Another major county failure is the County’s failure to implement any of the 28 specific recommendations made by their own Homelessness Consultant, Robert Marbut. The Marbut Report, was submitted to the Board in 2018 and the Board and staff agreed they would implement it “in concept,” which meant not implement it at all. The subsequently ignored Marbut recommendations cost the taxpayers $60,000 which, as these things go, was a bargain — a double bargain because Marbut had given the County's leadership a practical strategy to reduce homelessness and help the homeless.
The last time the Marbut Report came before the Board a few years ago they “directed” (in the following garbled way) that “staff shall continue outreach to the City Councils to endorse the strategic action in Dr. Marbut’s report, particularly prioritizing the needs to throughout the County; providing meals prior to 9 am and after 5pm to avoid taking homeless away from programs that are helping; limiting it for to Resource see days; and for staff to provide a written report every two months; and an in‐depth presentation to the Board of Supervisors every six months.”
If anyone at any of the County's power levers actually cared about the homeless instead of securing funding for themselves via their 30-agency “Continuum of Care” to the tune of $20 annual million, the CofC people would at least recognize that they are as dependent on the lost souls shuffling up and down State Street as the lost souls are on them.
Take this one simple Marbut recommendation, for example:
“Mendocino County’s HMIS (Homeless Management Information System) participation rates are significantly lower than general participation rates within California. The existing HMIS data is thus ‘thin,’ which limits meaningful strategic decision making based on HMIS data. For the most part, HMIS data is currently limited to the Federal requirements and does not provide a rich enough understanding of the ‘uniquenesses’ that exist within Mendocino County. Additionally, the lack of universal quality data allows un-validated ‘myths’ to become operational ‘facts,’ thus hindering thoughtful strategic decision making. This lack of quality real-time data also prevents the ‘system’ from being integrated and coordinated, and weakens the coordinated entry system.
“In order to promote universal agency participation, all funding to any service agency provided by any governmental source and/or from a foundation should become contingent on the service agency being a proactive participant within HMIS. Carrots need to be created to encourage agencies to use HMIS, likewise, there must be financial consequences for not using HMIS. Simply put, HMIS data entry needs to be in “real-time,” it needs to be universal and it needs to extend well beyond HUD-funded programs in order to facilitate coordination of care across the entire service Continuum of Care (CoC).”
Translation: Each homeless person who gets help from the “Continuum of Care” needs to be identified, assessed and tracked in one single coordinated system so that better decisions can be made for individuals and for the homeless in general. And steps need to be taken to make sure that each of the 30 agencies making up the Continuum of Care are participating.
The Marbut Report had a number of other basic recommendations that everyone recognized were practical and helpful, but were never implemented or followed up on.
* * *
A READER WRITES: The Major left out a few items from his list of Major County Failures and Screw-ups:
Persistent misuse of consent calendar for high dollar contracts, salary raises, retroactive decisions, and not including proper budget info.
Lack of leadership in discussing pros and cons of significant issues whether policy or expenditures.
Lack of aggressive leadership in dealing with issues like ambulance service and patrol deputy funding.
PS. I bet you have more!
* * *
A READER WRITES: I think I’ve seen somewhere on your website recently that you have some practical ideas on how to make a dent in Mendo’s housing shortage. Would you mind listing them again? I’m working with some people who want to approach the Supervisors for some progress on this.
Mark Scaramella Replies: Sure:
1. Do an inventory of vacant buildings with info on whether they are habitable or not, by zip code with an eye toward imposing a vacancy tax on vacant buildings that stay vacant for over three months (with waivers available for good reason). Use local organizations like advisory councils and fire districts to help.
2. Implement a version of Sonoma County’s prohibition on corporate owned vacation home rentals.
3. Require the Planning Department to report monthly on all pending residential permit applications with status and time since first application.
4. Develop a list of existing county property that could be turned into trailer parks if water/sewer is available.
5. Use available drought grant funds to target water for possible housing projects in unincorporated areas.
6. (Somewhat more creative and thus highly unlikely): A County-managed revolving loan fund run out of the planning department as permits are applied for that would reimburse materials costs as invoices are provided for base materials (pictures required). An incentive could be added for use of local labor or locally-owned stores. This way the “loan” would become a way to track progress as well as be limited to actual costs. Include a provision that the loan would be forgiven if the resulting home sells for at least 20% below market. Over time the fund would be reimbursed as the resulting building is added to the County’s tax rolls at market price.
