Bums, Budgets, Bumblers & Other Busts

by Mark Scaramella, September 17, 2008

Last Tuesday's Supervisors Board combined discussion of a fresh set of catastrophes with a discussion of catastrophes carried over from the August 26th meeting.

The morning began with a discussion of the derelicts, the next generation, who have taken over a swath of the Russian River around the Talmage bridge.

Rebecca Kress, long-time organizer of Russian River clean-up efforts in and along the river, told the Supervisors that the relatively docile homeless at the site have been replaced by a younger, more menacing mob of crankers, adding to her long list of descriptives the phrase, "able-bodied."

"This is a very frustrating situation," said Kress. "They appear to be on speed. There are many camps. They have cut down a lot of vegetation. This has become too much work for us to clean up after them. We need your help. Caltrans and Granite Construction have been very good, but we are swamped."

Ms. Kress buttressed her despairing presentation with photos of the bums and their squalid camp sites. It seems this country can't even produce a respectable bum any more.

Two Russian River property owners also made despairing statements about the new breed of transient in the Ukiah Valley.

John Glasco told the Supervisors that he was surprised at the high volume of trash and dangerous items being dumped along the river.

Tim Norgard described the situation as "tremendous," adding that he believes that Mendo's Social Services Department is making a bad situation worse by giving the crankheads tents and, he said, advising them to settle in on his property.

"These are young guys with attitudes," said Norgard. "They're much worse than the people who have been there in the past. They dump dead animal [mainly deer] carcasses, feces, graffiti. And lately they include Mexican men. They have no respect for the law at all. If the cops tell them to move along they are back in an hour. Everybody knows they're mainly here to trim marijuana."

Supervisor John Pinches asked Ms. Kress if she and her volunteers were "partnered" with Mendocino Solid Waste Management Authority. Kress said they were not. Pinches then encouraged her to get a hold of MSWMA Manager Mike Sweeney for possible assistance. (Sweeney is a former Maoist with extensive experience in small-target demolitions, including troublesome ex-wives. Pinches might not be fully aware of the implications of his referral.)

Pinches, who sits on the MSWMA board, then decided he'd bring up the problem to the MSWMA board himself.

"MSWMA can help with cleanup," Pinches declared, "but not with illegal activity. We need some arrests — some enforcement. The heavy hand of the law needs to come down on them."

Supervisor David Colfax agreed: "I sit on the MSWMA board as well, and we could put this on our scheduled route. I'm not comfortable with regular citizens being exposed to what I've seen [in the photos Ms. Kress distributed]. I would like to work with Johnny Pinches to see if we can get this on the schedule. Maybe we should set up a task force."

Although it wasn't specifically stated at the meeting, the Board minutes say that the Board consensus is "to direct the Sheriff to provide the Chief Executive Officer a report of law enforcement efforts relative to unlawful camping." Nothing else was agreed to. No items were put on future board agendas. CEO Mitchell, an ongoing black hole of action items, as usual, promised to look into it and get back to the Board.

In the afternoon budget session the still unresolved Teeter Plan — how to pay down the massive debt the County has incurred — was revisited. As at last week's meeting, confusion reigned.

Various board members and staffers tossed out seemingly random numbers — Assistant CEO Alison Glassey says the Teeter Plan debt is now calculated at $11 million, down from the previous estimates of $17 million and $13.5 million. However, Glassey did admit that until this year the property tax penalty and interest on late payments that the County had been borrowing against had never gone to pay back the ballooning debt. In other words, the County took but never paid anything back. "Carrying costs" were mentioned as well as "interest payments." Both terms, not to mention the subject itself, mystified the Supervisors.

"The whole issue here is the interest rate we're being charged," said Pinches, "and the amortization. I've heard 5-6% interest. I've heard 11%. If we were paying 11% that's a lot."

Nobody knows what interest the County is paying, or what the principal is or how to go about paying it down, whatever it is.

