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Mendocino County Today: January 18, 2013

Bruce Richard
Bruce Richard

THE HEADLINE on the front page of Thursday's Ukiah Daily Journal announced (again) that Bruce Richard, Mendocino Transit Authority boss, has retired after 31 years of "service." To himself. Richard was paid about a hundred grand a year to run a few heavily subsidized buses around Mendocino County. Just before his "service" ended, Richard stuck MTA with a huge bill for moving a bunch of contaminated earth around. That fiasco is still being sorted out.

IN A PRESS RELEASE either he or his lead stooge, Jim Mastin, wrote, (Mastin and Richard are interchangeable) Richard-Mastin quoted himself: "No one would stay 31 years on a job without a progressive, intelligent board of directors and 60 other employees who are professional and care about our passengers and the work we do here."

Jim Mastin
Jim Mastin

TRANSLATION: "If I hadn't stuffed my phony board of directors with clowns like Mastin and Shoemaker, I never would have gotten over on you saps for three decades. Now that I'm gone, look for them to hire me as a consultant. Richard's final tribute to himself also claimed that some 77,000 people rode MTA buses last year. Maybe they did, but for each rider it took about $10 in grants (aka tax money) to get them where they were going at, of course, inconvenient hours.

MEANWHILE, at the even grander scam known as the Mendocino County Office of Education, Mendocino County's lead educator, Paul Tichinin, said he was going to have to lay off some low level people; he didn't say he was giving a bunch of his administrators raises.

THE MENDOCINO COUNTY Office of Education does not do one thing that the individual school districts of Mendocino could not do at least as well and a lot cheaper.

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Rabano
Rabano

CARLOS RABANO, 41, tribal police chief in Covelo, was booked into the Mendocino County Jail late last week on charges of inflicting corporal injury on a spouse. He spent the night in jail before posting $50,000 bail. An anonymous tip to the Sheriff's Department had reported that Rabano and his wife were involved in a dispute at their Covelo home on January 9th, during which allegedly Rabano kicked his wife in the shin several times and grabbed her by the hair when she tried to leave with the couple's 10-year-old son. Rabano is then alleged to have followed his wife in Ukiah with an apparent intent to persuade her not to pursue a complaint against him.

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PENSION PLAN BLUES. By Mark Scaramella

During a routine discussion of the County’s investment policy last Tuesday (January 8), Supervisor Dan Hamburg, newly elected Board Chair, repeated his concern that Mendocino County places its money with criminal banks.

“I have probably bored you with this issue before. Looking at all the different banks that had been found guilty of various types of chicanery with whom the County does business. … Isn't there some way that we can screen out some of the worst of the scofflaws so that we are not depositing our hard-earned tax money of Mendocino County residents with these banks?

“County Treasurer Shari Schapmire wrote back to me to say that she knew some banks had behaved in inappropriate ways. But she pointed out to me that under the government code these banks are considered to be safe places to put public funds. I thought, why would that be? Why would the government code be setting up, in effect, a cover for institutions that are acting very ille­gally? It's not just the drug trade. It's illegal armaments going to countries that are on the terrorism watch list, so called…

“So I sent an email to Kristy [Furman, deputy CEO and legislative policy staffer] wondering if maybe our state or federal representatives could look at those government code sections that sort of encourage this activity to continue. And that's my speech. I am just hoping that we can look at those government code sections and see if perhaps there is some way — and I know that the Treasurer has spoken to our investment advisor about this. We obviously haven't worked anything out to this point. But it is something I continue to have an interest in.”

Supervisor John McCowen had another angle on banking the County's cash. He said he hoped the Supervisors or the Retirement Board could "reinvest some small portion of the funds that we hold locally… I assume that the starting point for the county would be the investment policy… Perhaps Chair Hamburg and I could discuss with the Treasurer bringing forward an agenda item sometime in the next year.”

