put up with these beasts, these man-things, these impertinences?” As Pinches asked his perfectly legitimate question Angelo shook her head and threw up her hands in silent exasperation.

Pinches: “This board approved this on the condition that Asset Forfeiture would pay for this. If you remember, I asked the Sheriff a question back when—, well if it doesn’t… And they said the money was there, and also the long-term commitment would be shared with the cities. I made that point to be put on the record.”

As if talking to a very slow child, CEO Angelo returned from her rude mime show to the land of the verbal. “There are agreements that we’re working on with the cities and we don’t have those agreements finalized yet. Hopefully they will be finalized and there will be money attached. There was, as you will recall, approximately $150k of asset forfeiture that the DA’s office committed to this. I believe that that money was committed twice. I believe the Sheriff’s Office committed that money for salary savings as well. I want this board to be very aware that there may be an additional $346k of General Fund cost that we were not anticipating. We will know more over the next couple months.”

But Pinches persisted. “Slow up here a moment. Is this system — has it already been purchased?”

Angelo (very reluctantly): “Yes.”

Pinches: “So it was purchased with non-existent General Fund dollars?”

Angelo, very slowly, deliberately, and I thought of my third grade days in Willows when Miss Brown would lead Sonny Virzi word-by-word through the thickets of Dick and Jane — “See Spot. See Spot run.” And Sonny Virzi, pointing a grubby finger at Spot, and totally stumped at decoding the story, would say something like, “That there's one a them fireman dogs, ain't it Miss Brown?”

“There were grant dollars that were used,” Ms. Angelo replied in her best Dick and Jane manner. “We had, the Sheriff had, the Sheriff’s Department had applied for a grant, this was good news for us, the grant paid for the system. And the $500k maintenance. But it did not pay for the five years maintenance; that’s what this payment is, I believe. That’s what this payment is. The five year maintenance.”

Pinches: “So we’ve bought the system, and we’ve paid for it with the grant, but the five year maintenance hasn’t been paid for yet?”

Angelo: “The reason that we’re looking at a $346k shortfall is that this is part of the maintenance payment.”

Pinches: “Well, surely I for one wouldn’t have supported this if I’d known we’d have to pay for it with non-existent general fund dollars. And now it’s coming back to that’s the way it’s going to be?”

Angelo: “I am not bringing this back to this board to say to you that we absolutely have a $346k, uh, unanticipated General Fund cost. I want this board to know we are currently working on this, you may hear about this, I want you to hear about it from myself or the GSA Director or the Sheriff. This is new information. I hope to be able to report back that the cities are coming in with their contributions and that there is asset forfeiture. As of today, there is not asset forfeiture to cover this.”

McCowen: “Specifically in the Sheriff’s Office? Or at all?”

Pinches: “Because the Sheriff stated that the cities were committed for their part of the maintenance.”

Angelo: “And I’m not certain in the DA’s office. As I said, this is new information and the GSA Director is working with the Sheriff’s Office to determine if this money is there, if it will be there for July 1, or if this will be a general fund contribution that we will have to budget for July 1.”

Chair Smith tried to cut Pinches off: “So you’ve finished your questions, Supervisor Pinches. May I move on?”

Pinches grumbled, “Well…”

Angelo: “I realize this is, you know, this is a controversial item here, and, and again I wanted to be certain that the Board was aware of this.”

Smith again tried to smooth over the problem: “You’re just alerting us that this is an issue.”

Angelo: “Yes, and, um, I will follow up with you on April 5th on this item.”

McCowen: “Another possibility is the DA has been a great team player so far and I understand the DA’s office does have asset forfeiture funds, I believe, in excess of what they’ve previously committed, potentially that’s another option. Have you looked at that?”

Angelo had not, but we’re not as optimistic as McCowen. “That would be wonderful to hear, yes,” gushed the CEO. “[GSA Director] Kristin McMenomey is working with the Sheriff’s office and she will contact the DA’s office.”

Why does the system require “five years of maintenance” by the vendor? Or is the “maintenance” the clerical time that the grotesquely overlarge system will require to keep all the data up to date and accurate?

Either way, for all the effort, not to mention tax money, that went into developing this thing just for Mendo it's clear that Mendo, as usual, got had.

