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County Notes: Gjerde’s on a Roll!

After an entertainingly contentious argument about a potential sales tax on November’s ballot, the Board finally decided to ask County Counsel to draft a ballot measure for a 1/4-cent sales tax measure in November with an accompanying advisory measure saying the voters “advise” the Board to spend the revenues only to support emergency services and fire prevention. 

Supervisor Maureen Mulheren petulantly complained that it didn’t seem to her that anyone had paid much attention to all the work she put in “fashioning” her 60% for fire/40% for water tax proposal. So she tediously read through it all again, despite knowing that Supervisors Gjerde and Haschak had no interest in including her amorphous and vague admin-only water funding allocation which Mulheren insisted would go through an advisory board of water agency staffers around the County and would not — how could anyone even think this? — go primarily to the Cheap Water Mafia — aka the Russian River grape growers. During the entire discussion no one dared utter the words “grapes” or “wine,” even though everybody knew that that “industry” was was behind the idea that McGourty & Mulheren were pushing.

Supervisor Dan Gjerde, heretofore unquestioningly approving of almost everything put before him and silent on most issues, made the boldest statement of his Supervisorial career, declaring:

“The water tax is completely unnecessary. Even for the purposes that supervisor McGourty just mentioned. Just simple back of the envelope estimates show that the Potter Valley Irrigation District which virtually gives away their water at $22.50 an acre foot, knowing that the state rate for irrigation water is probably around $150-$200 per acre foot, if they simply went to the state average, if the Russian River Flood Control District went to the state average for their wholesale irrigation water — those two entities by themselves could produce well over $1 million a year. So there, problem solved! $1 million a year, just those two boards. They could take action. Nobody is stopping them. But instead, nope! They want everybody in Mendocino County to pay an extra sales tax to bail them out because they don't want their customers to pay the going rate. It is so offensive. This whole water tax is the most absurd proposal to ever befall the people of Mendocino County! If this tax goes on the ballot it is going down! It deserves to go down in defeat. Everybody who came to this meeting today to speak in favor of the fire services should back off from this ill-advised proposal by Supervisors Mulheren and McGourty to pass this ridiculous and offensive water tax through a fire service tax. Supervisor Haschack and I are offering a viable plan that could pass in November potentially because it would enable the voters in 2023 to know that their taxes will be going down in 2023 because it would be 1/8 cent. If the library tax passes adding an extra 1/8 cent tax, they would still see their taxes go down by 1/8 cent. This is the most plausible scenario possible. Promises from this group and promises for that group will guarantee nothing for anybody. The only guarantee with the 3/8 cent proposal that Supervisor Mulheren has put together is that everybody's taxes will go up. There's no guarantee on how any of the money will be spent.”

Gjerde also complained that the Cheap Water Mafia — i.e., the Inland Water and Power Commission (IWPC) made up mostly of grape growers — had inappropriately used tax dollars for political purposes by hiring a consultant to see if a water sales tax would fly and sending out flyers that looked like campaign ads. 

Nobody knew exactly how much was spent on political consultants — $25,000? $50,000? $2500? — or in which year, but everyone, even including McGourty, thought that such spending was fishy and should be looked into. County Counsel Curtis, who apparently acts as the IWPC’s attorney too, said he always advises “caution” when it comes to such spending. 

Either way, it looked bad and didn’t help the arguments that McGourty and Mulheren were making for inclusion of water bureaucracy subsidies in the sales tax proposal.

“If this entity [the IWPC] has enough money to do mailers and a poll, then they do not need County funds,” said Gjerde. “Apparently, they don’t need our money.”

Later when the time came for a vote, the swing vote, Board Chair Ted Williams, said he leaned toward the Gjerde-Haschak fire-only axis and proposed a 1/4-cent tax for fire only because if they included the water subsidy Gjerde and all the local media was against it and it would fail, much as he preferred to include water money in the tax proposal. 

