Squeezing the Sheriff’s Dry Turnip

by Mark Scaramella, December 9, 2010

Courtesy tomallman.com

Can marijuana money save the Sheriff’s budget? Can it re-juice his turnip?

This Only-In-Mendo question was discussed at length at last Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting as the Board and Sheriff Tom Allman took yet another shot at trying to close what County CEO Carmel Angelo says is still a $1.35 million shortfall in the Sheriff’s budget.

CEO Angelo had even prepared a list of layoffs, proposing that six of the Sheriff’s clerks, three deputy positions and five sergeant positions be eliminated. Ms. Angelo said these cuts would reduce the Sheriff’s $1.35 million deficit by about $600,000 for the rest of this fiscal year, through June 30, 2011. The CEO didn’t even try to deal with the rest of the Sheriff’s $1.35 million budget gap.

Sheriff Allman began his rebuttal by declaring Ms. Angelo’s list to be “illegal” because he, the Sheriff, had not prepared it.

But County Counsel Jeanine Nadel disagreed, saying the Board was within its authority to eliminate positions in the Sheriff’s office, the Sheriff being elected, the Supervisors controlling his purse strings.

Allman complained that although the Board had ordered Ms. Angelo to work with him in preparing the list, “the phone never rang.”

Ms. Angelo replied that she had had a lot of trouble figuring out which Sheriff’s positions were funded out of which fund and which were vacant and which weren't. She'd sent her layoff recommendations to the Sheriff the week before but but hadn't heard from him.

Allman then asked for a 45 day stay of execution because the CEO's hit list didn’t account for looming resignations and retirements.

Angelo said the list did include those she knew about but that if the Sheriff had more, fine.

At one point Allman said if the Board went through with the proposed layoffs he’d be forced to sue the Board on grounds that public safety would be jeopardized.

Seeing that the CEO and the Sheriff still had “issues,” the Board took a lunch recess to give the Sheriff and the CEO an opportunity to harmonize their differences.

After lunch Allman said he could re-allocate about $257k in asset forfeiture funds currently earmarked for a new digital phone system to offset the cost of the clerical workers on the layoff list, bringing the deficit down to a still very large $1.1 million. Allman also wanted to swap two deputy positions for corrections officer positions, meaning that two deputies would be transferred to funded vacancies at the jail.

Most of the rest of the Board discussion revolved around whether the Board would impose the position eliminations on the Sheriff or if they’d “trust” the Sheriff to make the necessary cuts himself.

Allman wanted to retain flexibility to see if new revenues come in by the end of January and if more resignations or retirements might further reduce the number of layoffs required.

Ms. Angelo and County Auditor Meredith Ford said that the County’s overall budget picture was actually much worse than just the Sheriff’s still-large budget gap.

For example, there are still three bargaining units (one of which is the largest: Service Employees International Union) which have expired contracts and are still in negotiation. The County hopes to get some wage concessions from those three unions but any savings must go to replacing reserves and special funds that have already been “borrowed” from to balance the budget.

The only new source of revenue mentioned last Tuesday was the County’s relatively new marijuana dispensary program.

According to an acupuncturist-turned-Medical Marijuana compliance inspector named Julie Carrera, pot could well be a “miracle” solution to the County’s budget problems.

“We would like to deliver a proposal that could save all the deputy jobs,” said the fashionably jolly Ms. Carrera. “Other counties are looking at marijuana to balance their budget. Just allow us to present it to you intelligently, with backup, with legitimate forecasts. This would be a whole ’nother meeting if you did. People want to do this. This is a beautiful thing, not a bunch of criminals trying to kick someone. People believe in the program and want to contribute to this. I was an acupuncturist, but now they call me a pot whisperer. I find it fascinating. I’m just an inspector. [Pot] people are providing transparency to the Sheriff and inspectors. I have some general numbers that could generate at minimum $600k to $700k in one year. That’s the very minimum. None of us know the maximum. Allow the process. There could be from 100 to 500 new permit applications next year. And more the year after that when people realize that the biggest growers are safe.”

The dispensary permit process is the brainchild of Supervisor John McCowen who predictably said he agreed with Ms. Carrera. Pot can not only solve all our medical problems no matter how loosely you define “medical,” it can also solve all our budget problems too! Even the Sheriff’s budget problems! Nevermind that the process is long and complicated and nevermind that the federal pot policy remains zero tolerance. You sign up for all this local stuff and here come the feds anyway.

“All the reports are that the program is working,” insisted McCowen, “and it’s moving toward compliance, not ways to penalize.”

“Yes — and they’re pleased to do it,” chirped Ms. Carrera, “and every single one will do it and have a record of doing it.”

Sheriff’s Captain Kurt Smallcomb rose to throw a little cold water on the idea. “Just to respond,” said Smallcomb. “I’m a medical marijuana supporter, but just for the record, Prop 19 was voted down in the County and the state.”

County Auditor Meredith Ford threw more cold water.

“I’d like to remind the Board that unless there is some legal excuse to not do cost recovery, the County can only recover what’s spent. You can’t make a profit. I don’t know what they’re using [as a basis for financial projections] but if we don’t expend the money we can’t recover it. ”

McCowen was undaunted.

