Peter Mugs Paul For Loose Change
by Mark Scaramella, November 26, 2010
How much local property tax money should be allocated to the administration of the Community Services District’s Recreation Committee, Teen Center, and Boonville International Airport??
For the last few years the Board of the only local government the Anderson Valley has, has decided to give these varying community entities an annual discount on their administrative services.
When former District General Manager Serina Wallace came on board last year she noticed that the District was paying for a number of overhead expenses — electricity, phone, internet, her own paycheck, and so on — with multiple checks. Ms. Wallace kept detailed track of how much time she spent on each function and calculated how much each cost in administrative costs; these costs were then waived, either in part or entirely each year. The fire department paid its full administrative cost share.
This cumbersome arrangement became a sensible proposal from Ms. Wallace for a "combined budget" in which most overhead expenses would be paid for directly, with one check, out of property taxes; individual committees would budget only for actual operating costs.
Ms. Wallace, unfortunately, and apparently due to ill health, has been forced to leave her job, leaving her consolidation proposal unfinished.
Meanwhile, the Board had already put the question of how to deal with overhead administration on their November agenda, the sub theme, with lots of people, being that consolidation would take from the fire department's budget.
Fire Chief Colin Wilson has consistently said that the combined overhead funding approach will indeed take money from the Fire Department conceding that the amounts involved are small and the true fiscal impact on the fire department is not clear.
When Board Chair Diane Paget put the item on last week's agenda Chief Wilson invited several local firefighters to attend and lobby the Board against the proposal.
The Recreation Committee also marshaled its limited cadre to argue for a more sensible overall administrative consolidation.
Ms. Paget said that in round numbers the Fire Department budget is around $333,000 a year, approximately $163,000 of which comes from property taxes and $120,000 comes from the benefit assessment. (The rest is from grants, donations and strike team reimbursements.)
The District gets about $178,000 a year in total property taxes. Based on Ms. Wallace's recent calculations the Recreation Committee costs about $1000 in admin fees, the Airport about $1500 and the Teen Center about $500 for a total of around $3,000 which, Paget said, was the true amount involved.
These numbers, however, can vary significantly depending on the amount of admin time each requires.
Wilson said it wasn't the $3000 so much as the slippery slope that consolidation represented. He agreed that at present the Fire Department budget looks pretty good, but that may not be the case in the years to come, and that consolidated administration costs could grow.
The Teen Center and Recreation Committee representatives — primarily Colleen Schenk, Donna Pierson-Pugh and Linnea Totten — said that the amount was small, that most of the work done by the Recreation Committee and Teen Center was volunteered and that there was "no wide open door."
Director Kirk Wilder and Director Andrea LaCampagne both said they thought that the consolidated or combined budget was a good idea as long as there were specific controls on how much could be spent on it.
Yorkville's Kay Jablonski wanted to know why there was a need for the change in the first place.
Larry Mailliard of Yorkville's Mailliard Ranch, suggested that if the Recreation Committee was so concerned about funding they could go to the ballot and get their own benefit assessment like the Fire Department did last century.
Firefighter John Keevan-Lynch called the proposal "creeping expropriation," adding that he didn't see where the Recreation Committee or the Teen Center were doing the level of volunteer work that the firefighters were doing.
The Recreation and Airport people insist that they do a lot of volunteer work and that the amounts they were asking for were relatively small.
The discussion threatened to become a martyr-ish debate over who was the most selfless.
Senior Yorkville volunteer firefighter Tim Holliday said that the Fire Department had a broad community benefit but that the Recreation Committee benefited only the few people who recreated under its auspices. "If it's not self-sustaining, maybe it should be eliminated," suggested Holliday.
Senior volunteer firefighter volunteer Judy Long of Navarro said that she didn't understand why the Recreation Committee and Teen Center didn't do more fund-raising — she had not seen them doing car washes and had not received fundraising appeals in the mail.
Donna Pierson-Pugh replied that indeed the Recreation Committee and the Teen Center had done quite a bit of fundraising and had applied for grants. "We have been very busy!" insisted Pierson-Pugh.
The large segment of the community who feel that subsidized recreation in a rural area is silly on its face — "If kids are too dumb and unimaginative to amuse themselves, that's their problem" — were probably best represented by people speaking for the Fire Department.