(We realize this is probably beyond the capability of Mendocino County’s housing braintrust, and that bureaucrats can probably find ways to not to it, but it’s an example of what could be done if the local housing jabbers really wanted to make a dent in the problem.)
* * *
Over the objection of Supervisors Dan Gjerde and John Haschak, the other three Supervisors, Glenn McGourty, Ted Williams and Maureen Mulheren, voted to simply hand over the nearly $600k to the tourist promoters again this year. Gjerde and Haschak had asked that the decision be postponed to next month when the Board will (supposedly) deal with the entire budget for next year. But the three fiscal profligates were worried that not throwing more money at the tourism people and their “marketing” might lead to a little dent in tourism and tourist jobs. (Never mind that there’s never been any proof from anyone but the marketers themseleves that marketing Mendo makes any difference in visitor volume.
* * *
Employee union reps: President Julie Beardslee and Representative Patrick Hickey told the Supervisors that they were considering budget cuts for operating departments without having a full picture of the true financial state of the county.
Patrick Hickey, SEIU Local 1021 Rep: “For the County administration and the board to be talking about cuts in county services at this time with the limited amount of information that has been provided makes absolutely no sense. The county is awash in money. Your task is to effectively allocate it for the highest possible benefit. The state is making a wide range of funding available. We need staff to apply for it and utilize it if we are to be successful. The administration has done too little to pursue uncollected funds. And blames it on staff shortages. We need to redouble our efforts and offer competitive salaries so that we can help help employees identify and find untaxed properties and transient occupancy taxes. The county has failed to fill hundreds of non-general fund positions which would bring in millions of dollars to circulate in our local economy, support our local business, and expand vital services. We have heard the county talk about the projected drop in cannabis tax revenues for the fiscal year. That certainly is a concern. But what they fail to mention is the county also secured a three-year $15.6 million local jurisdiction assistance grant to support the cannabis program. It seems to us that it would be worth mentioning that in this context. For every area of concern there is a sign of promise. What we need is a balanced assessment of our position, not a cherry picked gloom and doom report. We are looking to the board to invest in our communities, not to defund them. These times call for bold and optimistic leadership. No one can deny that the county faces many challenges. But if you support your staff and fill vacant positions and allow county employees to do their job the whole community wins.”
Julie Beardslee, President of SEIU Chapter 1021: “I am here to share our concerns about the current budget process, and the limited and selected information that is being shared with the Board. County administration has shared very little information in their third-quarter reports. If you now have year-to-date budget actuals for the departments, we asked that you share them. We are concerned that the county is flying blind trying to make consequential decisions with what might be inadequate or even misleading information. For example, the Chief Executive Office made the assertion that the county should hold in reserve three months of operating expenses, or about 25% of the general fund operating expenses. According to board policy 32, it calls for 6.35% of general fund operating expenses. While one might think that this 25% is an excess of caution, the county is not a household or small business. There are different budgeting practices and funding streams. Mendocino County currently has a 10% general fund reserve which is in line with our reserves from neighboring counties. Humboldt, Napa, San Francisco, Marin, Sacramento, and Yolo all have 10% reserves while Sonoma County has only an 8.3% reserve. I doubt there is a single county in California that holds three months worth of general fund reserves. We don't need a 25% reserve in general fund. A 10% reserve is fine. Rather than make drastic cuts that will put us in further in a hole and worsen the already strained county services, SEIU's position is to hire staff to collect the back and uncollected revenues. If there is a temporary shortfall, use the reserves to bring the county through the rough patch and then replenish the reserves with the collected revenues. We believe that transparency and fiscal reporting and an honest and open discussion of all the tools available to this board will help create a balanced budget and allow the county to continue its vital work for the community.”
The union reps’ input was ignored.
* * *
Supervisor Maureen Mulheren pulled the approval of the cannabis department report from the consent calendar. But the Board’s previous request for the County’s burgeoning pot bureaucracy to discuss supposedly uncollected pot taxes didn’t come up in the discussion that followed. Instead, they heard from another parade of aggrieved pot growers/permit applicants who repeated many of their ongoing complaints about the current permit process. Lately a bunch of petty and seemingly arbitrary new requests are being demanded of applicants.
