What Time Does The Ship Sink?

by Mark Scaramella, January 14, 2009

Last week's swearing in ceremony for the 2009 Board of Supervisors was a childish affair in two ways, literally and figuratively. There were children in the room and there were the child-like proceedings.

Children led the pledge of allegiance — great to see the kids reciting a loyalty oath in this democracy of ours — and then there was the child-like meeting.

Anne Molgaard of the First 5 Commission, which doles out Proposition 10 tobacco tax money to an array of insider local libs who, in theory, are doing good things for children.

Ms. Molgaard's been around the County's public bureaucracies in one capacity or other for many years. She began her spiel by saying the Board of Supervisors were like parents in that they're the authority figures for the County, a county whose residents, it seems, are to be regarded as children before she suddenly veered off into a description of the Supes as occasional bad children in need of time-outs.

Molgaard also noted that there are now "40% women on the board!" There have been 40% women on the board before to no particular advantage to any of Mendocino County's five or six genders, but the presenter was soon into long distance shots at the War in Iraq and President Bush before she said, "We have confidence in you," although "we" seems over-inclusionary given that there's every reason to believe that this board will be just as ineffective as the last one.

Ms. Molgaard leavened her disjointed series of remarks with a humorously intended, "Nobody's packin' over there, are you?" a reference to former supervisor Wattenburger who carried a gun to board meetings. (There are at least two supervisors crazier than Wattenburger.) She finally wrapped up her wacky presentation with a smarmy plea to "protect the children during the budget problems."

The usually sensible Supervisor (and newly elected Board Chair) John Pinches immediately climbed on board the kiddie train. "This board won't forget the kids," assured Pinches. "Kids are the future. We're here for them."

Mendocino County has one of the highest child poverty rates in the state. If it weren't for a few measly, grudging state and federal assistance programs, and local volunteer food programs, more local children would be hungry. The supervisors have never initiated a single local program benefiting children.

Supervisor Colfax, a member of Molgaard's First 5 Commission board, also clambered aboard the child choo-choo. "If we have accomplished anything at all it has been to address the needs of children in Mendocino County. Now we are the parents. We have to act as adults up here, not as a bunch of arguing fraternity boys and girls at a party on any given Tuesday."

One might wonder why an elected official would have to publicly remind himself of his function, but this remark is typical of the non-sequiturs that don't do much to inspire confidence in the quality of the County's leadership. And Colfax's utterly false assertion that the supervisors have addressed "the needs of children," following his reminder that he was a supervisor and not at frat boy, was not, could not, be supported by specific citations.

"We are only the Board of Supervisors," cautioned Colfax, "not the five apostles to save Mendocino County from something terrible that awaits us. We're only Supervisors. Humility is necessary when you expect us to do things that need to be done."

Oh shut up.

Newly elected Supervisor John McCowen told the crowd that he was inspired to public service by his parents and his grandparents. "My father was a local elected official," said McCowen. My great-grandfather was county clerk. My grandfather was District Attorney and later a judge."

But it wasn't long before most of the audience, consisting mostly of officials and hangers-on, having paid highly visible tribute to the five apostles, departed, leaving the Board to the public's business, which began, as usual, with an overly long, repetitious discussion, this one of the "rotation" of the Board chair, a discussion initiated by newly elected Supervisor Carre Brown. After batting around how the Board chair might be selected for more than half an hour, the board concluded that there really wasn't anything wrong with the process as it was.

During public comment, several persons from the Mendocino Art Center, reinforced by former Supervisor Norman DeVall, asked the board to "rescind" last month's decision allocating four student-instructor rooms at the Art Center to the MacCallum House, pointing out that the Art Center was crucial to Mendocino and that by diminishing it the town was also diminished. The Art Center people complained that they had not been consulted about the loss of rooms, and that the four room allocations had been "usurped" by the former Board. County Counsel Jeanine Nadel advised the Board that the County had already received "formal notice of a threat of litigation" if the Art Center is not restored to its full 19 room allocations.

Supervisor Colfax called the previous board's Art Center decision an "atrocity" and asked about the process for rescinding their decision. (No answer at this time — it may have to be settled in court.)

The Board then took more than an hour discussing their meeting schedule for the coming year with Colfax remarking that he thought the entire discussion was "a schedule for what time does the ship sink? What time do you get everybody to the lowest deck and steerage and so forth and work your way up to first class."

Where everyone will be, presumably, when the Good Ship Mendo goes glub-glub.

Colfax's pessimistic metaphor was followed by another long, rambling discussion of who should be on what board committee and which ad-hoc committees should be continued or changed to standing committees or dropped altogether.