Supervisor Pinches urged caution: “We talk about this money like it's our money. It is in the County of Mendocino's treasury pool. But very little of it, a very small percentage of it comes under our control. It's mostly special districts and school districts and college districts. To talk about taking that money and taking it away — this money is short-term money because you never know when, for instance, a college is going to need $40 million bucks of their money to build a new building or something — so… it's not really available at any level to put out for some long-term investment.”

Hamburg: “I think we all realize that. There are three responsibilities that are listed in our investment policy and I think it's clear that number one is safety, number two is liquidity and number three is return. But what you said about this roughly $200 million in the investment pool at any point, the fact that it is not our money is all the more reason from my point of view that it should be invested carefully in institutions which are really trust­worthy and not institutions that are being fined $2 billion and institutions that are on watch lists from the regulators and so on.”

Don’t hold your breath waiting for any changes in the County’s investment policy or their selection of banks for their savings accounts. This has all been mentioned before, but nobody has ever followed through with anything in the way of specific proposals.

Newly elected Fourth District Supervisor Dan Gjerde waited until the subject of appointing a replacement for former Supervisor Kendall Smith as the County’s representative on the pension system board to suggest a more prudent and conservative approach to pension projections and investments.

After the Board agreed to appoint Supervisor McCowen to the open seat, Gjerde noted, “I would hope that Supervisor McCowen and the other members of the retirement board would listen to my voice in support for their acting without fear… If, for example— we had a presentation from the new CEO for the retirement board [a reference to newly hired pension manager Rich White] in board chambers in December. He talked about how the return on the investment for the last ten years was about 6.25%. And yet their hoped-for rate of return is 7.75%. And there's some talk about dropping it to 7.5%. I think if you look at the city of Fort Bragg [where Gjerde was City Councilman for ten years previously], part of the financial success of the city of Fort Bragg is that our budgets have been based on actual evidence from years in the past, not hopes for revenue in the future.

“Taking a prudent course like that would make more sense for the retirement board. So I hope that they look to their past track record of performance in making their projections for revenues for the future. That would be a financial burden for the county in the short-term [because the County’s portion of pension allocations would go up if the assumed rate of return was lower]. However, in the long term what they are doing is creating a bigger burden for the County because every time they underperform their target they then, every 10 years or so, look for a bond which is entirely paid for out of the general fund.

“So not only is the County paying the principle, it is paying the interest on that. If we were just paying it upfront there would be a smaller bill at the other end of the period. Half of the county payroll is from state and federal sources. If that bill was coming in each year the County could bill half of that to state and federal sources. But as it has worked in the past 100% of that is coming from local taxes, not from state and federal sources. Because 100% of that bond payment is coming out of local tax dollars and cannot be charged to work that is to be done in the future by county employees who are billed from state and federal sources. So my general wish is that the retirement board members would act without fear and be more prudent in their projections. The County will have to deal with the facts. But I would rather have the County pay upfront than pay a bigger bill in five or ten years down the road.”

Gjerde's absolutely correct. And it's good that he's bringing these kinds of questions up.

But…

CEO Angelo didn’t quite see the County’s pension system payments the same way: “I do not believe that the money we pay to the pension obligation bonds is 100% general fund. Those costs are allocated to the departments. The auditor confirms what I am saying. So there may be a misunderstanding. Maybe I don't understand what you're saying, but if I understand what you are saying, the pension obligation bond is paid for by money from the departments, so it's not 100% general fund, it does include state and federal dollars. And the auditor is nodding her head.”

Gjerde tried again: “My understanding is that if the debt incurred in the pension system is from a previous year's work, you cannot charge the state and federal government for a deficit that was incurred in a previous fiscal year. You can only ask for reimbursement from the state and federal government for an employee's work which is conducted in a year in which they do the work.”

Of course, but…

Auditor Meredith Ford: “The pension obligation bond payments are made as a percentage of payroll so that every pay period when the department is charged for their payroll costs, they are charged their share of the various overhead accounts which include retirement and health insurance costs. Included in the retirement costs are not only the county's contribution of normal costs but also a piece for the pension obligation bonds. I am not sure if that puts the issue to rest because I'm not sure what the rest of your question really related to.”

