Mendo Vaudeville

by Mark Scaramella, January 19, 2010

It’s getting harder and harder to keep up with The Great Unraveling, Mendo Branch.

Nobody in authority in Mendocino County has any idea what to do about the ever more grim fiscal news. State and federal levels of government, more complicit, but only proportionately more profligate, historically, than their country cousins, simply pass along the bad news to their poor relations, their facilitated, wine-sipping, highly-paid country cousins in Mendocino County.

Just last month, as jingle bells and binge shopping commenced here, there and everywhere, the idea being that Santa would “put the country right again,” Mendocino County’s budget gap was said to be about $1.3 million.

No problemo.

But by January, the gap was $3 million.

And now it's said to be zooming towards $7.6 million next year, millions more than predicted last month.

County Budget maven Jennifer Wyatt rattled off the reasons for the huge increase between spending and income.

Sales tax revenues for the holidays were down by $250k, supplementary property taxes down an additional $250k, the “transfer tax” (basically house sales) are down for another additional $150k loss; and interest earnings are down by $200k.

Then there’s the unexpected cost increases.

$600k in in-home health care costs, $350k more in retirement contributions, $200k more in workers compensation, $100k more in unemployment contributions, and something like $760k more in health care costs.

Wyatt said she didn't know how bargaining unit negotiations would go next year, nor did she know whether solid waste privatization cost savings would be realized. But even if County employees are whacked again and trash privatization turns out to be even a tiny bonanza, it won't reduce the chasm between money coming in and money going out.

The County’s befuddled budget staff, including Ms. Wyatt, who at least comes up with a few relevant figures, and CEO Mitchell, who's at a total loss, seemed surprised by the missing revenues and sudden cost increases, even though most of them were and are quite predictable, if not precisely quantifiable.

But not one Supervisor expressed any irritation at staff’s failure to anticipate the shortfalls. Nor did they express additional skepticism at the new numbers which came from the same ill-informed sources as the old ones.

Instead, the Supervisors discussed whether or not to hire one (1) additional custodian, whether or not they should consider some “revenue enhancement proposals” (which wouldn’t kick in for years at best), and whether five (and only five) elected officials should have their salaries cut to levels they’ve already voluntarily agreed to.

The only possible upside to the dismal budget situation, said Wyatt, was that she expected that the Sheriff might get $120k from the feds this year under a long-delayed law enforcement subsidy program currently under consideration in DC. “We have no confirmation of that,” Wyatt added. “But we’re pretty sure and we believe we can estimate it in this year’s budget.”

That still leaves the County only five months to make up almost $3 million. Given that the county can’t print money, can’t find new revenues, and can’t even lay many people off without due process and notice, what to do?

Assistant CEO Carmel Angelo pointed out that staff had prepared mitigation plans to address the previous $1.3 million gap (much of that in the Sheriff’s office), but that they had not even begun to address the new $3 million gap except for vague reference to “restructuring.”

We all know the hoary cliches about deck chair re-org on big boats about to go glub, glub, glub, now for accompanying dialogue, Mendo style. (If our superintendent of schools, the man who thinks niggardly is a racist canard, happens to read this I want to reassure him that hoary is not a reference to ladies who sell themselves. Hoary means aged, as in old.)

Auditor Meredith Ford, complaining about the Supes decision to cut the salaries of five elected officials effective January of next year, said that such cuts would disturb the county’s “compensation hierarchy” which had been set at market rates and agreed to by the board in bargaining unit negotiations two years ago. The base annual salaries for the county’s top paid positions, Ford noted, were Chief Psychiatrist: $230k; CEO: $180k; County Counsel: $159k; Assistant CEO: $144k; DA, Sheriff and HHSA Director: $139k each; Public Defender: $132k; Transportation Director: $131k; Auditor/Controller: $126k; Water Agency Manager: $124k; Planning&Building, GSA, and Human Resources Directors: $115k each; Assessor and Chief Probation Officer: $114k each; Treasurer and Child Support Services Director: $109k each. Reductions in five of them (the “electeds”) will screw up the rankings, said Ford. In total, Ford added, there are 35 people on the County’s payroll who have base salaries over $100k. “Why not cut the other 30?” Ford asked.

No answer.

DA Meredith Lintott complained that the Supervisors and the CEO were being sexist in their approach to the pay cuts of the five electeds: “Sheriff Allman, our male elected official, somehow got a heads up from the CEO on Monday but not a word was given to the four female electeds,” complained Lintott. “There's a problem here. It's not fair. That is not the way government should be run.”

Discussing economic development ideas as a way to increase the County’s tax base, Supervisor David Colfax helped out. “You can get those ideas from me. I can go back in my office and pull out six ideas without working up a sweat. But I don't want to be a brain trust of the CEO's office. I'm not being paid to be a special consultant on economics, although a reading of Samuelson and some others at this point would be very worthwhile in this economic climate. … The idea that we're some kind of think tank is an idea that our day to day activities do not allow us that luxury. That's why we have staff people, or should have people whose job it is to invest time and energy thinking the thoughts that need to be thought about and developed that will permit us to then to implement policies that facilitate the implementation of those brilliant ideas. … Having another committee just keeps us from doing our real work which is doing the public's business on a day to day business and developing policies that allow us to do so.”