In all the talk about ad hoc committees, standing committees, boards and commissions, and perhaps a new finance committee, the County employee union's suggestion last month for a management/worker committee to develop cost savings proposals — the only committee with any real value at this precarious budgetary moment — never arose.

On it went into another aimless conversation of proposed changes to the Board rules.

"If it ain't broke, why fix it?" asked Pinches. "The rules are working well. Maybe we should change the 5:30 rule (if any one supervisor declares a meeting over at 5:30pm the meeting cannot continue) but I don't think it's being abused. I'm disappointed to see all these proposed changes. There was no direction to propose any changes. There's been lots of work, but you were not directed to do that. It should stop right here. I'm not in favor of changing any rules. These rules are tried and true."

County Counsel Nadel tried to explain that discussion of the rules was routine: "We look at them every year. It's a formality, the wording, the language, the 5:30 rule, who's in charge when the chair is absent, significant things like that. It's been reorganized to be clearer to read. The CEO has added a few more things. You can approve it or not."

Pinches repeated himself, "We should walk softly on changing rules which have worked well for years. I don't support any rule changes."

McCowen wanted a "clean version with all the proposed changes. We can adopt any or all or not. It's a clean up and clarification. These rules were adopted in 1975. People have been cobbling it together. In some areas it takes many words to say what could be said in a few."

Colfax quipped, "I think we should discuss the dress code for the next few weeks. At the moment we are tending more toward a wake. Maybe we should be more cheerful, less dark and somber."

Having drifted through the morning session and into the afternoon session, the Supervisors finally made it to a couple of serious matters, albeit without any decision on them.

McCowen pulled Item 5 from the consent Calendar — the $13.5 million three-year Medco contract with the County to provide prescription drugs for employees and retirees. Outgoing Human Resources Director Linda Clouser told the board that it costs the County $4.5 million per year to provide prescription medications to employees and retirees. Apparently, delays at Medco caused the previous contract to lapse two years ago and this new deal would cover from January 2007 to December 2009.

Medco is the country's largest private prescription drug mail order service; it provides group discounts for the County's self-insured health package. In the past, the retiree portion of the Medco contract was covered by "excess earnings" from the County's pension fund. But "excess earnings" are a thing of the past, and the County may be on the hook to cover an additional $1.5 million in prescription drugs for retirees this year. Clouser said she'd get back to the Board with more info for the next board meeting.

According to a recent state Supreme Court ruling, counties are not required to pay hospitals for "pre-booking" medical treatment. Until recently, Mendocino has paid $100k per year or more — an estimated $160k this year — to cover emergency room treatment of people who are arrested if the cops request medical clearance before incarceration. Three local hospitals, Ukiah Valley Medical, Willits Memorial and Coast Hospital have been getting an average of 35% of their regular emergency room rate for examining Mendocino County's catch-of-the-day perp population. But the County is broke and the court says the County doesn't have to pay.

Everybody involved — the hospitals, the Sheriff, the Board — said they were willing to work out a compromise payment schedule, probably something resembling Medi-Cal rates. The hospital reps say they only charge the County after other options — insurance and personal reimbursements from those arrested — have been exhausted.

Several Supervisors thought that the Sheriff's Department ought to absorb the cost of emergency room visits because the cops have windfall money from the County's asset forfeiture program. Sheriff Allman said he appreciated the cooperation of the hospitals and hoped it could all be worked out, deftly avoiding committing any part of his budget to hospital reimbursements.

* * *

The ballooning budget gap — now at $4 million and counting — was not mentioned, but union members announced last Wednesday that they had had their first "meet and confer" with County management and the fiscal news they heard was not reassuring. Assistant CEO Alison Glassey told the union that the County foresees a general fund gap of up to $2.5 million in addition to a $2 million Health and Human Services shortfall.

Only two weeks earlier the total budget gap was estimated at comparatively manageable $1 million.

Glassey told the union that the County now wants to lay-off 20 Social Services employees, order 12 additional days of mandatory time off between now and June 30 (not including law enforcement) and change the Social Services work week to 36 hours per week with Friday office hours ceasing at noon. Glassey said she'd make this recommendation to the Board of Supervisors on January 27th and hoped to implement the whole of it by the first of February. (See the letter on page 2 from James Marmon, worker rep.)

Seniority lists are being prepared in advance of anticipated layoffs. There will be a significant juggling of jobs as senior Health and Human Services workers bump down into jobs now held by newer hires.

More state cuts are on the way, and last week mainstream media stories with titles like "Obama prepares sweeping cuts in social programs" began to appear.

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