Sheriff’s Budget Remains Fuzzy

by Mark Scaramella, November 18, 2010

During the discussion of the County’s annual budget all the way back in 1994 the then-Board of Supervisors unanimously declared that the Sheriff’s “overtime budget appears to be out of kilter.” Then-Sheriff Jim Tuso had spent $900,000 in those more valuable dollars (perhaps worth at least twice as much today) on overtime in his department.

Those 1994 Supervisors, lead by Fort Bragg Supervisor Liz Henry, then voted to spend $100,000 out of the Sheriff’s overtime budget to do an audit of the Sheriff’s Department. Sheriff Tuso seriously resented the Board’s decision to do the audit, and resented even more the fact that they were going to pay for it out of his own overtime budget! Tuso said he’d been “singled out” for the study, adding that if they were going to do such an audit it also ought to include the District Attorney, the Public Defender, the courts and probation.

Supervisor Henry said the audit needed to be done because during her election campaign “it had been brought up by the Sheriff’s peers in the law enforcement community that he was mismanaging the Sheriff’s Office and this audit would identify those deficiencies and show that the Sheriff’s Office was not being properly managed.” Or at least that’s the way Tuso described it in his (subsequent) response to the audit — a response that basically said he had no intention whatsoever of doing anything that the auditor recommended.

As consulting auditor Harvey Rose of Harvey Rose Consulting (a big well-respected outfit out of San Francisco) himself said in the audit report’s cover letter, “The Sheriff did not welcome this management audit. Throughout the study, the Sheriff limited our access to records and staff. At the conclusion of the study, the Sheriff chose to respond to the Board of Supervisors regarding the draft report, instead of directly responding to the audit team, as is the normal professional practice. These actions, and comments made by the Sheriff at the exit conference and in his written response, illustrate his adversarial posture during the study.”

When Harvey Rose’s report was issued in 1995 Tuso took it as a personal affront and refused to heed it. The Supervisors had paid $100,000 of Tuso’s money for an audit but the Sheriff wouldn’t even consider it.

What did the Board do? The standard Mendo answer: Set up a committee, hold some meetings, blather at it, and bury it. Conservative Supervisor Frank McMichael (now head of LAFCO) and Coast liberal Charles Peterson (no longer living in Mendocino County), the two most garrulous supervisors available at the time, were pressed into service along with the even more garrulous Sheriff, to produce enough flab-gab to keep the curious at bay and explain away the County’s failure to implement any of their expensive Auditor’s recommendations.

Oh, by the way, the meetings of this Big Three were closed to the public.

Soon the audit was forgotten — $100k down the drain.

What was it that the $100k auditor suggested that Tuso wouldn’t consider?

Not much, actually. The Auditor didn’t really tell the County or Tuso anything they didn’t already know.

Here’s a summary of Harvey Rose’s major observations and recommendations:

1. The Sheriff’s Department is top heavy — delete one top slot.

2. There are too many sergeants — delete a couple of sergeants, replace with additional deputies.

3. Too much overtime is used because of understaffing — fill vacancies.

4. Deputies spend too much time on clerical tasks — hire clerks, teach deputies to type.

5. Turnover is too high at the jail — improve recruiting.

6. Too much is spent on prisoner transportation — use video arraignment at the jail.

7. General minor administrative inefficiencies — use more e-mail, finish reports before end of shift, conduct training on regular duty (not OT), use idle on-duty staff for special events, require lieutenant approval for OT.

8. Not enough cost recovery — Recover more costs (booking fees, coroner costs, DUI costs, raid the Inmate Welfare Fund, have Indians do some of their own law enforcement on reservation land, or bill the feds for it.

Some of this has already been done, albeit years later and with no reference to the Harvey Rose recommendations: Management is down by at least one officer. Vacancies were filled. Non-uniformed clerks have been hired in some slots (particularly at the jail).

Some of the other things have been done indirectly but probably didn’t save much real money.

The Sheriff’s Department is still sergeant heavy and the County’s failure to set up an arraignment court (or a video arraignment court) is still costing a lot of money in prisoner transport — and delays and mix-ups at the Courthouse.

The Harvey Rose report didn’t mention arrest policies at all. Nor did it deal with the lack of a holding cell on the Coast. They also did not address mutual aid agreements with city police departments and the extent of coverage overlap.

Nor was there mention of alternative sentencing, homeless courts, diversion programs, an honor farm, etc.

Other things were conspicuously missing from the $100k Harvey Rose report as well.