Glassey, who until last week was negotiating for a job as Willits City Manager, told the Board that the $11 million number "is less dire than the other, but we're not where we need to be. I do want to give the board credit for taking the steps necessary. Without shifting the revenues we're in a position to gain that foothold we need."

Which is a demonstrably untrue statement, if a mollifying one, if a mollifying one to the point of the shameless, serf-like butt-nuzzling characteristic of public meetings in Mendocino County.

Supervisors Kendall Smith and Colfax said that just letting the Teeter debt go with perhaps minimal additional payback was "not acceptable" because it would take too long to pay off the money owed, and because the County would accrue even more interest as it went.
Supervisor Delbar pointed out that depending on penalty and interest alone to pay off the debt is a crapshoot.

"Each year the delinquency amount goes up or down depending on the economy."

And, as anyone who keeps abreast of the economic news, the economy is in freefall, with many economists predicting a depression equal to the one of the 1930's when the wolves of Wall Street were also unregulated and boards of supervisors throughout the country assumed everything would get better forever. The economy is not going to get better in our lifetimes.

County CEO Tom Mitchell, a genius at pointing out the obvious, declared, "The problem is we've borrowed against that Teeter Plan and we've got ourselves in a hole. We should have had this conversation at this time last year."

"Every year we reach into the Teeter Plan or some other pot and then we have a balanced budget," said an exasperated Colfax, looking at Mitchell as if seeing his CEO for the first time. "In 2005/2006 we started talking about what we have to do. We repeatedly backed off. I suspect that is the case in some other areas as well. Right now we find ourselves at a point where we do not have a balanced budget."

In a futile attempt to understand the Teeter Plan debt we closely examined the Proposed County Budget (the one approved by the Supervisors) and the staff-prepared budget charts presented to the Supervisors at the September 9 budget meeting.

Teeter is not listed in the budget under "debt services and contingencies" where it should be. The figures produced are not reconciled or, apparently, reconcilable. There's no mention of $11 million or any other total number. The County is flying blind.

The Supes were told that the County will apply $200k from the General Fund to the ballooning Teeter Plan debt.

Supervisor Smith pointed out that "At this rate it will take 60 years to repay the Teeter Plan. That's not adequate. Delaying it another year will not do it."

Mitchell wasn't bothered by the unbalanced balanced budget.

"The numbers don't scare me," he said, secure in the knowledge that he'd be paid even if no one else was next year. "I think we have a good team in place."

Delbar fessed up.

"When we look at the actuals for the end of the year the numbers are always blown out. What degree of oversight or direction do we have on managers to keep within [the budget allocations]?"

None, and there's the rub. The County's individual departments spend as they like. There's no direction or supervision from, well, Delbar, his colleagues and their alleged executive officers, Mitchell and Glassey.

Mitchell, outdoing himself with two consecutive statements of the obvious, said: "At the end of the third quarter we gave you a report which didn't look very bad. The reality is it ended up much worse than that."

Mitchell followed that one up with, guess what?

"The executive office will be looking into that."

Before the Board voted to accept the "balanced" budget, each of them contributed opinions about how minor savings here and there would somehow, someway, roll the chicken bones, and pray, help reduce the deficit about to swamp the whole ship.
Supervisor Pinches wanted to trim travel and memberships. Supervisor Smith didn't want to raid the landfill closure fund. Delbar didn't want to fund any "external requests." Wattenburger didn't want to increase the Teeter Plan repayments because staff recommended "down to the dime the maximum increase in paying back Teeter."

CEO Mitchell seemed please to note in passing that Supervisor Pinches' Scout Lake expansion project, a relatively quick way to increase inland water supplies, was already getting bogged down.

"We're working out contractual arrangements with the Boy Scouts and City of Willits," said Mitchell. "We want to move slowly to be sure everybody's needs are addressed. The city of Willits may be willing to engage on the pipeline."

