Balancing Budgets In Unbalanced Times

by Mark Scaramella, September 16, 2010

At the end of August, Mendocino County's CEO informed the Supervisors that the good ship Mendo was still in the hole to the tune of $2.7 million for the current fiscal year.

After two days of budget hearings, depending on whose math you trust most, there's either no deficit or Mendo is now in the hole $5 mil or so.

To get the precariously balanced budget that barely passed 3-2 on August 31, the great liberals Colfax and Smith dissenting, it was first necessary to ignore the $2.5 million subsidy to Mental Health and the estimated $2 million more that Mental Health expects to be dinged when the State and Feds declare certain years-old bills “unreimburseable” and demand that Mendo pay the money back next year.

Mental Health costs a lot because our craziest residents are shipped outtahere for “services,” which mostly consist of force-feeding them drugs, propping them in front of a flickering tv set in the common room, and feeding them government cheese three times a day. We're continually surprised that the titans of local free enterprise don't provide most of these “services” locally, as the rest of our small army of 5150s who require locked doors are housed at the Mendocino County Jail at another large cost to taxpayers. Day-to-day, it's the cops who provide most of the hurry-up therapy to Mendocino County's mentally ill.

Even if you assume the bogus Mental Health math fantasies of our hard-hitting management team, Mendo's budget is still not balanced as Ms. Angelo and the Supervisors whistle past Mental Health's huge draw on Mendocino County's declining income.

To get to its unbalanced balanced budget the County also had to apply current and future salary savings from wage concessions by the County’s various bargaining units, as the County’s line employees tire of being asked to agree to more give-backs than management. Supervisors Smith and Colfax, almost alone among managers, have refused to cut their own pay, a fact line employees point to as they lose their jobs and are asked to take less and less pay.

But the unbalanced budget is still not balanced, so…

You borrow a few hundred thousand from the General Reserve Fund, borrow some from the Road Fund, and if that doesn’t do it, fire a few dozen more people — including Sheriff’s deputies.

If these dubious assumptions satisfy your quest for the balanced budget, you must also have total faith in Auditor-Controller Meredith Ford’s rosy revenue projections of sales taxes, which are supposed to be “up a little,” and a magic rise in property tax returns.

If all this adds up to a “balanced” budget to you, you’re probably a member of the California State Legislature. If you're not Wes Chesbro you do what the Supervisors have done here; you close your eyes and kick the fiscal can down next year's road.

The Board of Supervisors spent much of its last meetings of August scratching their collective heads and haggling over the funny math that allegedly balances fiscal year's 2010-2011 budget.

Most of the discussion saw the Supes mostly agreeing with what Ms. Angelo proposed, trimming a few names from her recommended 12.5 layoffs, notably that of present-day Museum Director and former Social Services boss and Assistant CEO Allison Glassey. Glassey was spared the ax, as was long-time County hydrologist Dennis Slota. Water Agency General Manager Roland Sanford, his water agency having dried up, so to speak, was dewatered, more or less voluntarily.

At the end however, a muddled and testy exchange about whether the budget was in fact “balanced” left the Board, staff, media, and onlookers as confused about the budget picture as the Supervisors seemed to be.

Trying to wrap up the Board’s deliberation in last week’s Ukiah Daily Journal, reporter Tiffany Revelle first wrote, “[CEO Angelo’s] calculations included a $1.2 million overrun in the Sheriff's Department and a $600,000 ‘bailout’ to help close a $2.4 million overrun in the Mental Health Department, paid from a general fund reserve for mental health. Angelo said the Social Services Department absorbed the rest of the shortfall.”

Considering how confused the Board and staff was, Ms. Revelle’s initial summary was about the best that could be done.