We’ve seen the specs on the new database system; the fine-print list of data fields to be maintained on Mendo’s relatively small cadre of criminals and their crimes alone is more than half-an-inch thick! Here in Boonville, Deputy Squires knows what our mopes are doing without even leaving his house. We're not talking master criminals here, or Wall Street bankers. We're talking dope heads and grown up people with the minds of children.

The other item that Supervisor Pinches rightly questioned earlier in the day on March 22 was what at first looked like a routine grant application.

From the Agenda packet: “The Community Development Commission of Mendocino County (the “CDC”) administers the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program for the County of Mendocino. It is recommended that the Board authorize the submittal of an application to fund a “Microenterprise Technical Assistance Program,” as follows: Microenterprise Assistance $393,125 Activity Delivery — Microenterprise Assistance $69,375 General Administration $37,500 Total $500,000 … If awarded, this application will provide funding to continue the County’s Microenterprise Technical Assistance Program, a service currently provided to the community through contract with West Company. This Program provides services free of charge to Very-Low, Low, and Moderate Income persons in the unincorporated areas of the county, as well as in the cities of Willits, Point Arena, and Ukiah. … In their application, West Company proposes to utilize new funding to assist with the start-up or expansion of 12 businesses and create and/or retain 14 county jobs.”

To be clear: Of the $500,000 the grant would provide (and has provided for more than 25 years now), all but about $70k of it goes to “assistance” and “admin” — aka the warm wonderful “helpers” at the local “WEST” company.

Pinches: “$500k is a lot of money to create or retain nine jobs. Is it, and that’s the history of it. I mean, it says, ‘and/or.’ I mean, are we retaining jobs or creating nine jobs? There’s a big difference in creating nine jobs versus retaining nine jobs, I mean…”

County economic development staffer Steve Dunicliff to the rescue: “For the specifics of the proposal, Supervisor, if I may, uh, it, uh, we do have Craig Slaughter and Pamela Patterson who are operating the program on the County’s behalf and I believe they’ll be able to give you a little bit more specifics on that.”

The gauzy Ms. Patterson then launched into a typically Mendo “explanation.”

“The CDBG program is intended to assist targeted income group individuals with identifying whether or not creating the job for themselves is the thing they need to do. So we see approximately 200 people come through our doors that are just asking us whether or not starting a business makes sense for them. We provide workshops in which they go through and make that determination for themselves or maybe after they’ve sat down for over an hour they realize that’s not what they can do. As a result of, um, many activities we do end up with approximately 15 to, uh, 20 businesses started throughout a 12 month period and 12 to 26 jobs created. It just depends on who comes through the door and whether or not it’s feasible for them to create a business for themselves. And, um, what’s valuable about this, um, funding as well is that we can use this funding to match — I know it doesn’t make any sense because it’s federal dollars — but we can use this money to match our federal programs, the Mendocino Small Business Development Center and Women’s Business Center. The MSBDC is intended to serve existing business and that’s where we see some retention. Because we’re able to get some funds to match this rather small program, the core funding is around $45k, we are able to, um, match that more. We’re able to reach out to existing businesses, contract with more, um, um, um, expertise, to provide the services, um, women, women advising businesses, specific businesses that are either retaining jobs or creating jobs or just trying to rescue their business. [Big Sigh.] Um, so the numbers don’t always speak to all the activity that goes on within West Company. Does that at all answer your question?”

Pinches: “I hope so because if you give nine people $55,000 apiece they wouldn’t need a job.”

Patterson didn’t see any humor: “That’s very true. But that’s only for one year that they would receive that and we’re hopefully teaching them how to fish as opposed to, um, just giving them money.”

Pinches: “You don’t have any retention statistics or do you have a track record for the last five years on how you’ve been doing with this?”

Patterson: “I do. I have that with me. So if we look at last year, I need to make sure I’m on the right page here, if we look at last year, our fiscal year, from July 2010 to June 2011 [the “last year” isn’t even up yet], 15 new business were created, 26 jobs were created and we retained 14.5 jobs. We helped increase sales for a variety of businesses by $282k. We’ve helped a change in profits by $44k. And we assisted people in getting eleven loans equal to about $938k.”