There were no comparisons with other rural counties (Mr. Rose said they were unable to get usable comparative data “Comparative survey data was requested from ten other counties, but due to poor response from those counties only limited comparative data was available.”) There were no crime statistics summaries, There was no district-by-district analysis of staffing requirements based on actual workload (productive policing time vs. idle time) other than a summary table of shift requirements in each district (Northern, Central, and Coast Districts) obtained from the Sheriff without comment. There was no evaluation of response times by category of call (emergency, urgent, routine, none) or where. There was no analysis of how many re-assignments out of district were used to cover staffing shortfalls. And there was no analysis of what law enforcement calls “frequent flyers” — the relatively small number of people who generate a disproportionately high number of calls for service.

In other words, the County paid for a gold-plated study but got back only fool’s gold.

* * *

Crime rates in Mendocino County have been relatively stable going all the way back to before the 1995 Audit — except for marijuana, especially marijuana felonies, which spiked when DA Lintott took office.

Mr. Rose didn’t deal with the various levels of crime, didn’t break them down by type of crime — violent, serious, property, traffic, minor, mentally ill, marijuana, no-response needed, time involved, etc.

The last time we checked, a high percentage of “crime” involved things that barely rise to the level of a “crime.” Plus there are a number that are simply not crimes at all, just calls for service.

The large majority of Sheriff calls are for such relatively low priority things as traffic/vehicle violations, disturbing the peace, juvenile problems, fights, drug possession/sales/cultivation, harassment, illegal garbage dumping, begging, suicides, fireworks possession, indecent exposure, cruelty to animals, livestock problems, defrauding an innkeeper, forgery, embezzlements.

And even the more serious crimes include social/family problems not amenable to police prevention or control such as spousal and child abuse. There are always some serious crimes such as murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, assaults with deadly weapons, arsons, bomb threats, brandishing a weapon, and grand thefts, but those are a relatively small percentage of police calls.

Then there’s the handy-dandy (and frequently very large) category called “miscellaneous service calls.” There was no explanation of this catchall category in Sheriff Tuso’s response 15 years ago, and there’s been no discussion of it since. We assume that “miscellaneous service calls” are calls which don’t involve an actual crime — notifications, checks, false alarms, no one at the scene, civil problems, music too loud, “unwanted person,” shots heard, shouting heard, taken care of by the deputy, problem dissipated upon arrival, etc.

Does the Sheriff’s workload projection and staffing levels account for such things?

According to another section of the Sheriff’s response to the Harvey Rose audit, Sheriff Tuso insisted he needed extra staff to deal with “emergencies.” But there was no quantitative discussion of what this entails nor how much could be provided by various mutual aid agreements with other law enforcement agencies in the area that are already in place.

Predictably, nothing came of the closed meetings between Sheriff Tuso, Supervisor McMichael (himself a retired LA cop) and Supervisor Peterson.

In the McMichael/Peterson summary section of the audit response they wrote, “One thing became abundantly clear as a result of these proceedings. Neither Supervisor McMichael nor Supervisor Peterson, individually or collectively, are competent or capable of making a determination about how the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department should be staffed or operated.”

(One might have some fun imagining what Tuso probably bluntly told McMichael and Peterson which caused them to write those two sentences.)

But McMichael and Peterson couldn’t just let the public believe that the $100k was a total waste.

The “Management Review” of the audit, penned by McMichael and Peterson, trumpets the Audit report as providing “increased understanding,” a “cooperative dialogue,” a “venue for discussion,” a “way to understand the bottom line,” and, of course, a hope that the Mendo-meetings on the costs of the Mendocino County Justice System continue.

But even that “hope” wasn’t realized.

Result: Leave the Sheriff alone. Let him operate however he likes.

What did Sheriff Tuso think of the 1995 audit? According to Mr. Rose, not much.

“The Sheriff disagrees with nearly all of our findings and recommendations, and challenges our professional qualifications. ... We assure you that we are prepared to document and defend the findings, conclusions and recommendations contained in our final report.”

* * *

The real problem with the 1995 management audit was simple: The Board made no attempt to bring the Sheriff (or the other law enforcement agencies) into the discussion to begin with. It was imposed on an already high-strung Sheriff against his will and without his cooperation.

What were they thinking?

* * *

Fast forward to 2008.

A couple of years ago, when the current budget crunch first hit, a much less contentious Sheriff named Tom Allman told the board he’d be receptive to an audit of his department. But the only person who took him seriously was: Yours Truly. We emailed the Sheriff and offered to head up a tiger team of retired local cops (with the full participation of the Sheriff and department) with an eye toward developing specific recommendations that would simply save money. Diplomat that he is, Allman had no objection, but he didn’t actually agree, saying things were already underway to deal with the budget crunch. Which was true. Overtime went down. Sheriff’s patrol mileage went down. The Management and line officers in the Sheriff’s department took a 10% cut. Vacancies went unfilled. Outside funding was sought and obtained…

But the Sheriff’s budget crunch only got worse as uncontrollable costs (wages and pensions, primarily) increased and revenues — mostly from the County’s declining general fund — went down.