If anyone, ever, thought of the supervisors as a think tank the thought must be in the Irony Hall of Fame.

CEO Tom Mitchell: “We've had numerous discussions of economic development. I think the record speaks for itself. [It sure does!] We’ve had discussions with polling consultants to find out what the Mendocino voters want. We are understaffed, but economic development proposals take a lot of time. We have staff engaged on these things to the extent possible.”

Supervisor Carre Brown said she attended a “jobs roundtable” with Congressman Thompson, but she didn’t think there would be any new jobs unless the County solved the water shortage problem.

Supervisor Pinches thought the County should make more use of inmates, especially for custodial duties, especially the DUI inmates who, he said, present no real security risk. But General Services boss Kristin McMenomey replied that she already uses inmates and they require direct supervision, but her office doesn't have people to supervise them, the implication being that the inmates, being inmates, might not behave “appropriately.”

Speaking in public expression a woman named Jean Hooker Winters told the Board, “Instead of agreeing to salaries that allow someone to leave a job and still have months of pay coming that should be eliminated, there should be no more sunshine clauses across the board. Something just happened with Mike Sweeney's job where he got that. That's not a comment against Mike Sweeney, it's a comment about the negotiation of his salary.”

(Ed note: The comment about Mike Sweeney is that he made the car bomb that blew up his ex-wife, the late Judi Bari. Inevitably, Sweeney was promoted to a top Mendocino County job as garbage czar, not only promoted to the job, Sweeney got to write his own job description and set his own pay. He serves nicely as walking metaphor for both the present state of Mendocino County government and The End Times.)

CEO Tom Mitchell said he was now including his CEO report in the Board packet for everyone to read. Mitchell's report could have been prepared by a sixth grader, a very slow sixth grader. As government disappears beneath a mound of debt, Mitchell reported on the “Tsunami Warning System Test on March 24, 2010,” told us about the “CAO Association’s Pension Reform Discussions — For Information Only,” took us through the “2010 Census Update” and “2010 - Census Time - Federal Funds at Risk, Some $$ Available” and “2010 Census Recruitment Update.” “Recovery Zone Bonds” (whatever they are, Mitchell didn’t explain). And, last but not least, “Naming of Orchard Street Bridge.”

Mitchell's level of disassociation is breathtaking.

Mitchell added that he was still working on snagging Costco for the County, tossing in a casual insult at Ukiah officials as he went. “I don’t think our friends at the City understand what's going on” before announcing, “This year is bad, next year will be worse, and the following year will be even worse. We must do true economic development to bring in additional tax dollars. Costco would bring in $121k in building permit fees.”

Years away, if then, and achieved at the expense of numerous existing small businesses in the Ukiah Valley when Costco does arrive. Mitchell wrapped up with a pure crackpotism: “If we are not interested in seriously pursuing economic development and being out there supporting the business community then I would say to you that we might as well start closing the doors in a lot of areas because the money is just not going to be there.”

Even if the County could “support the business community,” whatever that may mean, any revenues from fresh enterprise would be years away.

Supervisor Colfax said he thought that “the worst thing that has happened to Mendocino County since I've been on the board” was “when we switched to a CAO status where we can respond and interact with department heads, and deal directly with issues when there's a reason for this.”

Then Colfax went completely off.

“There are only three individuals in this entire organization that report to the board directly. … These three people … and there you sit. Wouldn't you think that you three [County Counsel Jeanine Nadel, CEO Mitchell, Board Clerk Kristi Furman] who report to the board are more… and it's… you know… it's… What camp do you put the platypus? Is it a, an, um, a mammal? Or, uh, is it something other than a mammal? And the real question here is, is, you are more like the platypus of the organization. I'm picking a metaphor that I know is, uh, I know is very flattering. … You three, platypus or not, report to the gargoyles on the board of supervisors. How's that?”

Time for your meds, Supervisor, and maybe a little nappy-nap.

The platypus metaphor seemed to mystify everyone but the only platypus in the room, CEO Mitchell. “I think that's fair,” Mitchell said.

At the long-delayed “communications work-shop” held at Weibel Vineyards in Hopland on Monday, the 11th, the Board sat around a big table with their managers and department heads, all of them in the uniquely clashing outfits they apparently assume in informal setting, to talk about “communications problems.”

How many times, how many different ways can we write, “These people inspire absolutely no confidence?”

Too negative?

Here's a sampling of what was said:

“I see a lot of one-way communication in the county and other organizations,” said Air Quality honcho Chris Brown. “I do not see a lot of two-way communication. There could be more of a dialogue going on than there is.”

“We have more government than Mendocino County can afford,” noted Supervisor John Pinches.

“We are all in this together,” observed County Counsel Jeanine Nadel. “Let's move on with the kumbaya stuff and get to the real issues.”

Auditor-Controller Meredith Ford offered this keen observation: “We have to look at services and look at which ones have to go away. We have to live in our means and that is not happening.”

