A flurry of pronouncements and pontifications garnered headlines this week but brought little clarity to the true state of the County of Mendocino’s finances.
Some critics argued the county’s books are a mess, and that state intervention is needed to bring order to its record keeping.
Supervisor Ted Williams went so far as to brashly claim the county has “three sets of books,” leaving board members unable to decipher the county’s true financial condition.
County budget experts and the former county Chief Executive Officer bashed Williams’ claims, and every one of them raised questions about he and other board members understanding of basic budget processes.
A check with outside financial analysts showed that despite all the handwringing and finger pointing, the county’s credit rating remains a solid A+.
The county’s credit rating as of August 12 is still in the top tier, according to Fitch, Moody’s, and S&P, the three recognized credit rating services for government and corporate financing in the U.S.
So, how serious is the county’s alleged fiscal crunch and who is to be believed?
County Supervisor Ted Williams last week triggered the intense local date by convincing fellow board members to unanimously ask the state Controller to step in and review county finances.
Oddly, Williams this week was downplaying his widely publicized concerns. In a series of text exchanges focusing on his complaints, Williams wrote this week about hard-to-get updates, and incomplete reporting. Instead of answering a series questions or elaborating on his positions, Williams glibly concluded, “If there is not a problem you should be able to request a balance sheet.”
Newly elected county Auditor Chamise Cubbison, who oversees a newly combined auditor/tax collection office, fired back that Williams and other naysayers are spreading misinformation, and false claims about an alleged lack of adequate fiscal reporting.
Cubbison said there are several factors at play, including the stress of the recent board-mandated merger of county financial offices, the departure of veteran auditing and tax collecting employees, and chronic office vacancies. Cubbison said her office is struggling to meet relentless demands from county administrators and board members for updated reports on a multitude of financial issues.
Former Tax Collector Shari Schapmire, a veteran of county finances, was blunt in her assessment: “The majority of this board is ill-equipped to comprehend the financial complexities that are inherent in the operation of the county.”
Board claims also provoked a response from former CEO Carmel Angelo, now a local government management consultant in San Diego.
“If there is a lack of fiscal leadership at the county level, it lies with the board itself,” declared Angelo. Angelo said when she left office earlier this year county reserves totaled $20 million, and board members had been briefed about what was needed as the new fiscal year unfolded including the county’s ability to cover increased costs of new labor agreements.
“What is going on here?” Angelo asked.
New county Chief Executive Officer Darcie Antle was soft pedaling the so-called “crisis” by week’s end.
Instead, Antle was quoted in an interview as saying there are “areas of concern” including close to $70 million in long-term debt service and rising interest rates as the county contemplates refinancing bonds to fund a new jail. Antle said a reported $3.6 million shortfall in the county financed health plan was caused by the Covid pandemic, and high-dollar claims that followed. Before that, Antle said the county in fact had a robust reserve in the health plan.
There’s no doubt the county is facing rising costs, a flat revenue stream, and an estimated 400 unfilled county positions that are hampering service levels.
County Supervisor John Haschak wrote this week in a letter to constituents, “Whether it is a planner, jailer, road worker, or Human Resources director, qualified applicants are hard to come by.”
“We certainly don’t want to lose any of the employees we have,” said Haschak.
So, what are local taxpayers to believe?
Are county finances seriously out of balance? Is there need for possible state oversight, and an overhaul of how the books are kept? Is this heated rhetoric the result of the demands surrounding labor negotiations? Or are these mismanagement claims baseless and undermining public confidence?
Hard to tell.
Haschak to his credit proposed a special Board of Supervisors’ meeting with Antle and the administrative staff, and Auditor Cubbison and her assistants in hopes of clearing the air.
“If we all aren’t on the same page, then we have real problems. The public deserves better,” wrote Haschak.
Indeed. The sooner a special meeting happens the better.