At that, the Mulheren-McGourty axis saw the handwriting on the wall and reluctantly conceded, accepting a promise from the other three that they will look at the 2022-2023 “lean” (Williams’ word) budget to see if they can find some money for water projects in existing funds. McGourty pulled on his hair-shirt and voted in favor, mumbling, “I’m feeling kind of betrayed about the water situation.”

Gjerde and Haschak suggested again that they could reduce the Transient Occupancy Tax tourism subsidy by a couple hundred thou (also staunchly supported by McGourty and Mulheren) and maybe spend that on developing (as yet non-existent) water projects and grant applications. But of course, McGourty and Mulheren (and Williams apparently) wouldn’t support that either. They wanted more for the cheap water mafia, not just a transfer.

We would be remiss if we didn’t mention the main/standard argument the Cheap Water Mafia/grape-tourism axis always uses to defend their subsidies (and their many other regulatory exemptions): They are a big part of the local economy and not giving them money and miscellaneous breaks will somehow lead to a local economic downturn. We’ve all heard this before, of course. They are a big part of the local economy, granted. But their sense of entitlement to public handouts for marketing and water subsidies — to the exclusion of all other local businesses — is, as Gjerde correctly noted, “offensive and ridiculous.”

We now await the draft language from County Counsel for a 1/4-cent proposed general tax (50%+1) ballot measure for fire/emergency services with an accompanying advisory measure which the voters are supposed to trust that the money will actually be spent on fire/emergency services even though the Board will be under no legal obligation to do so.

The advisory measure idea would have more traction if the Board hadn’t unanimously dismissed out of hand the last advisory measure (Measure AJ) which “advised” that “the majority” of pot taxes since 2017 (over $16 million so far) be spent on emergency services, roads, mental health and enforcement. Instead of even attempting to see if that had happened, they casually ignored it by saying that the money went into the general fund and the general fund goes for those things, among many others, of course, so — voila! — advisory met!

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Update: Supervisor Haschak and I were able to stop the idea of a forever tax with no real guardrails. Proposed tax is now limited to 10 years, so supervisors will have incentive to spend money as promised, knowing voters would insist on accountability if voters would support a renewal. If approved this November, the proposal is to support fire safety and emergency medical response. 90% of funds to fire departments and 10% for homeowner safety assistance through our regional and countywide fire safe councils. Background: Mendocino County voters have approved two countywide sales taxes:. One is for libraries, which is up for renewal, and one is for mental health buildings and services, which will drop by 3/8th of a cent in early 2023. If the library measure and the 1/4 cent measure now proposed for fire safety are both approved in November the countywide sales tax rate will remain unchanged.

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Sales Tax Confusion

KAREN OTTOBONI’S KZYX/“TKO show” guest last Wednesday morning was Supervisor John Haschak. One of the subjects Ottoboni brought up, of course, was the sales tax the Board had discussed the day before. 

AS EXPECTED, confusion reigned. Ottoboni insisted on calling it a 1/4 “percent” tax when she meant, or should have meant, “1/4 cent” tax. Then there was a discussion about the sunsetting of the 3/8-cent portion of the half-cent Measure B tax, leaving a 1/8 cent ongoing tax.

AND THE PENDING library sales tax renewal/increase. Library supporters have recently submitted signatures for a November ballot measure that provides for the renewal of the existing 1/8 cent library sales tax and requests an additional 1/8 of a cent sales tax fraction of the sunsetting Measure B sales tax, with 40% of that 1/8 cent to be reserved for library building improvements. So that proposal will be on the November ballot, and the library supporters better be extra careful how they word it because it's already confusing.

NOW THE SUPERVISORS have voted to pursue a 1/4-cent sales tax with an advisory measure “advising” that the proceeds of that 1/4-cent tax will go to fire/emergency services. If all the measures were to pass the current sales tax would thereby stay where it is. Haschak and his colleagues seem convinced that the public will support all of this because it’s not a net increase.