Corinne Powell, a long pot permit applicant and close follower of the County’s pot permit program mess at least got a little response out of Supervisor Ted Williams on Tuesday when she declared: “There may be viable and plausible explanations for why so many applicants are having trouble working their way what has become a maze at the cannabis department. There are huge problems. People are not able to continuously have applications sent back because something new that is not in the ordinance, that has not been directed by the Board, that has been created for no apparent, but arbitrary reasoning from the Department — that is our biggest issue. The playing field changes. There is no way to predict what will be asked for next. We continue to hope that we can get some oversight to sort of rein in some of this autonomous and arbitrary regulating through the Department. if so, I think we'll all fare much better. I want the Board to keep that in mind. You should dig deeper and I believe an ad hoc committee needs to take oversight of the Cannabis department.
Williams thought he could dismiss Ms. Powell’s remarks by asking her to explain herself, expecting that she’d be unable to: “We do have an ad hoc committee, it's Supervisors Haschak and McGourty. Can you tell us specifically what are the regulations that have been added by staff that are not part of the ordinance?”
Powell: “Let's start with vegetation modification. From my own experience in the renewal process there were all kinds of things requested like where do you store your generator? Why is that a significant issue? When a description shows where the use and occasional use of generators is in my farming practices? Another request was, you have water storage to be included in your application in your site plan. I've put water storage of significance on my site plan. I use water cubes that hold approximately 275 gallons. They are plastic containers you see in the back of pickup trucks. I haul my own water from a commercial water facility. I am trying to save a little money. I told them that in my documents that these are mobile and occasionally I move them around the property. If I'm irrigating my orchard, if I'm irrigating young pine trees. They want to know exactly where they are placed. I have tried to help them understand that these are not real structures that I'm using it. It's that kind of thing.”
Williams, having failed at his gotcha attempt, then quickly told Ms. Powell to go away and talk to the people who have no idea what to do about the proble,: “I realize we cannot get into detail and solve this here and you can work with the ad hoc supervisors.”
Powell: “I would be happy to work with them. But in the past some of the issues of concern to the applicants have been out of what they consider to be their so-called work.”
Williams said Ms. Powell’s complaints are within their scope of work and Powell agreed to give it another try. Insincerity prevailed again.
The pot permit program, such as it is, muddles along, with no troublesome questions about uncollected pot taxes or promised pot taxes for emergency services. As an alternative way to not do his job, Williams demanded that the ad hoc committee do more ad-hoc-ing and bring back some quick-fix suggestions for the board to rubberstamp. The ad hoc didn’t think there were any quick fixes.
* * *
THE BOARD voted unanimously to ask staff to draft a possible sales tax ballot measure or two for water and emergency services to be considered next month. Supervisor Gjerde said he didn’t think the public trusted the board enough to pass a sales tax and that doing so would be “a passage to nowhere.” Supervisor Haschak thought that before they propose a tax the Board should “prove that we can implement it.” There was some question about whether “the public” should circulate their own sales tax initiative petition like the Library tax proposers are now doing, instead of the easier but more risky approach of having the Board put the question on the ballot. Nobody brought up the pot tax revenues (over $16 million in the last four years) that the public already voted should go to in large part to emergency services (among other things) back in 2016 but which the County has sat on ever since.
* * *
CEO Report Notes
Interim CEO Darcie Antle has continued the clever practice of former CEO Carmel Angelo by releasing her CEO report on the day the Supervisors meet. This little trick means that even if anyone on the Board or in the public wanted to comment on anything in it (there’s usually not much, but that too could be worth commenting on), there’s no time to review and comment. By the time the next Board meeting rolls around (on June 7, now), the CEO Report will not only be forgotten, but stale.
Take this odd item included in the May 17 CEO report:
“Paperless Directive — The Board of Supervisors directed staff on November 12, 2019 to author a specification document outlining document digitalization plan including equipment and personnel needs, tentative schedule, training, file naming convention, public access, redaction, redundant offsite storage and an associated cost analysis.”
That’s it? Apparently. A note of what the staff was “directed” to do more than two years ago without even a remark about what’s taking so long or why the item is even mentioned.
* * *
The failed pot permit program which, as noted recently, has suffered a dramatic drop in pot tax revenues this year and next and… is still working on staffing up — big-time.
