$8 Mil Down & Growing, But Nothing To Report

by Mark Scaramella, May 6, 2009

Mendocino County is broke and getting broker by the day, but bankruptcy batted fifth last Tuesday.

Agenda Item 5-b was called "Budget officer's report."

There wasn't one.

But there is a budget officer. His name is Tom Mitchell. He is also the CEO and he runs the County for the supervisors, and for us, too.

Mendocino County is looking at a multi-million deficit for next fiscal year. The next fiscal year commences July the first, by which time Mendocino County will be from $8 to $10 million in the hole, a hole deeper by the day.

A statewide poll released last week says that only about 40% of voters support the state legislature's "budget balancing" initiatives. The election is two weeks away, Mendocino County's pension fund is heavily invested in the stock market which has lost nearly half its value, increasing Mendo's already huge pension debt. Layoffs loom, County offices are closed on Fridays to save money, County workers don't know if they'll be employed this time next year.
The Budget Officer's report?

"Nothing to report at this time," reported CEO Mitchell, and the supervisors veered off into a self-referential discussion of hype and hypotheticals.

At the urging of Supervisor John McCowen, the Board discussed if they should "study" the effects of mall development on the old Masonite site north of Ukiah. The owners of the site, a depleted out-of-state money pot recently replenished by German capital called Diversified Development Realty, has apparently gotten enough valid County signatures to ask local voters to rezone the site from its long history of industrial use to, well, shopping or housing.

California Government Code allows counties to study the impacts of land use changes that are put before the voters. McCowen noted that initiatives are not subject to California Environmental Quality Act review. McCowen, ace picker of nits, especially invisible ones, thinks that some kind of study of the proposed "Mendocino Crossings" mall will help dissuade County voters from approving the zoning change.

Planning Director Nash Gonzalez told the Board that such a study, if conducted by the inevitable consultant, would cost between $25k and $89k. If it was done "in-house" other planning tasks would go begging.

Nobody wanted to spend much time or money to study a project that all but one supervisor — Board Chair John Pinches — already oppose. But the Board voted 4-1 to have Gonzalez return to the Board in two weeks with a list of topics that might be worth studying. Pinches wondered, "Why is everyone afraid of putting this before the voters?"

(Well, John, this is the country that elected George W. Bush president. Twice. If German-owned development companies can buy their way on to rural ballots like Bush did the national one, the democratic process if further corrupted.)

During a seemingly routine discussion of how to incorporate the Supervisors' travel reimbursement policy into County Code — and please note discussion priorities here in a County going seriously bankrupt, and without even any changes to the overly generous travel reimbursement policy are proposed at this time — Pinches asked CEO Mitchell what progress he was making in assembling a committee of stooges to rubberstamp another round of wholly undeserved raises for the Supervisors. Pinches, of course, didn't use the word "stooges," but merely asked how the panel formation was going.

Mitchell replied that about half of committee had been selected.

"I have two supervisors to contact for suggestions in their districts," said Mitchell. "I'm having difficulty getting someone to represent a couple districts."

Pinches balked: "I don't want the Supervisors to have any input on who is selected."

Mitchell: "I'm just asking for a list of names, not specific names of committee members."

Pinches: "There should be no interaction from sitting board members."

Mitchell: "Unfortunately, I don't know everybody's districts."

Pinches: "There's phone books."

Mitchell, of course aware his task was to find people who would approve the raise, chuckled. "I just want to be sure that the person is an active member of that district," he said.

Pinches: "Well, if you ask me for a couple of names I'm certainly not going to give you a name of someone who doesn't support me! I want to get a fair view of it and I don't want it that in any way would indicate that it's biased from this board. I want the process to be totally separate from this board."

Mitchell: "It will be separate. I'm just reaching out for possible candidates."

Pinches: "I'm really interested in what the public has to say on this subject."

Mitchell: "Luckily, in your district I already have a candidate."

Pinches: "And I don't even want to know who it is."

Mitchell's cover had been blown.

The County's $180,000 a year CEO accurately understood his task to be the discovery of seven persons as supine as himself to tell the supervisors they needed more money, that they worked hard, that they didn't make as much money as Sonoma County supervisors, that they could take the raises and blame it on the Committee of Stooges. "They made us do it."

Only Pinches expressed skepticism about the rigged process. The Board specifically gave the job of forming and managing the salary review panel to the CEO so that the panel's deliberations would not be subject to the Brown Act. They will meet in secret, may not even be publicly identified, and their recommendation will be sprung on the public as a fait accompli, which is Boontling for "done deal." The Supes will then say they bowed to public opinion and gave themselves another round of raises. And local libs will say they deserve it; that we need to pay them a lot so we get quality Supervisors — like these boobs.

Supervisor Pinches took another swipe at County admin. He wanted to know why Supervisors had 90 days to submit travel reimbursement requests but all other County employees have only 30.