THE BALLOT will probably contain three sales tax measures. The library tax proposal will require a 50%+1 vote because a citizen’s driven measure dedicated to libraries; 40% of the proceeds will be for library facility improvements (but we don’t know how they’ll make sure that percentage will be assured).

THE OTHER measure will be for a 1/4 cent tax for fire/emergency services general tax with a 50%+1 threshold (language yet to be determined) plus an advisory measure (yet to be determined) saying it’s supposed to go to fire/emergency services (as an end run around the two-thirds requirement). There’s also supposed to be a sunset clause saying the emergency services tax increment would go away after ten years, which the Board seems to think will make it more supportable since the “voters” ten years from now will be magically look back and see if it did any good — a dubious proposition, to say the least.

THE QUESTIONS ARE, how will the public perceive these confusing tax measures? And will the groups which are supposed to get the proceeds help with the campaigns?

AS TO QUESTION ONE: We expect the public will not appreciate the fine points made above about voting thresholds, the fractions for this, the sunsetting of that, the taxes not going up, etc. No. The public will (rightly) see these as tax increases being pushed by the recipients of the taxes: The library supporters and the Supervisors.

QUESTION TWO: The library advocates will probably actively campaign for their initiative as they did a few years ago and as they did for their petition. But will the fire services do the same for their tax, based on the Supervisors’ history of not funding them adequately in the past? Will they basically believe the “advisory measure” idea and trust the Supervisors enough to actively campaign for the 1/4 cent tax for the Supervisors?

ALL OF THIS will be occurring in a context of historically high inflation and historically low trust in politicians in general and this Board of Supervisors in particular.

LASTLY, if the fire tax doesn’t pass — and given the above it will not be easy even for such a popular purpose — will the Supervisors throw up their collective hands and blame the fire services and the public and leave the fire/emergency services in the lurch, still underfunded in our fire-prone county? Or will they accept the responsibility and attempt to help fund these important “public safety” functions? (Haschak said he thinks the fire services people should do a “needs assessment” before they get any money. (If that sounds Measure B-ish and delay-ish and arrogant to you, you are probably one of the few people who have followed the Supervisors reasonably closely lately.)

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THE AVERAGE JOURNEYMAN (Journeyperson?) (non-law enforcement) county line worker makes about $25 an hour pre-tax these days, and maybe 70% of that as take home. (Since that’s an average it means half of the employees take home less than that.) $25 an hour is about $50k per year, with take home of about $35k per year. Using the 1/3 rule for housing costs (which is probably low in Mendocino County) that would mean that the average county worker (county workers make more than most commercial sector workers and have (better) benefits) can theoretically afford to pay 1/3 of $35k for housing, or about $1000 per month. Of course, there are other factors like inflation, family size, spousal employment, overtime, moonlighting/second jobs, cost of commuting, etc.

MENDO is currently negotiating with most of their “bargaining units,” which (obviously) want substantial raises. At the same time, County management says the budget is “austere,” and “tight.” (Never mind that we haven’t seen a department by department budget breakdown for the end of this fiscal year, so who really knows?) The Supervisors belatedly got around to asking Interim CEO Darcie Antle to provide a list of funded vacancies for General Fund and non-general fund positions last week and we’re supposed to see that list at the next meeting. Antle said most of the funded general fund vacancies are in law enforcement (including the jail), which isn’t a surprise. A funded law enforcement vacancy is worth a lot more than a non-law enforcement vacancy.

The SEIU Local Union (which represents more than half of County employees, the lesser-paid half by far) says the County should use whatever salary savings they’re getting from long-term funded vacancies to fund an increase in pay for existing employees. Then you have the high turnover rate which is commonly attributed to the lower pay (and the lack of affordable housing). But there’s also the low morale in the understaffed and underpaid departments which would be helped by.a pay raise, of course, but stress and burnout and illness/injury and turnover and resignations for higher paying jobs will continue as will vacancies.

