The Tracks are Crumbling, but…The Trash Train has Left the Station

by Mark Scaramella, August 4, 2010

Fifth District Supes candidate Wendy Roberts took the podium last Tuesday to address the Board of Super­visors about their proposal to put a county-wide half-cent sales tax increase on the November ballot:

“I have a question. If this is projected to produce $5.3 million annually, how much of that is going to be in the incorporated cities rather than in the County? Because whatever that number is, it's going to radically reduce the amount that will actually come into the county for serv­ices that are needed in the unincorporated areas. So I would really like to have that number and I would like that number to be public so that the voters have a sense of what the benefit to the county is going to be. I find this misleading. I'm sorry to say I find the name of this initiative [“Vital Services Protection”] misleading. And I'll just say that what I hear is that people are willing – and I don't have a vast sample, but I have a pretty good sized sample – to support fire and deputies. But they are extremely skeptical about putting more money into the general fund and they’re, they're discouraged and dis­turbed by salaries at the top; that the Supervisors salaries are a problem to them, and that we have two supervisors who I believe are the only two people left in this county who haven't taken a pay cut. I'm just being very candid about the feedback I hear. I hear a lot of, 'Yeah, I'd do it for fire and police, but that isn't what this is about.' So I have reservations about whether people are going to find this acceptable. That's just something I'm sharing with you from the feedback I've had.”

Supervisor John Pinches, reading from the board’s agenda packet replied that the County would get about $3.7 million after the cities got their shares. Pinches added that the revenue forecast assumes that “sales are not chased away out of the county” by the tax increase.

None of the supervisors commented on Ms. Roberts’ pessimistic assessment of the proposed increase of the sales tax.

Jim Houle told the board that “a sales tax is regres­sive. It’s the worst way to increase government revenue that we've ever devised. You're not looking at other ways.”

Houle suggested raising real estate taxes “in a progres­sive way, so people at the top end pay a larger share.” Houle reminded the Board that they could reduce the salaries of the County’s highest paid people but acknowledged that he’d proposed this before to deaf ears. Then Mr. Houle pointed out a third option, which is what the County is already doing: “Cut services further.”

Michael Weinberg, representing the Service Employ­ees International Union, told the Board that he was “pleased with the proposal. Let the voters decide. We did a poll and found overwhelming support for a sales tax increase. But you're deviating,” added Weinberg. “Our polling said that the voters would support a 20-year measure with citizen oversight. But you have 10 years with no oversight.”

Labor unions usually oppose sales tax increases because, as Mr. Houle pointed out in his remarks, they hit struggling families rather than the people who can afford to pay more of the social obligation. But these are desperate times.

Employees Union Business Representative Jackie Car­vallo then reminded the Board that her union has already lost over 250 workers in the last 20 months, representing a savings to the county of about $3 million. She said most of those people have left the County, pre­sumably for good.

Pinches pointed out that the total revenue expected from the half-cent sales measure, $5.3 million, “is not a silver bullet; it will just shore up what we're already down to.”

The public reservations about the Board’s sales tax proposal – proposed three years after it would have done any real good – were, of course, ignored and the Board voted unanimously to put the sales tax increase on the November ballot.

Then it was time to revisit the Board's badly botched garbage privatization efforts.

It must be noted that the Board of Supervisors, by their bumbling and mismanagement, have painted them­selves into a very small corner.

The county has taken more than three years to deliber­ate garbage privatization. When crunch time arrived and the leadership seemed belatedly aware that the General Fund was subsidizing the six county-run transfer stations to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars a year, three of the Supervisors – Brown, Pinches, and McCowen – decided they better privatize to save the county the expense of the large dump subsidy. They hoped Jerry Ward, president of Solid Waste of Willits, would take over the County's trash and continue to employ at their present rates of compensation the persons employed at the transfer stations. The supervisors assigned Pinches and McCowen as an “ad hoc commit­tee” to make a deal with Ward to operate the transfer stations in Potter Valley, Anderson Valley, the South Coast, Albion, Laytonville, and Caspar, Caspar being by far the most heavily used because it serves the heavily populated Mendocino Coast from Elk north.