“During the month of April, the Code Enforcement Division conducted interviews to fill five (5!) vacant Code Enforcement Officer I positions. The interview process is now complete, and hiring will take place upon approval. These positions are to support the Enhanced Cannabis Enforcement Plan approved by the Board of Supervisors in May 2021. Code Enforcement will continue to implement the plan as resources are made available.”
So revenues are down, but staffing way up! Mendo says they’re running an “austere” budget this year and can’t even afford a few thousand bucks for the County’s “struggling” ambulance services because pot taxes are down. Maybe they should revisit that “approval” of more than a year ago to see if maybe the downturn in pot permit applications and the overall pot market requires some downward adjustment.
* * *
Behavioral Health reports that they “welcomed a third Mental Health Rehabilitation Specialist in April, and he should be finished orienting and shadowing by May. We hope to expand service areas and possibly hours. His position will be funded in part with CCMU grant funding until that funding ends.”
That’s good, of course. Until you remember that Measure B funded these positions three years ago and it’s taken them years to fill them so they should have plenty of money to continue it without worrying about possible grant funding.
* * *
“To date, a total of 153 employees have been recognized for one of the following awards since the [awards] program inception in 2019.
Team Player: 57 Employees
Customer Service: 19 Employees
Leadership at All Levels: 14 Employees
Innovation: 11 Employees
Excellence: 52 Employees”
Only 19 employees got “customer service awards” in almost four years?
Also, we wonder what the criteria is for a “Team Player” award…? Facebook postings praising the CEO? Silence during budget cut meetings?
We couldn’t help noticing that there were almost as many Excellence award winners as Team Players. Does that mean that the Team Players were not also Excellent?
Nobody in Mendocino County above first line supervisor should get a “Leadership” award.
What about some Participation Awards? Surely the Team Players should get Participation Awards too.
We’d give Participation and Team Player awards to all five Supervisors too.
* * *
SUPERVISOR DAN GJERDE made a reasonable point at Tuesday's Board meeting about why the County's practice of “matching” 50% of the Transient Occupancy Revenues collected in the County and in cities should continue if the Board is “possibly” in a budget crunch.
“I believe that in past practice the County has provided a 50% match for both the revenues collected by the transient occupancy tax and the business improvement District collected inside the cities and the county. We just went through a pretty extensive morning and discussion about the structural deficit, possibly, that's in the county budget, it's certainly very tight. I support the idea that for every dollar collected in the county, that the county would provide a fifty cent match to the Business Improvement District (BID). I think it's sort of inevitable that at some point and this could be the year that the county can't afford to provide a 50% match the BID collects inside the cities. So I would not want to see something in the report that we are accepting today that may possibly bind us for a budget deliberation that we have not had yet, next year's budget. I just want to make sure that we are not adopting some language that requires us to provide the 50% match for the revenues collected inside the cities next year since we have not adopted next year's budget.”
Supervisor McGourty: “I feel very very strongly that we cannot not honor our commitment. I get the part that it doesn't seem fair that if we are collecting transient occupancy taxes and the city portion and we rematch, so there should be discussion about that. We have to make sure they [the cities] honor it as well. I certainly want to support tourism because I can remember the days when, you know, everyone was saying, where is Mendocino? And we had all these wonderful things to share and we had a tourism industry that was terrifically underutilized, 50% occupancy year-round.”
Supervisor Mulheren: “When we were talking about the expansion of the great Redwood Trail my concern would be with the individual cities that we know that not all four of our cities have the same capacity of each other, Visit Ukiah. The Fort Bragg Visitor Center may be more successful at attracting tourists.”
Supervisor Williams: “Given that tourism it is one of our big economies I think it may be shortsighted and we may lose more than we save in the short term.”
McGourty: “$100k in taxes is probably a good weekend on the coast that we would give up. I don't want to see us cut off our nose to spite our face. So we save a little bit of money — the $100,000 — but we lose it in the long run.”
Apparently, not including the cities in the calculation would result in reducing the county match by one third. Or approximately $200,000.
The Board voted 3-2, Gjerde and Haschak dissenting, to set up another ad hoc committee to look at the “matching” calculation. But meanwhile, almost $600,000 will be taken out of the “tight” General Fund to subsidize the tourist industry for at least another year.