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A Look Inside the Budget

Smooth sailing. Piece of cake. Easy money.

Compared to the not too distant past, last week’s wrap-up of the 1999-2000 budget was a pain-free experience. Well, almost painless, as county unionized employees are still wondering what budget unit contains their pay raises, but I’ll get to that shortly. 

Late Friday afternoon (Aug. 20), the Supes okayed a $147 million spending plan which left smiles on the faces of department heads and agency chiefs. With few exceptions everybody got what they asked for once wish lists were pared of frills.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Mendo County was in the hole to the tune of some $5 million. Factor in an estimated $70 million in deferred road maintenance over the last decade, and you had a county that was in the big hurt locker. Starting five years ago then-3rd District Supe John Pinches and County Administrator Mike Scannell took the lead in righting the listing ship. Scannell called the turnaround program the “disciplined fiscal approach.” Pinches, ever the exponent of cowboy common sense, termed it “cutting expenses but maintaining services.” The end result was the same. The county returned to using black ink in large part by not filling vacant jobs, paying union employees cost-of-living increases but no raises, generating several one-time big ticket revenue boosts, and eliminating administrative redundancies.

This year, thanks to a red-hot economy, the annual spending plan is up $20 million from the previous year. The books were enhanced by $1.1 million carry-over fund balance from ‘98-‘99. That surplus was bumped up by another almost $700,000 in unspent funds from last year’s Social Services budget. Also improving the bottom line is that trial courts are now entirely funded by the state, a savings to the county of $1.5 million. However, that fact did not prevent a squabble between the Supes and the Black Robes over opening up a drug court in Fort Bragg. Both sides feel the other is “nickel and diming” the other over $119,000 Drug Court funding. It’s a somewhat complicated issue which also involves a new agreement between the Supes and the Courts over collecting court and probation fines and how some of those moneys should be expended. The Judges also want to create new courts that deal with domestic violence and mental health. The Supes philosophically support such so-called “therapeutic courts” but are concerned about who gets stuck with the tab for what Supe Mike Delbar termed “hidden costs” associated with operating the new courts. Delbar was referring to such costs as the personnel expense for deputies, bailiffs, probation officers, social workers, transportation costs, etc. Since these matters were not resolved during budget hearings, the courts and county officials will be meeting in upcoming weeks in an attempt to settle their differences.

Overall, though, the budget proceedings went off without a hitch, although DA Norm Vroman encountered some tough sledding. In the end, Vroman received funding for the top-priority items he was seeking — including a paralegal for his newly established Civil Division — but it wasn’t easy getting there. The new DA needs to find somebody who understands the budget process and how local government works. It was obvious from their presentation that the DA and his staff were not up to snuff on the process, and compounded difficulties by attempting to bluff their way through when challenged on several funding matters by Scannell and the Supes. I won’t bore you with a recap but it’s enough to say that one county official accurately summed up the DA’s budget appearance: “They were acting like lawyers b.s.ing a jury.” 

Scannell has his faults but when it comes to budgets and local government administration he knows of what he speaks and is one tough street fighter who is undeterred by a snow job. 

There is one other factor that Vroman should be aware of since it influences his relationship with the Supes: Deputy DA Myron Sawicki’s wrongful discharge lawsuit against the County. There’s little doubt that Sawicki was cut loose by former DA Susan Massini for anything other than political purposes. However, attorneys who work for the DA are at-will employees unprotected by civil service rules. Regardless of whether former DA Susan Massini was justified in cutting Sawicki loose, it is now a moot point. Vroman won the election. He then hired (or re-hired) Sawicki who then filed his suit on his earlier firing. It’s my understanding that a settlement has just been reached between Sawicki and the County. I’ve been informed the terms and conditions of that settlement are to be kept confidential. Notwithstanding the merits of Sawicki’s case, once Vroman won the election and rehired Sawicki, that should have ended any litigation. But instead Sawicki sues the very same taxpayers who elected the guy who reinstated him. Nothing like biting the hand that feeds you. All other considerations aside, it’s also a dumb political move given that the DA has to deal with the Supes and other county officials on a wide variety of issues, including the DA’s budget. 

In other budget matters, $250,000 was set aside for preliminary work in the $5 million Potter Valley East Side Road construction, $250,000 into a restricted road fund, $240,000 for road projects, and $35,000 was designated for a Brooktrails second access study. 

County Administrator Scannell was successful in obtaining $66,000 to create a financial officer position for redevelopment and public facilities. The County has long-range plans to build a new courthouse, and campus-like health and human services complexes in Willits and Ukiah. The projected costs of these various projects is well over $200 million. 

Animal Control received $52,000 for increased staffing related to the new Hayden “Pet’s Right Bill.” As an aside, at Tuesday’s Supe meeting (Aug. 24), the Board voted unanimously to opt out for one year from the more stringent impound-holding requirements of the new law (from three days to six days — possibly 10 days counting weekends). It’s estimated that it will cost the county at minimum an additional $500,000 to comply with Hayden’s bill. During budget hearings, Supe Richard Shoemaker quipped that “we should send the bill to Tom Hayden so he can pay it.” The Hayden bill is a so-called unfunded mandate, meaning a law is passed obligating local government to do something but no funding is provided to do it. I’ll have more details on this story next week.