Pinches was unhappy.

"This is just more stalling. We need a sense of urgency on this or it will drag out for years. This is a priority and an emergency. The project is not even addressed in budget."

Then the dread subject of employee furloughs came up.

"We cut 17 positions from the Road department and made considerable salary savings," said Pinches. "We've lost more than 50 through attrition. We are also looking at privatization of solid waste. This year's budget problems will be only a portion of next year's. I guarantee that. Sales taxes are going down. We're talking about a $5 to $10 million gap next year. Maybe we should shut down County government for ten days over Christmas and New Year's."

Delbar was again to the point.

"We're talking about the crumbs of a $231 million budget. We're not talking about the meat of the issue. This year's problem is big and next year's is going to be even bigger. And we're not dealing with it yet."

Delbar then insisted — again — that the staff bring him some real numbers with practical budget options, and to do it in a timely manner which would allow the board to deal realistically with the budget gap.

"We can't keep masking this budget," said Delbar. "We have to look at our options. I need an assurance that the staff will get these things done. Saying we'll get to it someday hasn't worked. I can't keep waiting."

Supervisor Smith suggested looking at raising garbage franchise fees. She then made the most radical suggestion ever heard in the Board chambers: "Anyone making over $100k per year should experience a reduction in salary. Those are the people who can most afford it."

Silence.

After Pinches said that they should not rush into budget cuts, Smith responded with, "We're not acting soon enough! This affects our credit rating. We have an $11 million Teeter debt and no comment from CEO's office about how we're going to pay it off in future years. This is going to be a painful process. This $200,000 a year will take us there in 60 years. That doesn't cut it. Then there's the County's liability for retiree health care. We have to address that and pre-pay that. We will enter that discussion next year. I think that a lot of naiveté is at work here. The budget is balanced but it's not based on sound policy and principles."

On it went.

"I think this just an exercise in futility," observed Supervisor Colfax. "I agree with Supervisor Delbar. We've had 12 years of going through budgets and we get righteous and ask for things to be looked at for next round and it doesn't happen. ... When we talk about furloughs it becomes a bit of a mess and we abandon that for a variety of reasons. The DA came in. We were assured we'd get better work from better paid better attorneys [after they gave all the public attorneys big raises last year]. The DA said she can't do it. We had a commitment but nothing came forward."

Colfax couldn't resist another indignant swipe at the Grand Jury, which found that the former Boonville pot farmer hadn't justified his exceedingly high weekend travel expenses; the Grand Jury also ordered Supervisor Smith to give back more than $3,000 in travel expenses.

"Two supervisors were busted by the Grand Jury," said an irate Colfax, "and the Grand Jury is out there telling us how they overspent their budget. It makes the amount of money they inappropriately accused us of misappropriating because we're following the rules look like nickels and dimes by comparison."

The difference is that the Grand Jury's "overspending" occurred as the Grand Jury pursued its lawful obligations. Colfax and Smith, the latter having billed the county for pet care among her many other dubious claims, simply charged the taxpayers for a lot of personal funsies.

Colfax raved on.

"I resent the idea that we're expected to cut our budgets, the Supervisors' budget, while other agencies and department heads are saying, 'we do what we want and we can get away with it' and we don't clamp down. ... We have to hold department heads to their promises when staff pay increases are approved. ... We have to start acting like grownups up here, not just cut and hide things... I will not support this budget unless I get a decent answer from the DA's office on why she didn't follow through ... I've spoken too much, and will regret it tomorrow. But it's time for us to grow up and act like adults, act like parents, the way we act like adults in the real world."

CEO Mitchell urged the Board to approve the budget.

"We take board comments seriously. ... I take responsibility. I will be held accountable for what we don't deliver from the board. I am prepared to deliver and we will follow through."

After more board discussion, Colfax joined Wattenburger and Pinches to approve the budget as proposed by staff. Delbar and Smith said no.

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