Sheriff Allman: “We need to trim expenses, increase income or a combination. We can't stay in status quo. … If we don't cut our costs, and we continue to tell business not to come to Mendocino County, then we're going to look back and say we failed because we couldn't live within our budget.”

CEO Tom Mitchell: “I think we have to acknowledge, and I think many of our Supervisors have, that a lot of what we're dealing with today is the result of bad fiscal decisions by both the board of supervisors, the CEO's office and some department heads. … I've never been someplace where the Teeter Plan doesn't make money. The Teeter program actually works. But Mendocino County is the poster child for how you should not do a Teeter program. I don't know how that decision was ever made.” And Mitchell is the CEO!

Colfax, who has been on the Board for almost twelve years now, blamed himself without mentioning himself: “Huge management errors have been made by people and supervisors in particular who are not paying attention and just didn't want to do things that would make people unhappy. … Just in the room here, this is the $2 million plus gang sitting in this room. OK? Two million of salaries, starting over here and ending up over here. [Pointing] We can't afford to do this! I suggest this is a wee bit out of control. The supervisors have allowed this to go forward and allowed this to go out of control. If we're going to acknowledge that, it's going to sound like Cassandra or the, uh, doom and gloom. But we cannot sustain an elite in Mendocino County and expect that we are going to get the support of the people out there who know and are reading and are going to continue to read about our salary levels.”

This from the guy who thinks his $68k/year salary is “crappy” and who thinks the main reason he was elected was to raise his own pay.

Mitchell, who makes $180,000 a year, reverted to Fox Newspeak: “When will labor get the message? We continue to be bombarded by really unrealistic expectations of our labor bargaining groups, what we should be paying our employees, what they should be getting in pensions. Sooner or later I'm hoping that the reality sets in not just that, Hey, we want to keep the status quo, but realize that we have some awfully generous pensions, as Supervisor Colfax said, some people have done really well.”

Colfax said he was getting out of Dodge.

“I'm glad I'm not going to be here next year at this time,” announced Colfax, “but I'll be watching very closely to get the benefits of my, uh, bloviations.” (“Bloviate, v. To discourse at length in a pompous or boastful manner.”)

Sheriff Allman tried to pretend that his office and his deputies don’t have one bit of discretion in who they arrest: “We can't pick and choose who we're going to arrest,” said Allman even though his deputies do that every day. “I am a constitutional officer. If we start picking and choosing on felonies we are going to fail.”

District Attorney Meredith Lintott made the same RoboCop-like claim: “I’m in the same boat as Tom,” said Lintott. “We are constitutional officers. If a case has to go forward in our system, it absolutely has to. That's my job. To make the public safety aspect and see that the ends of justice are met.”

In most other contexts, the District Attorney insists that she must exercise judgment and use discretion in filing charges based on what the DA believes can be proven to a jury. Discretion is an essential part of the job, both jobs, Sheriff and DA.

Then Allman made a good point.

“It seems I'm spending more time having nice comfortable meetings with people rather than I am in doing my job,” he said. “If you feel the same way, say it! If not, tell me I'm wrong! I spend every Tuesday in a board room just to find out how my agency is going to be affected. I no longer fight crime.”

Supervisor John McCowen came up with a wonderful cost saving suggestion: “Do we need to have the county newspapers all displayed in the executive office when you walk in there when the, uh, most of those newspapers are available on line at least as far as the news stories?” (We haven’t checked lately, but we doubt the AVA is on display in the CEO’s office.)

Chief Probation Officer Wes Forman, in a position which requires daily dealing with various kinds of criminals, said he was intimidated by his own bosses: “Addressing the board in that formal setting [in the Board chambers] can be intimidating and it's very difficult,” said Forman, who seemed on the verge of tears.

Supervisor John McCowen opined that “It seems sometimes that it's almost set up to prevent the Supervisors from getting the information that they need in order to make an informed decision. And our decisions are going to be no better than the information that we get.” Too bad the Supervisor hasn’t made much of an effort to change that.

Newly hired Human Resources Director Teresa Haase told her colleagues, “I have not been struck with a real sense of trust among this group. I feel that until people feel safe in brainstorming and that their job's not threatened every time they open their mouth or that it's not all about who's gonna get cut to save something else — until we can get past that and focus on strategically what we can do to increase revenue and everybody has, um, equal respect that we'll never get anywhere with some of these huge challenges we face.”

Planning and Building Director Nash Gonzalez, whose budget has been cut more proportionately than any other in the County, replied, “Let's just put our ideas out there on the table and not be afraid of losing our jobs.”

Only one top guy in Mendoland has ever lost his job for “putting their ideas out there on the table.” Maybe two if you count John Ball, the CEO fired because he wouldn't sneak the Supervisors a huge raise via the consent calendar. But Ted Erickson, Ag Commissioner, was fired in 1979 for not only saying that dope was Mendocino County's number one ag crop, but writing it in his annual report to the Supervisors. Erickson was fired for simply stating the known facts.

The only possible way to get fired in this county is either to get between the big shots and their pay raises or to say the whole show runs on dope.

That's government behind The Green Curtain.

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