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County Notes: Ag Commissioner Fired

Last week we noted that a senior employee was on the Board’s closed session agenda for discipline or dismissal. Turns out it was the Ag Commissioner, Jim Donnelly. After closed session Supervisor last Tuesday, Supervisor Ted Williams announced that Mr. Donnelly had been terminated without explanation. 

That makes seven ag commissioners since 2009 when long-serving Ag Commissioner Dave Bengston retired. 

Let’s see if we remember them all: 

Tony Linegar, a good guy who quit to take a bigger job in Sonoma County.

Chuck Morse whose departure after a few years we don’t know anything about. He apparently resigned, returned for another short period, and then resigned again. Mr. Morse also had a hand in the pot permit program for a while. He lasted several years in total.

Joe Moreo, brought in for five days with great fanfare, then quit after seeing whatever he saw, or vice-versa.

Harinder Grewal lasted a little over a year, currently suing the County for wrongful termination.

Diane Curry, who had the temerity to tell the Board the truth about some of the problems with the Cannabis Permit program in the early days of the program while it was temporarily assigned to the Ag Department. A few days later CEO Angelo asked for her resignation (i.e., fired her on the spot without notice) and had her marched out of her office by security.

And now Jim Donnelly who was terminated on Tuesday. “A personnel matter,” said Supervisor/Board Chair Ted Williams.

For the last couple of years Mr. Aaron Hult has been Assistant Agriculture Commissioner. There has been no announcement as yet as to what his role will be with the departure of Mr. Donnelly.

* * *

OUR PRELIMINARY REVIEW of the Auditor-Controller’s newly released funded vacancy list shows two seemingly contradictory trends. First, the Auditor-Controller’s numbers indicate that there’s not much salary savings to be derived from vacant funded positions because most General Fund departments are running close to budget. But when one looks at the details of, say, law enforcement (Sheriff-Jail, Sheriff-Patrol, Probation and District Attorney) one sees substantial funded vacancies but without the corresponding budget savings projections. In the case of the Sheriff, some of this is because overtime must be used to cover for vacancies. But even so, it’s not clear why the vacancies don’t result in substantial reduced expenses. 

For example, there are almost $6 million in funded vacancies in the Sheriff’s department (including the jail), and we know that maybe $1.5 million or so was spent on Sheriff’s Office overtime last year. So theoretically, there should be around $4.5 million worth of budget underrun. 

But the Auditor-Controller reports that for the recently completed fiscal year (July 2021-June 2022) the Sheriff/Jail was over budget by about $1.2 million (which could be overtime).

Also, we have no idea why the Jail budget went down from 21/22 (last year) to 22-23 (this year) by almost $2.5 million.

Presumably, some of this will be cleared up when the departments present their numbers. Because if the vacancies are not producing salary savings, then the money is being spent elsewhere and that needs to be explained.

* * *

PATRICK HICKEY: In response to Mark Scaramella’s query about where the money is going from all of the budgeted vacant positions, I suspect what is going on is something that is common in government. Department Heads make sure they spend their entire budgets so they don’ get trimmed in the following fiscal year. They’ll stock up on supplies or use other budget tricks to make it appear that they need every penny. Departments should be rewarded for running efficient operations, but instead they are punished with budget cuts, so they have learned to spend every dime they are given.

MARK SCARAMELLA REPLIES: Very possible. It’s also possible that money is spent on “extra help” which is typically not union members, and with few benefits, but which show up on employment rolls as vacancies. Either way, the Board should be demanding explanations where the vacancy money is being spent and why. I’m not holding my breath.

* * *

MENDOCINO COUNTY WORKERS’ UNION Files Unfair Labor Practice Charge As County Management Breaks State Law by Continuing to Hide Vital Financial Information

(The union has been requesting detailed budget information since November. County management has refused to share it as required by law.)

7/26/22 — Last week (July 12), the union representing hundreds of Mendocino County employees, SEIU 1021, filed an unfair practice charge with the California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) for violating state labor law by refusing to share information critical to current contract negotiations. The County claims, so far without evidence, that its financial position does not allow it to provide wage increases to employees, who are grossly underpaid relative to neighboring counties and who have been resigning in alarming numbers, endangering critical county services. 

With vacancy rates averaging 20 percent but reaching 40 to 67 percent in certain classifications like social workers and mental health clinicians, drastic measures are needed to stanch the bleeding. County management continues to insist the county is unable to provide so much as a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to employees, yet has repeatedly failed or refused to provide budget information to back up their claims. One particular issue is information about how many vacant positions are included in the county’s 2022-2023 fiscal year budget, and how many allocated positions are unfunded.

“This information is essential for us to have to understand the true economic picture of the county as we negotiate our new contract, as well as to identify places where savings could be found and allocated elsewhere,” explained SEIU 1021 Mendocino County Chapter President Julie Beardsley, who is a senior public health analyst. “We want to work with the County, but it is possible the County may be including many vacant positions they have no intention of filling in the budget, in order to justify their claims that they cannot afford even a modest cost of living increase or equity adjustments to keep county workers from leaving.”

The numbers being requested exist – the county board of supervisors examined them during closed session at the July 12 meeting where county workers filled the room to overflowing and spoke passionately about how short-staffing is affecting services, residents, and workers alike. Yet when the union requested once again to see them, county management again refused to provide the information, saying that their “finance expert” would explain it to the bargaining team in a presentation.

