Anybody Here Know How To Count?

by Mark Scaramella, September 23, 2010

Not long after the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors made one more muddled attempt at clearing up the confusion over their “balanced budget” at last Tuesday’s Board meeting, the County’s primary employee union, Service Employees International Union Local 1021, applied its own math and came up All Questions — 14 of them.

County CEO Carmel Angelo told the Board Tuesday that the deficit is down to $2.2 million from $2.7 million. Five hundred grand in “discovered savings” had materialized. Ms. Angelo said she intends to cover the remaining deficit by “borrowing” from general reserves while she hopes salary concessions will make up most of the rest of the deficit.

But the Union is skeptical, because 1. the extent of their potential concessions depends on how much the County hopes to make up, and 2. the County’s history of bargaining in good faith has been so far pretty faithless.

"We are taking a methodical approach as we are not at all confident that the information that we have about the budget is correct," said an internal union update sent to the membership last week. The union's concerns include a “nearly $3 million discrepancy in the budget analysis by the CEO,” the “mixed message” sent by the layoff of “over 50 employees while hiring nearly 70 (employees)” since July 2007 and “double standards” generally, an apparent reference to the perceived protection of administrators over line staff.

“We asked why the Sheriff's Office budget unit gets credited for vacant positions and SEIU does not,” the SEIU update asks.

County CEO Angelo, who continues to meet with Union and County negotiators, disagreed. “Every department is credited for vacant positions,” she told the Ukiah Daily Journal.

At Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting Angelo said she’d spoken to Sheriff Allman and that Allman had said he now expects to come in on budget; he'd previously estimated a $2 million shortfall.

“The Board has still not addressed how the givebacks are reflected in the general fund,” declared the occasionally lucid supervisor David Colfax last Tuesday when the budget had to be finalized, “I’ve heard contradictory interpretations of the impact of the $1.2 million from the [Deputy Sheriff’s Association] salary reduction and impact on Sheriff’s budget. There’s a general pattern of not giving back to departments. … What is the impact on Sheriff’s budget? I can't support this as it stands. It’s inappropriate to approve the budget without clarification of policy and the numbers two weeks ago versus the numbers on the table today."

Supervisor McCowen serenely stated that everything was fine.

“The policy issues were resolved by the vote of the board two weeks ago. Changes would require a 4/5ths vote. I’m doubtful that four of us would agree on anything.”

CEO Angelo added to the confusion.

“This has been a difficult development process. One struggle after the other. Our shortfall was not much more than the shortfall for last year. Last year MTO made up the savings from the general reserves. I anticipate the same thing with givebacks this year. We went into the final numbers with a $4.8 million deficit. Savings would be taken out of the $4.8 to be clear. Historically, it is booked into a budget unit and in this case it was booked into those departments. With the $1.2 million from the DSA, the thought was that any money we borrowed would be paid back through wage concessions. But the money saved from those bargaining units would go back to those departments. … As it turns out with the DSA savings of $1.2 million, the thought was that any money we borrowed would be paid back through wage concessions. But again the money saved from those negotiations would go back to those departments. So when you look at the way the money was booked into the system, in order to take the $1.2 million and book that into the Sheriff’s Office would have meant that the Sheriff, who said from the beginning that he needed $23.5 million and the Executive office believed that $18.8 million should do it for the Sheriff’s Office, this board voted on the $18.8 million. To be consistent with the Sheriff’s Office would have meant that this board would have approved the Sheriff’s budget at $17.6 million approximately. The Sheriff’s budget should have been $17.6, but it’s still at $18.8 million. We're pretty certain that with those numbers and the DSA savings the Sheriff will be able to stay on budget. We didn't have to use the road fund. We did better than anticipated. We’ll be coming back every month as part of monitoring.”

Auditor Meredith Ford’s also contributed to the rhetorical mayhem.

"The Board did vote to do what the CEO and I did, not to reduce the Sheriff’s budget any further. The Sheriff says he won't lay off any sworn deputies. The Sheriff says he'll be over $2 million. So it's pay me now or pay me later.”

Colfax tried again.

“What do you expect the Sheriff to be over next year? By his own reckoning as you see it and understand it?”

“He realizes his budget has remained at approximately $18.8,” blandly responded The Answer Lady, Ms. Angelo, “and he thinks that chances are really good that he will come in close to that. He's actively working to procure additional grant funds and continue to reduce overtime and participate in the same cost cutting as other departments. I think with $18.8 he has a good shot at coming in on budget.”