Supervisors Smith and Colfax said they were opposed to privatization in principle. They opposed the deal with Ward. They wanted the County to take even more time to figure out how to avoid the subsidy without privatization, a difficult task, to put it mildly.

In light of the Fort Bragg City Council's decision last month to veto the privatization deal on grounds that Fort Bragg, allegedly, wasn't getting a fair shake, the board voted to deliver an ultimatum to the City of Fort Bragg: Either you’re on board with privatization or you’re on your own with the Caspar transfer station.

“The [privatization] train is leaving the station,” said Pinches. “Either they’re on the train, or they go their own way.”

McCowen commented, “I appreciate the flexibility of Fort Bragg [for offering to work with the County to determine a fair gate fee]. But the County has made a decision. It may seem hasty to Fort Bragg, but it’s been under discussion for three years. We have consistently pursued the privatization agreement. Now we want to move forward and not manage the transfer stations because these [privatization] agreements guarantee no net county cost, and other issues.”

The County can no longer afford to operate its trans­fer stations. The hope is that Jerry Ward, with his very favorable long term deal with the massive landfill at Potrero Hills in Solano County, can reach an agreement with the County for the remaining five transfer stations, excluding Caspar.

Supervisor McCowen had prepared a letter asking the Fort Bragg City Council what the privatization deal would have to look like for the Fort Bragg City Council to sign on. In the letter McCowen says that “it is unfor­tunate” that the two members of the Fort Bragg city council who sit on the ill-defined “Joint Coordinating Committee” – two Supervisors and two Fort Bragg City Councilmembers – which is supposed to preside over the Caspar transfer station “did not present this issue [priva­tization] to the full Council for discussion and direction.”

McCowen, of course, fails to note that it is even more “unfortunate” that the Board of Supervisors voted to go ahead with firing most of their transfer station staff and proceed with privatization without first getting Fort Bragg’s sign-off.

McCowen does acknowledge in his letter that the Board was “assured by staff, including Director [Mike] Sweeney” that all the Fort Bragg concerns had been addressed – when obviously they hadn’t.

So far nobody has said one word about Sweeney’s “unfortunate” oversight.

Fort Bragg has already made it clear that they prefer to tweak the gate fees at Caspar in some way that doesn’t unfairly burden Fort Bragg’s rate-paying trash dumpers, thus avoiding privatization.

Trouble is, Caspar represents about 52% of the total trash volume of the six transfer stations the County is trying to privatize. The supervisors – Pinches, Brown and McCowen – seem to assume that Jerry Ward’s Solid Waste of Willits outfit will be happy to renegotiate with the County to haul 48% of the county's transfer station trash, leaving the irritants on the Fort Bragg City Council on their own.

Maybe Ward will.

If Ward is only offered the trash from the remaining five transfer stations – Anderson Valley, Laytonville, Albion, Potter Valley and South Coast/Gualala – how­ever, he’ll lose economies of scale and be forced to raise dump fees, which are already so high under Sweeney's and the County's spectacular mismanagement that many county residents will continue to dump illegally or self-haul to Ukiah and Willits where gate fees remain rela­tively reasonable.

But the Supervisors, excepting Colfax and Smith who, typically, have merely demagogued the issue, are too far down the privatization trail to change course now. They’ve already laid off most of the County’s transfer station attendants on the assumption that the deal was done and that they’d be hired back by Ward.

Last week several locals noticed that the Boonville Transfer Station was being staffed by a pleasant kid who seemed to know the basic operation but who obviously wasn’t inclined to maintain the accumulated piles of junk in an orderly manner.