Ms. Totten said that the difference between the Fire Department and the Recreation/Teen Center was that the Fire Department needs ongoing funding whereas the Recreation Committee and Teen Center fundraise for individual classes and activities which are self-funding — except for administration.
Philo stalwart Beverly Dutra said that it seemed like the Board was shooting from the hip and did not do the necessary long range planning identifying what the funding priorities are.
Long time CSD observer Gene Herr thought that the Recreation Committee was not doing enough activities for adults and that the activities at present seem limited to teenagers.
Pierson-Pugh said that they had held a community recreation forum recently where 40-50 people showed up and that indeed the Community Park, the Teen Center and other activities do benefit the community at large.
Former board member Barbara Scott wrote a letter to the board saying that she felt the process was fine as is and it did not need to be changed, as did Kate Castagnola of Signal Ridge.
Chair Paget said that she thought the programs for teens were important because there's basically nothing for them to do in the Valley and that without a Teen Center all that would be available for teenagers would be to "go to the gravel pit to get drunk and pregnant."
Tim Holliday quickly responded, "Ahhh — those were the days!"
Everybody got a good laugh.
Kirk Wilder said that the amounts involved were small, that the Recreation Committee and Teen Center give kids a good thing to do which translates into less crime in the Valley. "Good kids become good adults," said Wilder.
Wilder added that he supported the combined budget approach as long as there were strict controls on how much was spent on administration.
Director Kathleen McKenna said that the proposal was simply making policy out of what they had been doing piecemeal.
Director LaCampagne said that there still needs to be a clear definition of what basic administration is. She acknowledged that without precise definition the proposal could become a blank fiscal check. She suggested a cap on administration, adding that she did not think that combining the admin costs would imperil the fire department.
LaCampagne complimented the Chief on his frugality and pointed out that the Board had left almost all Fire Department operations and expenditures to the Chief. Pointing out that for the Recreation Committee the admin fee subsidy amounts to only $100 a month and that the Recreation Committee did have community value. LaCampagne also said that it is comparatively easy to fund raise for something as essential as the fire department, but the issue shouldn't be just about money — "it should be about doing the right thing. We need things for kids. … We are big enough to say yes to this. There should be no fear of a runaway train. We could put a cap on it."
Director McKenna then made the motion to implement the combined budget idea and started listing individual accounts which would be included in administration.
Chief Wilson suggested that they not enumerate specific admin accounts at this time and decide that later when a new general manager was hired. Wilson suggested simply saying that accounts which have been "historically" paid for administration be covered under the policy and let the staff come up with the specifics. "After all," said Chief Wilson, neatly summing up the mini-dispute, "This is just moving money from Peter to pay Paul."
Mrs. Dutra remarked that leaving it undefined like this was very "woofy" which she later explained meant that there "would be a lot of barking back if they do this — maybe even a bite or two."
Board member Valerie Hanelt was out of town, but submitted a letter expressing her reservations that letting the Teen Center, Recreation and Airport committees be subsidized by property taxes might lead to less active pursuit of funding for those programs. She also said that "a program receiving a subsidy to operate becomes institutionalized and could continue to exist even without community support. Without monies from grants and fund-raising a program could become dormant and become a continuous drain on CSD resources. Basically the program would become the CSD's problem."
The board then voted 4-0 to implement the concept — no caps.
Before everyone left, Chair Paget brought up the possibility that the District consider pursuing some kind of special tax to fund or partially fund law enforcement in the Valley. The volunteers still in the room were far from enthusiastic about the idea; Mrs. Long was particularly blunt saying that the County has plenty of money and should be able to manage it in a way which would properly fund resident deputies.
In theory, Ms. Long is right. In practice, there's no evidence that the County can competently manage money. The way things are going the Valley could soon be left without a resident deputy. Deputy Squires is way past retirement age, deputy Walker could leave any time for a more lucrative post in another county. But for now, there does not appear to be much local interest in doing the tedious legwork necessary to develop a special tax ballot measure.
Ms. Paget reported that the District had received five resumes for the freshly vacant General Manager position. Former General Manager Dawn Balantine is doing the bookkeeping in the interim.