* * *

In mid-September of 2010 the Board discussed Allman’s budget gap again. At that time, two months ago, Allman said he expected to come in on budget; just a few months earlier he'd estimated a $2 million shortfall.

Wonderful!

Not exactly.

“The Board has still not addressed how the (bargaining unit) givebacks are reflected in the general fund,” declared the occasionally lucid supervisor David Colfax at the time, “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 [the budget] 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 See-All-Know-All McCowen serenely replied 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 Carmel 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 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?”

Colfax’s question was contradictory — “by his own reckoning as you see it”? Colfax wanted CEO Angelo to tell them what Allman thought?

“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.”

Auditor Ford echoed The Answer Lady.

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

None of which explained how much the Sheriff’s 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.

All this did was kick the numbers can down State Street in Ukiah. Nothing was clarified or resolved. If there was a budget problem (as it now appears), it would only get worse amongst this confused array of semi-informed opinions of what other people think. “He realizes…”? “He thinks…”? “He’s working…”? “I think…” “a good shot…”? “I’m encouraged…”?

Nobody on hand, including the Supervisors, demanded that the issue be clarified or that anybody go back to the drawing board on the single biggest (general fund) budget item in the County: The Sheriff’s Department.

* * *

Then came November 3, 2010 when CEO Carmel Angelo told the Board that she was “looking at hiring a consultant” to study the Sheriff’s Office and the Jail.

“There are lots of good consultants out there,” said Angelo, “but the problem is finding one that is within our price range. We’re hoping that the one we’ve been talking with will work out. Is the Sheriff overbudget or underfunded?”

Hmmm. They need an outside consultant to find that out?

So obviously, Ms. Angelo still doesn’t know if the Sheriff is overbudget or underfunded (which is the same thing, isn’t it?)

Given the discussion about keeping the price down, it appears that Ms. Angelo (and maybe Sheriff Allman, who wasn’t even on hand during this “audit” discussion) has in mind only a simple number crunching exercise. Which is all the more reason to wonder what she expects out of an audit and why it’s even necessary.

If the County and/or the Sheriff were to take us up on our offer to head up a tiger team operations audit of the Sheriff’s department, here are a few things we can think of right off the top to save money in the Sheriff’s Office and local law enforcement in general, none of which are likely to be raised by a consultant, especially a lo-ball bidder:

1. Stop arresting, jailing and charging low-level pot violators with felonies. Cite them, fine them, give them community service doing something useful. Tell them if they ever show up here again, it’ll be worse.

2. Set up a holding cell on the coast, or at least rehab the existing one, and staff it with auxiliary officers. This would save an enormous amount of transportation time and money. (We understand that Supervisor Kendall Smith has just upgraded the sun room at her house. Maybe she has a basement suitable for conversion to a holding tank that could be funded with the travel money she stole from the County.)

3. Arraign non-felony cases at the Jail once a week (or more) instead of hauling the usual suspects back and forth from the Courthouse to the Jail. This would save an enormous amount of deputy transportation time and money. (Patrol deputies are frequently enlisted to do prisoner transport, a very big waste of skill and money.)

4. Get the long-overdue mental health crisis van up and running using existing vehicles and staff. This would relieve the cops from dealing with non-criminal crazy people. A roving crisis worker would evaluate the 5150's and decide on the spot where they should be taken: home, hospital, doctor, other family member, jail, motel room, care facility. Or Supervisor Smith's newly remodeled house.

5. Fix the one most cost-saving thing the Harvey Rose study was right about: The Sheriff’s office has too many sergeants, 25 at last count.

In the county of Permanent Paralysis none of this, of course, will ever happen.

* * *

On November 17, Ukiah Daily Journal reporter Tiffany Revelle took yet another shot at trying to at least find out why the Sheriff and the CEO don’t agree on what the Sheriff’s budget is. (Obviously, Ms. Angelo hasn’t found a cheapo auditor yet.) Ms. Revelle’s report was so timely and on point that, with her (and the UDJ’s) permission, we’ll reprint it here.

* * *

County, MCSO differ widely on budget issues — Funding for the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office is low enough that 14 jobs are on the line, but the Sheriff and county CEO still can't agree on how the deficit came about.