Then, the next day, Ms. Revelle wrote, “The budget includes a $2.7 million deficit CEO Carmel Angelo proposed to close by borrowing $1.9 million from the county's general reserve and an estimated $500,000 from the county's road fund. Savings from a third round of county layoffs included in the budget won't reach the $700,000 Angelo expected because the board vetoed some of her proposed layoffs. The new savings hasn't yet been calculated, she said. Road fund borrowing would make up the difference between the reserve borrowing and salary savings from layoffs, Angelo said. The board's narrow vote came after a heated debate about whether the $1.2 million saved from a 10% pay cut for employees represented by the Deputy Sheriff's Association should be used to buoy the Sheriff's budget or pay back the county's borrowing debt. The 3-2 vote [Supervisors Colfax and Smith dissented] meant salary concessions pending negotiations with four county employee bargaining groups would pay back the debt, and the savings will be credited to the Sheriff's department. Angelo said if negotiations don't produce enough savings to pay back the county's borrowing debt, the board would have to consider more layoffs. Even so, Sheriff Tom Allman said his department's shortfall is about $3 million. He said attrition may bring it down to about $2 million this fiscal year.”

We didn’t understand it when the Supes talked about it, so we certainly don’t understand Ms. Revelle’s valiant attempt to summarize it. The only particular quibble we have with Ms. Revelle’s version would be that it’s unlikely that the salary savings that may result from negotiations with the remaining bargaining units will be applied to the Sheriff’s Department.

Willits News Reporter Mike A’Dair took a somewhat different tack.

“The Board of Supervisors and county staff discovered mid-Tuesday that county Auditor-Controller Meredith Ford and Angelo agreed to leave in the Sheriff's budget $1.2 million of savings from a 10% pay cut for employees in the Deputy Sheriff's Association, instead of using that money to repay the debt. Pinches at first argued the $1.2 million savings from DSA's concessions should go to pay back the $2.4 million of internal borrowing. He changed his mind when Ford explained she hadn't cut the sheriff's budget by that amount, so taking it out would mean a $1.2 million cut for the sheriff's department.”

In fact, Pinches had repeatedly asked how the $1.2 million in salary savings was going to be handled.

The North County cowpoke never got a clear answer.

Auditor Meredith Ford and CEO Angelo kept saying that it could be handled either way, but they didn't say which way it was handled.

Supervisor John McCowen, always a beacon of clarity although the illumination seldom reaches beyond the narrow perimeters of his skull, seemed to think he understood:

“We are on track to do exactly what we say we want to do,” McCowen declared. “It's been clear all along that salary savings were going to close the budget gap.”

Sheriff Allman painted a much less optimistic picture. “I expect a certain number of people to be leaving. After that my budget will be down to $2 million over.”

What? The Sheriff is predicting a $2 million over-run?

Pinches was aghast: “After what the Sheriff just said we're going to have to close down this whole building anyway. … I didn't mean that facetiously.”

“There’d be no choice,” agreed Colfax.

There was a pause while his colleagues patronizingly congratulated Supervisor Pinches on his perspicacity.

“I know,” said Chair Brown.

“I heard,” said Sheriff Allman.

“I understand,” said Meredith Ford.

Everybody sympathized with Supervisor Pinches’ frustration, but nobody answered his question.

Colfax took the opportunity to launch into one of his patented free association presentations.

“People in the audience here would take any question about the Sheriff’s budget to mean that I don't support public safety. Of course I do. But where are you going to get the money for the Sheriff's $2 million overage? It’s going to get worse. Closing the museum? Closing the water agency? We're at the starvation point. Are we going to close down Mendocino County? I don't have any answers. It’s absurd to cut back on these things. These are all absurdities. Somebody has to grab us by the shoulders and give us a shaking. We are going into bankruptcy. Or major restructuring. But this is a charade. We act like it's rational. But it's not. How can you cover the Sheriff’s overage and keep these agencies? If we're going down, let's go down on a principled basis. We should just go to the state and say bring it on. You're telling us to dig a big, big ditch with a teaspoon. This is not a tirade. Someone else can come up with the word. [Ed note: Dementia?] Why are we talking about this? Why are we engaging in a charade? I'm sorry, I won't be here in four months. I know this has been a bad year.”

Laments the man who makes $68,000 a year plus fringes, the man who won't cut his own pay.

Nobody, even the all-seeing, all-knowing McCowen, knows how much money the County can save with “additional salary savings,” pay cuts and layoffs in plain talk.

