Struggling With The Budget Deficit
by Rex Gressett, July 12, 2017
At the Monday night Fort Bragg City Council meeting a week ago the tension, worry and angst of the City Council were the principle takeaway. By the end of the meeting it became clear why. As in every council meeting there were several acts, but Monday night the resentment and fear in the council wove itself through the night like an undertone of impending doom. Minority City Council disgust was of course camouflaged by their boilerplate punctilious etiquette, but bone-deep frustration kept breaking out under the stress of obvious council ineffectuality.
The City Council in Fort Bragg understands the awkwardness that would result from the captains of our tiny local ship running amuck in panic. None of them are desperate enough to resort to candor. All the same, everyone paying attention knows there is something going on. Fort Bragg expects a reasonably happy ending at the biweekly City Council parade. Lindy Peters did his best to provide one, but by the end of this meeting Mike Cimolino and Bernie Norvell were so fed up that they stopped caring what people might think and started standing up (unthinkable) against the majority on the council devoid of ideas or initiative except for their traditional reliance on the City Manger to cover their butts with blithe obfuscation. Councilman Will Lee is showing an amazing aptitude for that comforting irrationality. Bernie not so much. Mike not at all.
The big event at the meeting and all that was reported in the Fort Bragg Advocate (with headlines) was a non-story. Our chief of police Fabian Lizarraga had declined to participate in an invasion of the city proposed by the Immigration authorizes (ICE, as they have theatrically renamed themselves). The proposed sweep was to be conducted in conjunction with Homeland Security Investigations and MAGSU, the Multitudinous Agency Gang Suppression Unit (I think I have that right).
In the monthly meeting of police chiefs, Ukiah, Willits, and Fort Bragg, along with Mendocino District Attorney David Eyster and the FBI and the Department of Justice, the immigration feds had asked your police department to hold their hands and provide sanction for a sweeping up and stomping down of supposed local gang members. Recalling his instruction by City Council resolution not to cooperate with Trumpian immigration harassment Chief Lizarraga told them no dice. That was four months ago. Monday night the City Council intransigents groping for traction in their opposition to the City Manager thought this was a good time to declare their opposition to something. Anything. So they pulled this out of the done deal file. I guess they imagined that they had a hot potato.
The meeting was packed by facebook-alerted supporters for the Chief and the Hispanic community. We all spoke boldly in support of not bringing in federal agents to dismay and discomfit our fellow citizens. I later observed watching the online video of the meeting that I looked particularly idiotic doing it. I am cringing still, but heck, it was impossible to address a suggestion that the community bring in the hard cases from federal immigration without sounding somewhat obvious. Everyone who spoke made the point better than I did.
DA David Eyster, the most innovative, financially effective and arguably sinister District Attorney in Mendocino history had driven in his own car all the way over the hill to chastise the Chief with his presence and provide a lame advocacy for federal invasion of local jurisdiction. He wasted no time in committing an egregious misstatement by insisting that nothing like a sweep had ever occurred in all the long history of human kind on the coastline. Mayor Lindy Peters destroyed that misapprehension with an amusing anecdote of how Joe Mayberry had gotten pissed the first time that they did it and how the (Hispanic) fellows who work at Caito’s Fishery had dashed up the big hill behind the cannery with the feds in hot pursuit.
The spin by the council who promoted this rebuke to the chief, if you looked very closely, was to link the City Manager with the report on the proposal for invasion. As a maneuver it was a disaster, but its very failure had the effect of hardening the will of the opposition. Later in the evening when city management proposed that the budget be accepted without discussion or comprehension they grimly demurred.
After the Chief took the heat, the meeting took a break. I smoked a cigar and then the packed hall had a relaxing recess watching a Powerpoint slide presentation that told us all about the innovations at the police department that were reflected in their budget. Two new motorcycles for $70,000 each, two new dogs — all happy stuff. Then they went on to the city budget.
Surprise (but of course not to the City Council): Fort Bragg does not have a surplus as we had been elaborately told. Instead, it is in the hole. The deficit is $545,000. A little slip. Nevertheless it comes as a bit of a shock to a city that has been told repeatedly and with emphasis that the superb management skills of the City Manager have found their most perfect expression in our gold-plated municipal financial solvency. Sweating and smiling on the hot seat, City Manager Linda Ruffing, the author of our newly discovered insolvency, told us not to worry, we have had deficits for the last eight years, she said, bubbling as if that covered it.
Who knew? In spite of her assurances that the surprise deficit was a mere bump in the road, the city hall folks felt that some explanation other than mismanagement and salary payments to themselves on a cosmic scale had to be made.
The reason for the deficit — it has been not so much announced as muttered — was an innocent bookkeeping error. Quite an error. Rosanne Cimilino, the former Finance Director who had allegedly blundered was unable to provide clarification since she is (conveniently) no longer around.
Insolvency is never pleasant but it frequently has a bracing effect. I have noticed that waking up “the morning after” occasionally inspires an enhanced moral perspective on the previous night’s activities. For the City Council, if not yet for people of the city, the morning after may have arrived. The city manager wanted a get out of jail free card on her surprise budget deficit. She advised them not to sweat the small stuff and let it go.
Both Bernie Norvell and Mike Cimilino declined to buy that and sent the questionable parts of the business back to the Finance and Admin Committee. This amounted to more dissension than I have ever personally seen at the Fort Bragg City Council and promises a through discussion of things I suspect they do not want discussed. I thought the business with the chief was a bit of idiocy, but I was cheering the courage and integrity of Cueball and Bernie at the end.
I met Friday morning with Victor Damiani, Fort Bragg’s Finance Director, to ask him what had happened to our supposed surplus. Victor was, to put it mildly, obscure. He had prepared a little stack of documents which I could see on his desk apparently in readiness to give to me if he was forced to do it. He relinquished each document grudgingly one by one like they were dynamite. I am sure that they are, but I did not understand why.
We talked for a while. As we talked, I perused his papers as one after another I asked for them. What I got was not the whole story. What they say is that allocations of city income are split up among the various departments. Except for salaries, all the costs of running our town are divided between the various departments, water, sewer and the general fund. In the surprise city budget this year, this parceling out of cash somehow did not include a payment to the general fund. Instead, all the cash went to water and sewer. When this was observed the city council was required to peel off a half a million and some change from the water and sewer fund and put it back into the general fund. This caused the half million deficit. I don’t buy it. It amounts to a big slop over of water and sewer money into a fund that pays for their salaries and everything discretionary.
I told him I was working at it but that in all honesty neither I nor the City Council nor the public at large has any clear sense of Fort Bragg’s financial circumstances. I was hoping he would assure me that as Finance Director he would strive for some fundamental clarification. No such luck. He explained to me that his job is only indirectly public information. Publishing the city budget covers it as far as he is concerned. When I told him that I, along with the city council and the rest of the city, were struggling to understand the situation, he told me with a cold quiet smile to “keep on struggling.”