THE SUPERVISORS seem vaguely aware of most of this, but they don’t express much interest in their employees or the functioning of their various departments. For example, they were supposed to hold some kind of public safety oversight/workshop to better understand the Sheriff’s budget last year in the wake of the dispute the board and the CEO provoked with the Sheriff. But that never happened. Neither has the Public Safety Advisory Group which could help with the law enforcement budget if they had the brains to ask for that. They still don’t ask even the most basic questions about the budget status of other departments like Probation and County Counsel and Planning and Building which each take a significant portion of the General Fund.

WHERE WAS I? Oh yes. Confusion. Confusion about the tax proposals. Or was it confusion overall? Whatever. These tax proposals in large part will boil down to a referendum on these five mostly out-of-touch Supervisors. Let’s just say, we’re not particularly optimistic.

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Financial Consolidation Update

County Ordinance No. 4500 made the consolidation of the Treasurer-Tax Collector and the Auditor-Controller offices official on December 14 of last year. 

Just before that fateful (and dumb) decision, newly elected (unopposed) Auditor-Controller Chamise Cubbison (and many others) told the board it was a “misguided” idea, but since they were going to do it anyway Cubbison asked that they at least “learn about staff challenges and appreciate these hard working employees [the staffs of the two offices] and provide the resources and support we need to continue to do our jobs without future misguided interference.”

But of course, they have made no such effort to learn about her office’s functions, although we haven’t heard about any “interference” either, misguided or otherwise. Presumably because Carmel Angelo is no longer in Mendocino County.

A couple of weeks back the Board discussed the status of the consolidation which takes official effect next January. Apparently the Board thinks there will be some cost savings. But, since there’s a legally mandated separation between the functions of the two offices — the money coming in people are supposed to stay away from the money going out people and vice-versa — it’s likely it will actually cost more.

On Tuesday, the Board discussed the consolidation again with Ms. Cubbison who is now the officially elected Auditor-Controller but without the pay or title. The “acting” Auditor-Controller told the Board again that they will need to hire a Treasurer and an Assistant Treasurer and probably an assistant Auditor. Especially now, since long-time highly respected Treasurer-Tax Collector Shari Schapmire retired last year saying she could “no longer work with this board.” Her Assistant, Julie Forrester recently made her resignation official. (It’s been common knowledge inside County circles for a couple of months.) 

Ms. Cubbison reminded the board that without adequate staffing in the leaderless Treasurer-Tax Collector’s side of the office, the County is jeopardizing their ability to collect all taxes due (mainly property, sales, transient occupancy and pot), not to mention causing uncomfortable delays in filing required official reports. (The covid delay excuse is wearing thin with state agencies.)

As everyone, including Supervisor John Haschak, explained to the Misguided Four Consolidators, there was no consolidation plan in place before they up and consolidated. In fact, no one but Haschak even thought an advance plan of any kind was necessary. (Maybe the Board was too busy with their silly $100k-plus “strategic plan” to do an actual plan.)

On Tuesday, in typical Mendo style, they finally got around to asking for a plan. Ms. Cubbison, ever the trooper, agreed to help with a speeded up consolidation and work with County Counsel Christian Curtis to develop what Supervisor Ted Williams described as a “comprehensive plan.” (Mr. Curtis is not known for his ability to “speed up” anything, but we’ll see.)

Asked if it would be legal to appoint Ms. Cubbison to both current (pre-consolidation) positions (Treasurer and Auditor) in the interim prior to the January 2023 go-live-date, Curtis responded, “I apologize, that possibility slipped my mind,” adding that he wasn’t sure if it was “legally feasible.”

This is the same County Counsel who the Board recently gave a large raise to, a raise that County Counsel himself botched, failing to follow basic Brown Act procedures, in one of our favorite local ironies. 

Despite the Board’s desire to speed up the consolidation and the development of the “comprehensive plan,” neither Curtis nor Board Chair Ted Williams mentioned any dates or timeframes.

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