“I think what you do is, you hold the [Sheriff's Office] budget at $18.8 million,” suggested McCowen, “and you let the salary savings help them to meet that budget without having to lay off additional deputies.”

If only. Things got particularly testy when Colfax took offense at McCowen.

* * *

Brown: “Supervisor McCowen.”

Colfax: “Madam Chair. Mr. McCowen has responded without, uh, recognition by you, uh, twice now. I'm disgusted.”

Brown: “I'm sorry.”

Colfax: “No. I…”

Brown: “I…” (talking over each other)

McCowen: “I defer, I will defer to my colleague.”

Colfax: “Thank you. Thank you. I, you know, you've made your opinions very clear (referring to Brown) about your attitude toward a couple of supervisors here today so I would appreciate, uh, being given the same courtesy as you give, uh, one of your allies (referring to McCowen). Mr. Pinches. Supervisor Pinches! [Colfax was doubly annoyed that Pinches didn't appear to be listening to him.] What you're pointing out is this money cannot go to two places. That's the beginning and the end of this discussion. We don't have to belabor it. If you don't understand that then your ideology and your preferences and your antagonism get in the way. (Colfax gives McCowen a significant look).”

McCowen, as Miss Manners: “Uh, remember the code of conduct. Please.”

Colfax bristled.

“Ho ho ho ho ho …” Colfax chuckled sarcastically.

Chair Brown, trying to be gracious, replied: “Ok, please. Ok. I'm sorry. I apologize to you Supervisor Colfax. Where's your pen? I didn't see it up. I apologize.”

County Counsel Jeanine Nadel: “Here's what I suggest. I think everyone needs to calm down.”

Colfax: “Some of the comments made by Supervisors on my left and right were entirely inappropriate. Having said that, even as we talk right now, there is not an understanding how simple this is.”

* * *

Colfax, legendary in Boonville for his unhinged public behavior during his drinking years, was certainly right, in this case, about no understanding.

District Attorney Meredith Lintott can be depended on to add to the confusion and, sure enough, she informed the Supervisors that her office had been unfairly (and inadvertently) double-cut when $370k of savings from vacant DA’s office positions.
McCowen disagreed. He blithely informed the DA, “Actually the DA’s cut is $380k from last year, a 10% reduction.”

Was there a double dip taken out of the DA’s budget?

Who knows?

Lintott and Auditor Meredith Ford said they'd get together to reconcile the figures.

During public comment Philo’s Bev Dutra urged the board to take a meat ax to their travel and education budget.

“Why does County Counsel need $12,000 in out-of-county travel?” asked Dutra, then she ran down a list of comparable expenditures that other departments make when they take jaunts at public expense.

“Why? I see no evidence of frugality here,” Mrs. Dutra said. “There’s too much out-of-county travel. It’s time to give that a pass. Don't go to that party. Every department should do without. Stick to last year’s numbers and no more.”

In the budget document itself, however, Nadel explained the increase in travel and conference money. Nadel seemed fearful that her good times at public expense might be curtailed.

“These funds are specifically budgeted for County Counsel conferences and seminars that provide Mandatory Continuing Education credits. During the 09/10 fiscal year, the County Counsel missed one major conference due to staff shortages. Attorneys went to fewer conferences due to staff shortages, heavy workloads, far away distances, and budgetary issues. During this fiscal year, staff attorneys will need to meet their required Mandatory Continuing Education, especially in cases where Mandatory Continuing Education credits were missed due to the reasons stated above. Therefore, we will need these funds to be sure their Mandatory Continuing Education will be met.”

There’s always a reason, and if these lawyers need more “training,” they should pay for it themselves.

But the Supes approved it, as well as their own travel budget without even that much of an explanation.

After first saying he would not vote for the budget without a clear answer about how the $1.2 million in law enforcement salary savings would be handled, Pinches, who is heavily invested in the budget and considers it pretty much his personal work-product, finally gave up and voted to approve the budget with all its pie-in-the-sky numbers and who-knows-how-much red ink.

The Board will adopt the final official budget later this month.

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