“The long delay in providing information feels very disrespectful to our employees who have come to work every day, often putting their own health on the line, during these past two years of the pandemic,” said Beardsley. “The implication is that we couldn’t possibly understand their numbers without them explaining them to us. But the only actual reason for them to refuse to give us the information outside the context of a formal presentation, is because they know that reasonable people who know as much about the way this county government works as we do would interpret the numbers differently from how they are choosing to explain them. We need the information to be able to make our own calculations and understand the county’s actual financial position. If their interpretation is correct, what do they have to hide?”

* * *

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT, MENDO STYLE

During Tuesday’s Supervisors Meeting, Supervisor John Haschak said he wanted to discuss “Economic Development.” So for you naysayers and skeptics who think Mendo isn’t much for economic development, take this:

Haschak: “As far as economic development, Supervisor McGourty and I were the ad hoc on that. We worked with the West Company. There's a big grant proposal for the community economic resilience fund. It's a collaboration of four counties, Humboldt, Del Norte, Mendocino, and Lake. So they just submitted their grant application and it's up to $5 million for planning for economic development activities and it was kind of a time crunch to get it in but we did and I think it will reap benefits in the long run.”

Supervisor Ted Williams: “What might the benefits be? What will we get from that?”

Haschak: “It could be, um, a lot of economic activity, um, especially planning and collaboration between these counties, and, um, state, um, support in these activities. So. So I think as far as economic development it is a big step forward. The state is certainly putting in a lot of money for this and I think we need — we are at the table and collaborating with the other counties. I think it will be beneficial.”

It would be more accurate if they called it “The Community Development Bureaucracy Redundancy Resiliency Fund.”

* * *

ACCORDING TO a recent status report to be presented to the Supervisors this Tuesday, the jail expansion project is now expected to cost between $27.3 million (low end) and $29.3 million (high end). (They have not yet selected the contractor.) The state is providing $25 million (a number which was thought to be plenty until costs started going up). This means the general fund may have to cover up to $4.2 million more than initially projected to finish the project for a total local cost of about $6.8 million, an unreasonable amount that in a normal world should be mostly picked up by the state since local jails are now forced to house prisoners that were previously the state’s responsibility. If we had responsible state solons instead of the ciphers we have — Assemblyman Jim Wood and State Senator Mike McGuire — they’d have already been working to spend a small amount of the state’s surplus on this jail cost overrun. And the Board would have been pressuring them. But no, instead we get silence from our supposed representatives, and budget whining from the Supervisors.

* * *

STOP THE PRESSES! From the recently released Grand Jury Report on the County’s Cannabis “Equity Grant” program, “Building the Airplane While It’s Flying”:

“While this GJ did not review the permitting process, it is apparent from reviewing the ordinance, listening to multiple community discussions, and reviewing statistics, that the permitting program is in disarray.”

The Grand Jury is always the last to know…

More interesting, however, is what the Grand Jury didn’t report directly, but implied: that five-year old but newly discovered “disarray” turns out to be very lucrative for Mendocino County and its cannabis bureaucracy.

Selected Excerpts from the Grand Jury Report:

“…the complete funding for the Cannabis Equity Grant [program] stands at just over $6 million. Approximately 80% of these funds are designated for direct grants, with the remaining amounts to be used: 10% for administration, and 10% for technical training.”

…“Despite the delays in processing applications and getting checks in the hands of recipients, lately public communication between the MCD [Mendocino Cannabis Department] and community members was generally respectful and devoid of unfair criticism. The GJ believes that this will be critical as this $6 million is distributed along with the additional $10 million from the LJAG (Local Jurisdiction Assistance Grant).”

…“As of the date of this report five grant payment checks have been issued to applicants, with approximately 36 applications in the county’s Cobblestone pipeline. 

…“In March 2022, the MCD announced that the total direct grant award was raised from $50,000 to $80,000 and the Fee Waiver Grant was raised from $7,500 to $15,000.”

…“The LEEP [Local Equity Entrepreneur Program, part of the Equity Grant Program] applications are delayed until a qualified planner can review the application. Qualified planners hesitate to work in the cannabis industry.”

Let’s see… 

In the last four years Mendo has received over $16 million in cannabis taxes, $6 million in Equity Grants, $10 million in Local Jurisdiction Assistance grants, and several million more from the PG&E settlement money has been dumped into the Cannabis Permit program. And there’s more to come as the state tries to throw even money at the failed program as the local cannabis market tanks and Mendo’s cannabis tax revenues tank.

On the other end, the Grand Jury reports that five grant payment checks have been issued and 36 are “in the pipeline.” 

Assuming that the maximum grant was or will eventually be awarded to all 41 of the current applicants, that would be — at most — 41 x $80k, or about $3.3 million. 

So… 

Mendo rakes in at least $32 million in cannabis cash and pays out, at most, $3.3 million — more than a 90% profit for the County.

Nice work, if you can get it. 

* * *

MENDO'S POT PROGRAM (an on-line comment): “There are other counties that have received the same grant funding. Many of these counties already distributed the funds. Mendocino County’s Grant program is a total mess. Why is the Mendocino County Cannabis Department in charge of distributing grant funds? They have a backlog of 800 cannabis permits. Why? Because they lost most of the Permit applications. Maybe that’s what happened to the grant applications…"

One Comment

  1. Seen August 10, 2022

    Re: BOS cries Poor.
    “My guess is no. Again, cry poor and hope someone else comes to the rescue.”
    Like a consultant, lets say, like one from San Diego………………………..Want to bet?

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