Ford echoed The Answer Lady.

“I’m encouraged that he expects to meet his assigned county cost given the actions taken.”

None of which explains how much the deficit really is or how much the remaining employee negotiations will be expected to make up or what the Sheriff's budget really is.

Nor were Sheriff Allman or his numbers guy Norm Thurston asked to confirm Ms. Angelo’s rosy claim.

Kicking the numbers can down State Street is likely to make the human implications of those numbers much more painful. Many line employees say they’d prefer another year’s worth of mandatory time off because that way their salaries stay where they are (but with fewer hours) and their pensions are not reduced proportionately.

Negotiations continue this week but they’re not off to a good start.

* * *

The Board also discussed Animal Care fee increases. Supervisor John Pinches, the lone dissenter, said he felt the large increases “for full cost recovery” will result in fewer people turning in pets for proper disposition.

There is the recurrent rumor, by the way, that the Ukiah Animal Shelter, a no-kill facility, farms unadopted dogs out to Bones Pet Rescue in Covelo, a controversial no-kill shelter recently in the news when a hundred or so dogs were incinerated in a house fire. The point of exiling the dogs to Covelo is to make it appear that Ukiah's adoption program is a barking success when it barely yips along.

Toward the end of the fee discussion, Supervisor John McCowen boldly plunged into the middle of America's most formidable political interest group about whom Willie Brown once commented, "Don't mess with the animal people. They can turn out more protesters faster than any other group, and I'm talking gays, any ethnics, cops, anyone!"

McCowen said there was “a bigger issue than these fee increases that I don't think is being addressed for political reasons because it would provoke a firestorm of controversy. The feeding and care of the animals that are quarantined or that have been picked up and are awaiting their owners to retrieve them is probably not the big driver on the shelter. It's the fact that we in effect have a no-kill shelter and we have animals that are kept in the shelter for a year or longer and the director, on a brief tour I took, pointed out to me one particular dog that had been there over a year and she says, ‘I will never kill that dog.’ So that's the attitude — we won't kill them; we also won't adopt them out. We will warehouse them forever, which I don't think is very humane to the animals, but that's what we're doing. We have a large number of dogs and cats, many of which will probably never be adopted out, but we're warehousing them. I think we really do have to be smart about how we use available resources, and if there is no other individual or agency out there willing to adopt certain animals after a reasonable time, I don't know that it's really appropriate for the County to warehouse them indefinitely. But that's where we are. Staff should be looking at this.”

Although McCowen may have a small point, we don’t think killing a few abandoned dogs and cats will make much of a dent in the County’s General Fund deficit. In fact, if Supervisor Kendall Smith simply returned the $3,000 in travel money she stole, the Animal Care Division could probably operate as is for another year or two.

* * *

CEO Angelo did say she had some “good news” though — internships in the CEO's office.

“Through Mendocino College we have arranged for some political science internships — thanks to Al Beltrami who is the benefactor. A small stipend goes to the student from Mr. Beltrami. It’s really nice of him.”

Mendocino County trying to indoctrinate or train a budding politician reminds me of what a Catholic Air Force Officer (who had a Master’s in Economics from Notre Dame) once told me: “Seventeen years of strict Catholic upbringing is enough to make an atheist out of anybody!”

(Our advice to Mendo Interns: Run! The psychic price you’ll pay for associating with these people will destroy your youth!)Supervisor Pinches had read the internship specs.

“According to this brochure I could learn the skills necessary to conduct a successful political campaign.”

“That is the one area we said we didn't need an intern to work on,” replied Ms. Angelo. “We are not training interns on political campaigns.”

Pinches: “Where do I sign up?”

Colfax: “I hope that one of the jobs of the intern will be to proofread the document. This is a very nice brochure, but it might be correctly stated that these are internships. This is a serious business. But I think here that we want is, uh, cooperative friendly interns, not necessarily stern and uh…”

Angelo: “Well, we're hoping to use interns to help with communications in verbal and written so we could really look at that.”

Colfax: “It's a nice brochure; it's just too bad that that [Ed note: a very minor typo that said 'insternship' instead of 'internship'] was not caught.”

Angelo: “Ok. Well, thank you.”

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