Allison Glassey, assistant County CEO at well over $120k a year, replied, "It's kind of ongoing... a more complex reimbursement. But after 90 days it does need to be acted on by the board — on a consent item."

It's "more complex," but if Supes submit travel reimbursement requests months after the fact it's going to be approved anyway "on a consent item"?

Glassey then said that the 30 day policy for employees — after which employees theoretically risk not being reimbursed — isn't enforced.

"If we have a 30-day policy, why aren't we following the policy?" asked Pinches.

Glassey stammered: "This is for employees. They are different."

"You said there's a 30 day policy on employees but they're not going by it," said Pinches. "You just said that. Why have the policy if nobody's going by it?"

Glassey, an old hand at Mendo Babble, words that add up to nothing but are uttered in an earnest, concerned-sounding voice and strewn with terms that disguise reality, answered, "The desire is to have it in 30 days but there may be reasons why it's harder to put it togther. If they can't there is a desire not to disadvantage the employee by that. So defintely it's encouraged. Maybe we need to change the wording to say 'encouraged' rather than 'has to'."

Pinches made his point, but neither he nor the Supes followed up. It's minor, of course, but it also reveals the prevailing attitude at County HQ. Rules, even minor ones, don't have to be followed because everybody is one big friendly bunch and nobody wants to be "negative" by enforcing them. (This attitude also prevails on a much larger scale; we'll have more about the County's failure to oversee outside contracts in an upcoming edition.)

In other bogus board business, County Public Health officer Dr. Marvin Trotter, the same medico who last year told the Press Democrat that shared marijuana cigarettes probably caused the menengitis death of a kid at Boonville's World Music Festival before he backed off that particular unsupported but revealing opinion when some SoCo nurses scoffed at it, gave the board a swine flu update. Dr. Trotter first amused the Board by noting on his speaker's request card, "I'm against it." Everyone chuckled, especially the doctor.

Trotter proceeded to tell the Board that Mendocino County was "ahead of curve" on swine flu, one of the most over-hyped threats the world has ever experienced.

"This is a new virus," said Trotter. "There's no vaccine. There's a 6% mortality in Mexico among 20-30 year olds. It's acting like the 1918 influenza pandemic which started in a swine farm in Kansas. I don't think medical care is worse in Mexico. We have ordered 10,000 doses of Tamiflu. I suspect it (the flu) will be here, but I have no idea how it will act."

There are no cases in Mendocino County to date, not even suspected ones.

Assistant CEO Alison Glassey told the Board that the CEO's office had recently applied for a series of stiumulus package funds aimed specifically at keeping law enforcement funded. It's too early to tell if Mendo will get any of this money.

Sue Goodrich, the County's briskly efficient health plan administrator, told the Board that the County's self-insured health plan was moving out of the red since the imposition of huge increases in employee contributions last year.

The Board engaged in another round of blather about the looming drought.

Water Agency honcho Roland Sanford said the County's credibility about a potentially disastrous water situation was being undermined by the contradictory behavior of the County's multitude of water districts and independent municipalities. "Only two districts are or will require mandatory rationing," said Sanford, "Redwood Valley and Millview. It has put us in an awkward situation. The state says, 'You say you've got water troubles, but why not rationing?'"

After Supervisor Carre Brown wished out loud that inland water people could get all along, which they've never been able to do because each jealously guards its shrinking supply without regard to the common good nevermind the welfare of local streams as fish incubators, the Board turned the problem over to their toothless "ad hoc water committee" which will talk about it some more and prepare a "drought action plan" real soon.

Will Carson, a board member for the Millview water district on the outskirts of Ukiah, told the board that Millview has told their residential customers that they're only going to get 50% of their standard water allocation, and commercial users will get 75%. Asked to explain why the commercial users are getting more water, Carson offered this cryptic observation: "It's tough enough to go without water, but if you don't have money it makes things even worse," suggesting, it seems, that it's the commercial interests who pay most of Millview's costs. If they dry up and blow away so does Millview.

At a joint meeting of the retirement board and Board of Supervisors Tuesday afternoon, retirement administrator Jim Andersen told the Board that the large stock market losses since last fall have reduced the value of the County's pension fund value by about $126 million, well over 30% of its value. Supervisor Pinches semi-joked, "If nothing changes within our lifetime, the County will be paying the retirement system a sum equal to the County's entire discretionary budget."

Andersen resorted to pure nonsense to make the bad news go down better. "There have been steep downturns and steep [i.e., quick] recoveries. Depending on how quickly the asset values recover that could have an impact on [the County's] contribution rates. Is this a one-time event or are we in a new world order?"

"An impact," indeed. In other words, if the stock market magically bounces back before the end of the year, the County and its pension fund will be in good shape! If the market does not work its magic the County's budget staffers expect that County employee pension contributions will have to go way up to make up for the market losses. Perhaps as much as 25% more. In money neither the employees nor the County have.

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