(Notice the weasel words “helped” and “assisted” and “were created.” I “helped” dozens of local businesses myself “last year” by patronizing them, but I didn’t turn around and apply for a $500k grant to get me through the door.)

Pinches: “That’s for 25 businesses. For that year.”

Patterson: “That was a startup of 15 businesses, um, we don’t track how many businesses we assisted to retain the 14.5 jobs.

Pinches: “So they’re pretty much single operator businesses, mostly, right?

Patterson: “Mostly. If you take a look at the trends that you’re seeing, in 2005 we saw that in Mendocino County we had approximately 7,000 micro businesses, those are businesses that consist of five or fewer employees, counting the owner. Now today, in 2008, the closest we have the numbers for, we have approximately 8,300 microbusinesses in the community. An increase of nearly 6%, I believe. [Actually, that’s about a 19% increase.] I can get you the exact numbers, I’m kind of going off the top of my head so don’t hold me too much to that. (Laughs) Um, so, and this is a trend, and if you start to read economists out there we’re seeing that the individual is going to be more responsible for their fiscal and economic well being and their, um, healthcare and all those things, that’s kind of where we’re going to and I keep talking about how we’re going back to the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, kind of economy, um, and that’s where we’re more important that we start working with businesses and those who want to have their own businesses to make sure that they’re able to do this. One of the things we find out when we start to delve into a business is they hate financial management, they don’t do that, so we’ve extended our services to assist with financial management of businesses. Sometimes, um, we find that people are running a business and we wonder if they really know that maybe they're paying for their business rather than the business paying them. Those are the kinds of things we’re here to do and kinda give that realty check and really um, um, it’s really, uh, important and um the Board has supported this for the last… since 1993. And I’ve always seen an increase in the number of people seeking this out as a means to have a job. So we’re seeing job seekers turn into job creators.”

Pinches: “The statistics don’t show that we’re doing a very good job for the amount of money we’re spending. I realize it’s federal dollars but those are important dollars,  too.”

Patterson, realizing that Pinches was the only Board member who was skeptical about her “services,” gave up.

Pinches added, “I encourage, I want to see if we can get a little better job performance. These are pretty dismal numbers for what we’re spending. Complacent may be the right word to use.”

But don’t forget all the “helpers” the government keeps employed.

In the old days such “services” were provided by the business community itself, not government hand-holders. Banks advised people about the weaknesses in their business plans, not warm-fuzzy grant-funded helping professionals. The SBA rounded up retired businesspeople to advise people, many of whom were accountants or understood it. The Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Clubs, and trade associations helped start-up businesses. Back in Fresno, after he retired from a long career in business management, my father worked as a personnel advisor for small businesses who were members of the Fresno Employers Council. (In Mendo the “employers council” is nothing but an ineffectual right-wing lobbying group.)

Supervisor Dan Hamburg was sympathetic to the WEST Company. “I have some feeling for this application,” said Hamburg. “I was Executive Director of North Coast Opportunities back in 1986, when they created the Women’s Economic Self Sufficiency Training or ‘WEST’ Program. We’d all like to see more, more successful businesses. It’s been around now for 26 years so they’re probably doing something right. We see that ‘WEST’ plaque as the initial funder at several businesses I go to. That’s where they got their start. The people WEST deals with are not people who come to them with particularly high levels of skill, or they may have a well-honed skill but not a significant understanding of how to run a business plan, or a balance sheet. They are at the very beginning level to support themselves and their family. Even though the metrics are low, this is not a program that cherry picks or skims off the top. They deal with highly motivated people. This is also related to the failure of public education, but that’s a whole nother subject. People come to them needing a lot of help to launch a business. If you take a look at the metrics, it’s not as impressive as we’d like, but that’s against a long history of success of the organization, and the challenges of the community they deal with.”

The Board, including Pinches, unanimously approved the $500,000 grant application.

Of course, most of us would prefer to see the $500k go to reducing the Sheriff’s budget deficit so that deputies aren’t laid off. But that’s not the way government funding works any more. Maybe Supervisor Pinches could persuade Ms. Patterson to hire a few deputies and have them “help local small business” by taking a bite out of crime.

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