“My numbers are based on cost recovery,” said McCowen. “We can raise the price [for permits and zipties] and still be within actual cost.”

Ford said that would be splendid if true, not that she said splendid. Today's public servants aren't much for superlatives other than "excellent," which they apply exclusively and liberally to each other.

Supervisor Kendall Smith sagely disagreed.

“Pot money isn’t going to solve the total problem,” declared Smith, repeating herself four more times. “Expected pot money can’t balance the budget. You can’t base it on that. Pot money is funny money. You can’t balance the budget on that.” (She went on at much further length, but we'll spare you that.)

Further depressing the big budget picture was Auditor Ford’s assessment of the County’s overall budget situation.

“The 2010/11 budget was balanced on a wing and a prayer,” Ford said. “We wiped out the general reserve and borrowed from designated reserves. We expected that through labor negotiations we’d be able to restore some of those reserves. So to restore the reserves, every department has to come in at assigned net county cost. Public safety already has the bulk of the net county cost. So there already is an emphasis on public safety. But there isn’t enough money to pay what we’d like to pay. If we postpone longer than today we just dig the hole deeper and we can’t afford to do that.”

Ford veered off into techno-talk about the County’s borrowing procedures, which she refers to as “Trans” borrowing. “That would become questionable,” continued Ford referring to what would happen if the layoffs were not made. “Cash flow would be insufficient to demonstrate that we could pay back the Trans if we got it. This year we borrowed $24 million to operate during the dry period from July to December before the property tax money comes in. It’s horrendous. The process is already hard. To compound it with more outgoing cash flow makes it worse. I don’t see how we can continue to qualify, or to refinance [some bonds] which would save us more than $2 million. If we can’t qualify then we have to pay the higher bond interest rate. That’s $70k we could be saving if we could qualify for a refinance, but we can’t, given our dire financial straits. Unless we got some big savings from labor negotiations, we’re going to be in horrible financial straits come 2011. We have to have some reserve restoration to go into next year. And every department must live within its budget. We have to eliminate the $1.3 million and then have everybody else stay in budget and use savings from labor negotiations to restore reserves. We should have had a hiring freeze in place earlier.”

Translation: “Irresponsible incompetents that you are, Supervisors, you tried to borrow your way to solvency, kicked the can down the fiscal road in the prevalent cliche, and now we're worse off than ever.”

The County should have done lots of things earlier. The sales tax proposal, which went down to a resounding defeat in November, should have been proposed two years ago when the budget problem first arose and the public's opinion of the Board of Supervisors was less bad; an audit of the Sheriff’s department and law enforcement in general is long overdue; an arraignment court at the jail (steadily resisted by their majesties of the Superior Court of Mendocino County); a reduction in low-level pot arrests, and so on. But Mendo being Mendo where entropy is a way of life, nothing was done “earlier” and now the Sheriff and the rest of the County is painted into a budgetary corner.

Ford concluded that any new revenues would have to go toward restoring reserves.

The upshot of all this was that CEO Angelo reverted to her original hard-line proposal of laying off all 14 Sheriff's Department people, emphasizing that it’s important to get started now because the layoff process takes 45 to 60 days. If some pot funding “miraculously” became available, the layoff notices could be rescinded.

At the end of the day, as the lives of more than a dozen County employees dangled like so many empty Christmas stockings, and after much stumbling wordsmithing, the board voted unanimously to approve a motion to accept Allman’s $257k asset forfeiture (aka pot) money and his offer to swap two corrections layoffs for two deputy layoffs, then leave the rest up to Allman to sort out.

“If it's deputies I lay off,” said Allman, “I will demote sergeants. At this point my command staff and I are going to regroup.”

According to the motion, Allman’s position eliminations are supposed to be decided on by December 20, 2010. The next Board meeting after that, of course, isn’t until early January. So Allman actually got a reprieve of almost a month, over the holiday break — a month of continued spending and postponed savings.

The overall picture remains bleak. The Sheriff is already applying $200k of asset forfeiture money to overtime and part of this latest precarious offset arrangement involves covering $257k worth of budgeted overtime with the additional asset forfeiture money, then applying the $257k of overtime money to fund the clerical staff that was slated for layoff.

“If the pot money comes in there’d be a revisit,” said Allman, “but the turnip is running dry. If sergeants are demoted, five deputy sheriff’s will lose their jobs per civil service [bumping] procedure. So five deputies is the same thing. I will demote sergeants to deputies.”

“But,” added CEO Angelo, “this is only half way there. I don’t know where the rest [of the approximately $600k of deficit reduction money] will come from.”

“If this doesn’t achieve the savings,” promised Allman, “we can deal with it then. I ask you to trust the Sheriff’s Office and our command staff.”

Supervisor John Pinches agreed with Ms. Angelo.

“We still have to solve the $1.1 million problem by the end of June. This is just a good start, but not a solution.”

“Thank you for putting the trust in the Sheriff’s office,” concluded Allman. “You’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

“Pleasantly,” however, probably would not be a word anyone would apply to last Tuesday’s dismal proceedings.

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