The Inevitable Knocks

by Mark Scaramella, January 21, 2009

Two more senior department heads left County employ this month. Long-time Agricultural Commissioner Dave Bengston retired two weeks ago, and Human Resources Director Linda Clouser has resigned to take a position with the State Court Administrator's office in San Francisco. Assistant (and Interim) Ag Commissioner Tony Linegar has the inside track to replace Bengston. In an odd, somewhat surprising move, Clouser's replacement, at least for the time being, will be Undersheriff Gary Hudson.

County CEO Tom Mitchell said that he made the "unusual" selection of Hudson for the Human Resources job because Hudson has handled personnel matters for the Sheriff's office. The County's healthcare, union contract negotiations and the internal turmoil that will result from the dozens of impending layoffs and office closures would be difficult for anyone let alone a guy whose only experience is deep in the bowels of an opaque police department.

Speculation on who might become the new Undersheriff includes the Sheriff's department's personnel/internal affairs officer, Sergeant Randy Johnson if the Hudson appointment turns out to be long-term.

Bengston, one of the County's most experienced and competent department heads, kept his remarks brief last week when he got his going-away plaque, saying simply, "I survived." The rest of Bengston's sentence might have been: "I survived 30 years of incompetent boards of supervisors in an extremely wacky county." The gentlemanly Bengston's straightforward handling of several major controversies during his long tenure were all managed with impressive aplomb: The genetically modified organisms ban controversy; the ongoing argument over enforcement of pesticide regulations; and the occasional (unsuccessful) pressure by the pot brigades to include a wholly speculative guess about total marijuana output in the annual Ag report.

A formal recommendation on how to handle a general fund budget gap which has gone from zero in August to $1 million last month, to $2 million this month can't be accurately prepared until it's calculated, meaning the County can't know how much money it really has until the County comes up with realistic budget figures as it begins to lay people off in the context of an unknown amount of money. The state economy and budget is in freefall and Mendocino County is flying blind.

Even though the Supes' agenda listed a state plan to adopt new wastewater treatment regulations in June 2009 with an implementation date of either January or July 2010, County staff, the Board, and a number of local citizens took a large chunk of time to feverishly denounce the state bureaucrats who have scheduled hearings for their overly restrictive rules early next month.

Everyone agreed that the new rules were a bad idea, an overkill solution to a minor problem, at least as wastewater disposal (aka septic tanks in most cases around here) works on the sparsely populated Northcoast. The sense that some kind of objection had to be filed right away, however — an angry letter and perhaps a threat of a lawsuit against the state — was diminished when it was pointed out that there are still a number of bureaucratic hurdles the state has to jump through before final implementation sometime in 2010.

The new rules would require much larger leachfields for septic systems, and would require expensive, high-tech groundwater monitoring equipment, along with periodic inspections which many think will make housing development much more costly and impractical in an already difficult housing market. The County would be hard pressed to handle the inspections and enforcement the new rules would bring on.

Ukiah developer Lee Howard said the rules would outlaw existing compost privies and gray water systems and would make some residential parcels completely unbuildable.

Several other locals chimed in with heated denunciations of the state water bureaucrats and their proposals. Ukiah Councilman Doug Crane called the proposal "an horrific piece of crap."

The biggest item on Tuesday, however, was Health and Human Services Director Carmel Angelo's "state of the agency" report showing that major staff and operating hour cuts will be required between now and June — and beyond — to close what is now estimated to be at least a $2 million shortfall in her budget, which occurs on top of the $2 million-plus General Fund gap. Ms. Angelo said that 52% of the shortfall will hit the Social Services staff, which will force layoffs and office closures. And if the cuts aren't made soon, there will have to be more of them to achieve the same savings that can be made now. "We knew something was coming," said Ms. Angelo. "But we didn't have a hard figure from the state. We knew it would be at least $1 million so we have already reduced some expenditures."

Overtime has been restricted, extra help (mainly in Mental Health) and travel have been cut drastically, voluntary time off has been encouraged, purchasing has been limited and building upgrades have been put on hold. But that isn't near enough savings. Angelo said that her agency had "increased revenue" since Mental Health, Public Health and Social Services were consolidated, but even with the previous cuts and new revenues there was still a $2 million budget gap. (The consolidated HHS budget is just over $100 million.)

To deal with this week's larger estimate of the shortfall (who knows what it will be next week?), Angelo says the main options they are pursuing with the union include 20 layoffs in Social Services starting in February, a shortened work week (four nine-hour days with mandatory unpaid time off on Friday) and more travel restrictions.

About which a helping professional comments, "Remember when Dennis Denny, back in the mid-1980's, briefly closed Social Services on Fridays? The Gray Panthers documented the terrors needy people suffered because they had to have help but couldn't get it. Employees are one thing, but what about our clients?"

When asked by Supervisor John McCowen about the apparently high ratio of supervisors to employees in HHS, Angelo said there were just over six people per supervisor while state standards call for seven to ten staffers per supervisor. Ms. Angelo said she "wanted" a 1 to 10 ratio, but didn't commit to any supervisory reductions.

County union rep Linda McClure, who is "retiring" in March (no one has yet been named as a replacement), thanked Ms. Angelo and her staff for the informative presentation and said that the union was still in meet and confer with County management. McClure sees the dire fiscal situation as "temporary," as in "after a few years; these times will pass."

About the time the blue bird of happiness will again sound its cheery song in forlorn Mendoland.

McClure said the Union would like to see the County defer paying back some of the Teeter debt, and agreed that four nine-hour days with Friday office closures would be better than five workdays with Friday afternoon closings. McClure also complained that several department heads she spoke to didn't know what the budget situation was and had to hear it from the union, which kinda makes one wonder how much they know about anything.

When Board chair John Pinches said that the problem was that the state budget gap was growing faster than anyone can plan for, McClure retreated into Mendolib-ese, commenting vaguely that the problem was with "the county culture" and that "the Board is doing the very best job they can," even though the Board's and major departments' failure to prepare for these entirely predictable fiscal constraints is one of the main reasons the cuts have to be as severe as they are.

Ms. Angelo's presentation was "information only"; formal recommendations on what to do about the bleak situation won't be made until the January 27th board meeting, and nothing will be implemented until sometime in February at the earliest, by which time the fiscal outlook will be that much bleaker, Obama-mania notwithstanding.

Each month that goes by means about $100k more in cuts will have to be made between now and June 30th. The $2 million gap in the County budget grows larger with each passing day.

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