A Brief History of the Sheriff’s Budget

by Mark Scaramella, November 25, 2010

Back in 1994, the Board of Supervisors unanimously declared that the Sheriff’s “overtime budget appears to be out of kilter.” Sheriff Jim Tuso had spent $900,000 more on over­time than he had in his budget.

Money was worth more then and the State of Califor­nia and the County of Mendocino were still solvent.

The 1994 Supervisors, lead by Fort Bragg Supervisor Liz Henry, the last competent person to represent the Fourth District, voted to take $100,000 out of the Sher­iff’s overtime budget to audit the Sheriff’s Department.

Sheriff Tuso seriously resented the Board’s decision to do the audit, and resented even more that the Supervi­sors were going to pay for it out of his overtime budget. Tuso said he’d been “singled out” for the study, adding that if the Supervisors were going to audit law enforce­ment they also ought to include the District Attorney, the Public Defender, the courts and probation. (Tuso had a point: fiscal profligacy, then and now, reigned in Men­docino County.)

Supervisor Henry said “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.” At least that’s the way Tuso described it in his (subsequent) response to the audit — a response that said he had no intention whatsoever of doing anything that the auditor recommended.

Harvey Rose Consulting of San Francisco enjoys a reputation for not fudging the books. His report began, “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.”

The Sheriff is elected. The Supervisors, if they had the spine for it, could balance his books for him, but such a showdown is unlikely given the flabby, weak-willed political givens of Mendocino County.

When Harvey Rose’s report was issued in 1995, Tuso, to whom the slightest criticism was a personal attack, predictably took Rose's report personally and refused to heed it.

The Supervisors had paid $100,000 of Tuso’s money for an audit the Sheriff ignored.

Did the Supervisors bring Tuso to heel?

Of course not.

They took the Mendo way out.

They set up a committee, held some meetings, blath­ered about the Sheriff's inability to spend within boundaries, and buried Rose's report, thus squandering a hundred thousand tax dollars.

Conservative Supervisor Frank McMichael is a Get Government Off Our Backs guy who presently heads up LAFCO, the County's Local Agency Formation Com­mission. He's also a quadruple dipper, drawing a military pension, a cop pension, and a supervisor's pension in addition to his present government light duty, big pay duties as LAFCO Man. McGovernment teamed up with the garrulous, magically perceived Coast liberal Charles Peterson, who no longer lives in Mendocino County, to serve on the phony oversight committee whose pointless deliberations were closed to the public.

And everyone in local government went on as if Har­vey Rose had never happened.

What was it that the $100k auditor suggested that Tuso refused to consider and the Supervisors ignored?

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

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 was eventually 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 to do some of the clerical jobs uniformed officers had been doing.

But the Sheriff’s Department is still sergeant-heavy and the County’s failure to set up an arraignment court at the County Jail, or a video arraignment for that matter, is still costing a lot of money in prisoner transport, and delays and mix-ups and security risks at the Courthouse.

(The Mendocino County Jail is a little more than a mile from the County Courthouse. Every day, prisoners have to be transported back and forth to court appearance at great cost in escort and transport time. In fairness to the Sheriff, Mendocino County's lushly staffed Superior Court — more judges relative to population of any county in the state — resists any and all reform of cur­rent arrangements.)

The Harvey Rose report didn’t mention arrest poli­cies. Nor did it deal with the lack of a holding cell on the Coast. Persons arrested anywhere on the Mendocino Coast, an hour to an hour-and-a-half from the County Jail in Ukiah at a minimum, must be transported all the way to Ukiah. And there are lots of arrests every day on the Mendocino Coast.

There was no mention of the less expensive alterna­tives of more thoughtful sentencing, separate courts for the homeless and chronic drunks, diversion programs, an honor farm, and so on. Again, in fairness to the Sheriff, the Superior Court could, if it ever took any initiative beyond its own comfort and welfare, push cost-saving measures.

* * *

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

The large majority of Sheriff calls are for non-threat­ening matters or “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.  

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 already in place.

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

The auditors bluntly dismissed McMichael's and Peter­son's work: “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.”

But McMichael and Peterson seemed to think they did swell. They said the audit and their committee had “increased understanding,” had begun a “cooperative dialogue,” established a “venue for discussion,” found a “way to understand the bottom line,” and concluded as Mendo Meetings of the free lunch type always conclude, that there would be more meetings.

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 a nearly clinically paranoid Sheriff against his will and without his cooperation.

What were they thinking?

* * *

Fast forward to 2008.

When the current budget crunch first hit, a much less contentious Sheriff named Tom Allman told the Supervi­sors 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 the 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 has gone down. Sheriff’s patrol mileage has decreased. Department brass and line officers took cuts. Vacancies went unfilled. Outside funding was sought and obtained…

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

* * *

In mid-September of 2010 the Board discussed All­man’s budget gap. Allman said he expected to come in on budget when 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, “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 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, “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 pointless gibberish did was kick the numbers can down the County's littered roads.

Nobody demanded that the issue be clarified on the single biggest draw on Mendocino County's general fund — 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?”

Ms. Angelo, obviously, still doesn’t know if the Sher­iff is overbudget or underfunded, and how likely is it, given the history of police funding in Mendocino County that a consultant's advice on cost-saving meas­ures would be adopted?

Dear Ms. Angelo: Boonville Consultants, a private no-charge cadre of uncredentialed experts, offers the following suggestions at no cost to the taxpayers of Mendocino County.

1. Stop arresting, jailing and charging low-level pot violators with felonies. Cite them, fine them, give them community service doing something useful.

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 your good friend 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 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 at the risk of public safety.

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. The cops are presently tasked with sorting out the mentally ill.

5. The Sheriff’s office still is paying too many ser­geants, 25 at last count. How many chiefs do a around a hundred Indians need?

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.

In the county of Permanent Paralysis it's easy to see what will happen. There will be a lot of back and forth between the Sheriff and the Supervisors before the Supervisors, as per tradition, disappear behind a com­mittee “to attempt to resolve the dispute” and no funda­mental changes will occur in the operations of the Sher­iff's Department. When push comes to shove, the Super­visors always cave. And the cops are a lot more popular than the Supervisors, a fact we're sure Sheriff Allman is well aware of.

As long as this confusion reigns, the Sheriff's sensi­ble suggestion to propose a special law enforcement tax on selected districts with resident deputies around the County is unlikely to gain traction. As it stands, most people 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'.

True in theory, but these aren't ordinary times.

Anyway, without a real, independent audit, without a clear understanding of the true status of the Sheriff’s budget — $18 million? $20 million? $22 million? — how can the Supervisors 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 'splaining to do.

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