"It's been that way for the last four years," MCSO Administrative Services Manager Norman Thurston said of the disconnect between the offices on budget issues in recent years -- despite his regular communication with Mendocino County CEO Carmel Angelo.

Angelo was only appointed CEO in January, but as she updated the Board of Supervisors Nov. 9 on the county's finances, she echoed her predecessors' assurances that the two offices had worked closely on budget issues. She called a $1.8 million deficit in the sheriff's budget "quite surprising to all of us" in light of savings from pay cuts, credited to the Sheriff's Office in July.

A 10 percent pay cut negotiated with the Deputy Sheriff's Association in July saved the county more than $1 million.

While the Board of Supervisors discussed whether the savings would go to the sheriff's budget or to the county's general fund during annual budget hearings in late-August, board members and county officials kept saying the actual amount was $1.1 million, or $1.2 million, depending on who was speaking.

Thurston's budget spreadsheet shows the amount credited to the Sheriff's Office budget from DSA wage concessions is $1,315,224.

Those differences aside, the two offices still can't agree on whether those savings closed the sheriff's budget gap.

Despite the fact that Sheriff Tom Allman said his department's shortfall was about $3 million during the same late-August budget hearings, Angelo told the Board of Supervisors during her first-quarter budget report this month that the $1.8 million deficit found in the sheriff's budget "was quite surprising to all of us."

She added that considering the $1.3 million in savings credited to Allman's budget that "the sheriff and I both thought that we would be looking at the Sheriff's Office coming in on budget."

"That was never my understanding," Thurston said. "I can't imagine how anybody would get that understanding."

The heart of the issue is what Thurston said is a long-running lack of adequate funding for sheriff's operations. Angelo has contended it's overspending.

Thurston said the problem is that the CEO's office calculates the amount of money the county general fund will assign to the department each year — called the net county cost — based on what that amount was in prior years, not based on what the department needs.

"Over the years, we've been asked to absorb huge (cost) increases, particularly in retirement and salary increases, and we've absorbed those costs beyond our capacity to do so," Thurston said.

Angelo said the $1.8 million overrun was discovered in October as she was preparing her first-quarter budget report for the Board of Supervisors. Allman said he has whittled the gap down to $1.3 million since then.

That's after the wage concessions, according to Thurston.

His budget spreadsheet shows a $4 million shortfall when the Sheriff's Office was allotted $18.5 million for this year. The department asked for $22.5 million to cover its costs. Five expected vacancies worth about $500,000, using $200,000 of asset forfeiture money for overtime and the DSA savings closed the gap to $1.7 million, and overruns in something called "garage billing" and overtime brought the gap back up to $1.9 million.

On Oct. 22, Thurston entered six line items that brought the expected shortfall down to $1.4 million, including revenue from the state, zip tie revenue, Department of Motor Vehicles fees offsetting jail technicians' pay, more than $17,000 of unexpected grant money and another $174,000 worth of attrition closed the sheriff's budget gap to $1.4 million.

Thurston said another $100,000 of savings brought the gap to $1.3 million this month when the hours the county's lead psychiatrist spends at the jail were cut from about 20 per week to about 8 hours weekly.

The question of how to close the remaining gap remains.

No one knows yet which jobs will be cut, or whether some of them could be jobs that are already vacant, according to Thurston. He said he's been in communication with Angelo's office, but hadn't heard from them this week.

Angelo is out of town through Friday.

* * *

There are several things noteworthy about Ms. Revelle’s report and its obvious implications:

• Nobody involved has demanded that the two organizations (Sheriff and CEO) sit down with tabulated revenue and expense sheets, account by account, line by line, to resolve the issue.

• Rhetoric aside, nobody really wants to do an audit of any kind, financial or operational, small or large.

• County Auditor Meredith Ford has not been asked to weigh in on this critical issue. (Instead they’re talking about an outside paid auditor.)

• None of the sitting Supervisors have even put the question of the Sheriff’s budget on their agenda. In fact, they’re all off on a two-week Thanksgiving vacation and there won’t be another board meeting until November 30.

As long as this completely intolerable confusion reigns, the Sheriff's vague plans to propose a special tax on selected districts around the County that have/want resident deputies will be hard for people to support. People frequently say that they shouldn't be asked to pay for services the County is supposed to provide, and if there's not enough money it's the County's problem, not the taxpayers'.

Without an audit, without a clear understanding of what’s driving the Sheriff’s — $18 million? $20 million? $22 million? — budget, how can they convince people to fork over for a new tax?

If the resounding 70% to 30% vote against Measure C is any indication, the Supervisors have a lot of explaining to do.

By the way, our offer to at least try to set up a tiger team audit still stands.

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