Union Rep Carvallo explained:

“You’ve [the Board] laid off the [transfer station atten­dants] and now engineering interns from the trans­portation department are doing the work. I would like to be more courteous to the employees affected. We laid off the solid waste department employees for budgetary rea­sons, not to further privatization. I personally don't believe that, but that's what you're saying. So now we have an Account Specialist III running a transfer station. And we have two engineering interns running transfer stations. They were trained by the exiting employees who are now on unemployment. And we did have a catastrophe [Ms. Carvallo didn’t have time to describe the catastrophe] at one of the transfer stations. When I asked how in God's green earth could you have an account specialist running a transfer station, the answer was ‘other duties as assigned.’ And ‘it's temporary for about two months.’ So if we're going to do this, can we at least respect the employees who are still on staff who are trying to do their level best? I disagree with how you're doing this and how [the employees] were han­dled.”

As usual, Ms. Carvallo was ignored.

Supervisors Kendall Smith and David Colfax tried, in their usual pompous, windy, inarticulate way, to point out that more time should be taken on the trash issue and more options considered. Smith went so far as to describe McCowen’s attempt at diplomatically clarifying things for the Fort Bragg City Council as “a slap in the face to Fort Bragg.”

The Pinches-Brown-McCowen board majority voted to send the mess back to their “ad hoc” committee of Pinches and McCowen to see if they can find some way to get Ward to pick up the pieces. Ward has always bent over backwards to accommodate the County’s incompe­tence and foot-dragging on trash, not to mention attempts to sabotage his operations by the county's deviously obstructionist garbage czar, Mike Sweeney.

Will Ward continue to bail out these incompetents?

Probably, but only if he is the one who presents the case to Fort Bragg, not Sweeney and the Add Hocks, and presents the arrangement to the board majority without involving them in the negotiations.

* * *

The Board spent half the day on Tuesday listening to an appeal of the Planning Commission's approval of a gravel mining project next door to the old Masonite site north of Ukiah. Masonite and most interested enviros oppose gravel extraction at the site. The Planning Com­mission had voted 7-0 to approve Granite Construction's a gravel extraction permit.

The supervisors perfunctorily approved the approved gravel extraction project 5-0.

The appellants say there's no real economic benefit to the project and no need for the additional gravel, and that the project is “incompatible with neighboring parcels.”

But, in fact, many area businesses and unions endorsed gravel extraction, and the neighboring lands are zoned industrial.

Even if Granite's proposal involved re-routing the Rus­sian River through the Ukiah Golf Course, the Board would approve it these days because it represents what the County desperately needs: “economic activity.” There was very little expectation that the Board would succumb to Masonite's and the other neighbors’ opposi­tion.

Granite might make some money and provide some jobs. And that's all that matters these days.

Supervisor Pinches wryly summarized the days pro­ceedings, “How come all our biggest battles are over trash or rocks?”

As a final act for the day, the Board voted unani­mously to give over all hiring and firing authority to the CEO’s office. New hires and job cuts now reside entirely with CEO Carmel “The Hatchet” Angelo who has already decapitated going on three hundred county of employees both as Health and Human Services Director and as County CEO.

Angelo was so confident that the Board would agree to giving her an even larger and sharper ax that she apologized to them for the item even being up for a vote. “This should have gone on consent calendar,” said Ms. Angelo. “Somehow that got missed. It’s just a formality to return authority for hiring to the CEO.”

Pinches explained that former CEO Tom Mitchell “didn't have the hands-on experience or attitude or experience to deal with that and the hiring was kind of out of control with spiraling [down] revenues. Things have changed drastically.”

(The supervisors paid Mitchell $175,000 a year for two years only to discover that Mitchell couldn't do the job he was hired to do, a fact the rest of the portion of the public that was paying attention had noticed in Mitchell's first month on the job.)

Department heads can still appeal individual execu­tions to the Board, but good luck with that. Ms. Angelo has made it clear that there would be a price to pay, which might read, “Here's your head. Good luck reat­taching it to the rest of your body, but sayonara sucka.”

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