Funding for the Forest Council was reduced from $10,000 to five grand. In recent years the FC has retained a registered professional forester who was paid $10,000 yearly to review SYPs produced by Louisiana Pacific and Georgia Pacific. However, the former sold its local holdings to Mendocino Redwood Company, while the latter is transitioning into exiting Mendoland. According to U.C. Farm Extension advisor Greg Giusti who assists the FC, no new SYPs are expected to be completed within the fiscal year, although he believes that MRC and Strategic Timber Trust are in the early stages of preparing such plans. Since it appears that there won’t be much SYP review work for the RPF, the Supes unanimously agreed to Supe Dave Colfax’s proposal to cut the RPF contract in half.

Meanwhile, the Supes transferred — over the objection of the county Fish & Game Commission — $10,000 from F&G to the Ag Dept. to fund a trapper position. The money actually accounts for about a third of a trapper’s salary with the remaining portion paid by state and federal funds. F&G Chairman Craig Bell said taking the money to fund predator control is not proper because it primarily benefits cattle and sheep raisers as opposed to protecting wild game. He stated that protecting wild game from predators, mainly deer herds, is not necessary at the time. Rudy Light, a F&G Commission member, stated that deer killed by predators such as coyotes and mountain lions is “insignificant.” He commented that if there were less cattle competing for feed with the deer, then deer herds would increase. Bell remarked that taking money from F&G to fund the trapper program was merely “to appease the Farm Bureau Supervisors.”

Supe Mike Delbar thanked “Mr. Bell for his very biased report” and, joined by 3rd District Supe Tom Lucier, took exception with all the arguments raised by Bell and Light. Both Lucier and Delbar were critical of F&G for not sponsoring “game projects” but only “fish projects.” For example, in the recent past F&G refused to fund a “coyote derby” whereby young hunters, overseen by the Ukiah Rod and Gun Club, are paid a small bounty for shooting coyotes. 

Lucier pointed out that the mountain lion population is a “high number” and that they are “definitely not herbivores,” meaning, of course, they kill and eat other animals, including deer.

County Counsel Peter stated that the law allows F&G funding to be expended on predator control, but Bell called the transfer illegal unless state Fish & Game issues a “certification of predation.” Bell stated F&G has not issued the certification. Acting as Board Chairman, Shoemaker directed that the funding transfer be okayed pending further legal review.

The County’s largest department, Social Services, was given the green light to increase staffing by 22 employees, plus security guards at its Yokayo complex. Most of the outlay for the new positions was a “match” of state and federal funding. Likewise, $50,000 was approved for a winter emergency homeless shelter in the Ukiah area.

Sheriff Tony Craver, with Capt. Gary Hudson taking the lead, made a textbook budget presentation to the BOS which resulted in approval for just about everything the county’s top cop was seeking. Altogether the Supes approved funding for three new patrol deputies, six jail deputies, two sergeants, an administrative aide, an evidence technician and a cook for the jail kitchen. 

County Employees’ Contract

During budget talks Joe Hoffman, chief union official for the employees’ bargaining unit (Service Employees International Union), joked with me about unsuccessfully searching the budget for the line item containing pay raises for his group. In the old days, according to Hoffman, whenever the union was in negotiations the County Auditor hid employee pay raises in an account called “Gulp.” The union learned later “Gulp” was actually “Plug” spelled backwards. In other words, it was the allocated labor costs that would be “plugged” in to the budget following negotiations. Pretty clever, huh?

County workers have not had a straight-up raise in over six years. A classification study, more than a year in the making, is not expected to be completed until late this year or early next. Preliminary study findings indicate that county workers are paid 10 percent to 15 percent less than similar-sized counties. As Hoffman has told the Supes before that disparity is not news to him or his members. To give you an idea of what’s involved here, a 1 percent raise for the approximate 900 employees pencils out to about $400,000 annually. A 10 percent raise is $4 million. A quick look at the budget doesn’t reveal a $4 million “Plug” fund. So, county employees are asking the Supes to “show us the money,” especially in light of the Supes just voting themselves a 40 percent salary increase.

Hoffman addressed the BOS during budget hearings and talked about these kinds of issues. He reminded the Supes that aside from county employees losing ground in wages, they had also fallen behind in medical benefits owing to two successive “give-backs” in negotiations. It was these kinds of sacrifices by employees, Hoffman said, that constituted a large part of the county’s “disciplined fiscal approach” which led to its financial recovery. All the signs indicate contract negotiations will be protracted and most likely heated, but that’s always the case when it’s time to pay the Piper.

During budget negotiations it was announced that a new labor relations manager had been hired. In fact, the position itself is brand-new. Anyway, the new guy is somebody named Joe “Pagan.” After the announcement was made I turned to a county official, who was sitting behind me, and asked for Mr. “Pagan’s” bona fides. To make a long story short, “Pagan” — most likely a fake name — evidently is one of our ever-growing legion of New Age touchy-feelies. “Lord, save me from another touchy-feely!” I moaned. Joe Hoffman, sitting nearby, inquired, “What’s the matter, Jim, you don’t like touchy-feelies?”

“Can’t stand them, Joe,” says I, “don’t let their smiley faces fool you. They’re humorless totalitarians, fascists all. It seems all the county does is hire old time-capsule hippies, New Agers and touchy-feelies.”

“Toker Johnson (county employee and former union negotiator) agrees with you,” Hoffman replied, “he can’t stand them either. Toker says the county’s employment practices went from hiring good old boys to touchy-feelies, and in the process completely bypassing the competent.” 

I owe Toker a beer, that’s a great line.

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