Gjerde: “The total compensation of a given employee does not include debt incurred by the pension board for underfunding the pension fund in years past.”

Gjerde, new to the Board, probably assumes he's deal­ing with people who know what they're talking about.

Ford: “We are subject to an outside audit every year. Galina has looked at how we are calculating our pension bond costs and how we allocate them to the departments. Another auditor looks at requirements for single audits. And they have had no exceptions without we charge out any of the pension obligation bonds costs. So I don't see that there is any issue.”

Auditors paid by the people they're auditing find for their paymasters, a fact Mendocino government, from school boards to supervisors, haven't quite grasped.

McCowen wanted to know if the departments are assigned a percentage of costs to cover the unfunded liability in the pension system.

Auditor Meredith Ford confirmed that departments also pay part of the unfunded liability.

And it was left there with the issue unsatisfyingly semi-clarified. Chair Hamburg suggested that Supervisor Gjerde look into the question separately and perhaps bring it up again later. Gjerde apparently realized that he wasn’t going to resolve the question with the general assurances from McCowen or staff. It will be interesting to see if Gjerde himself follows up. He's on the right track.

* * *

Supervisor McCowen wanted to be reappointed to the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) board. “I have been on the NCRA board for two years. As chal­lenging as we find our situation here with the county, the challenges for NCRA are immeasurably greater. It's pretty hard to operate an organization where every year on an annual basis the expenditures are double what the revenues are. Without our own printing press I'm not sure how we manage to do that.”

It’s simple, Supervisor. Just make vague promises to politically connected Democrats at the State and federal level who continue to promote the fantasy that a train will again run from Sausalito to Eureka, and the feds will keep funding those same politically connected Northcoast Democrats.

McCowen continued, “It's a critical time for the NCRA. One of the challenges that that board has faced is lack of continuity, lack of institutional memory. I think that I have been a solid contributor to the board over the last two years. I think it is important to have someone from Mendocino County who is very aware of the need to improve the financial condition of the NCRA and hopefully improve the way NCRA presents itself to our communities. It's kind of an embarrassment sometimes when you look at the lack of maintenance of the NCRA line in our cities and the County in general.”

Supervisor Pinches, who has a ranch in the rail-impassable Eel River Canyon, took a somewhat softer line than he usually does on this subject, but soon reverted to full-bore skepticism.

“I think one benefit of the NCRA to Mendocino County has been their commitment to clean up the Eel River Canyon. They have been able to hire attorneys and do this and that and everything else. But that was their main commitment going back to 1930 and their com­mitment through the California Transportation Commission which gave them over $5 million to clean up the Eel River Canyon. I don’t think they can document where they spent whatever peanuts they spent doing that. I would like to see you [Supervisor McCowen] follow up on that issue because with the issues in Humboldt County and Sonoma County that's different. But our issue when it comes to the NCRA, the primary issue is that they meet their commitment to clean up the Eel River Canyon, which they received a considerable amount of money for but they never followed up on.”

And never will because the whole show is so thoroughly corrupt it's thrilling. ¥¥

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CONSUMERS BEWARE! Apps: Inanities and Dependencies. By Ralph Nader

Redundant, trivial, overcomplicated and dependency-inducing apps (computer applications) are flooding the internet. Some apps associated with deceptive and harmful claims are even drawing the attention of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Consumers beware!

The prevalence of apps in consumer markets both reaches new levels of absurdity and invites more complexity by the vendors as they strive to compete more and more about less and less.

So far there are about 775,000 apps appearing in Apple’s App Store and more than 500,000 apps and games are available at Google’s Play Store. Not to mention the apps from various independent developers.

Here is a roundup of them for airline passengers recently touted by The Wall Street Journal reporter Scott McCartney. Out of 50 that he tried, McCartney leads with Kayak’s app which “sails through an ocean of choices with a lot of power and grace.” These choices include airfares, hotels, flight trackers and, get this, “a packing list feature – basic lists categorized as general, business, romantic and family.”

In the 1950s, which economists tell us was a decade of similar inflation-adjusted household incomes and taxes, you’d call up your airline, your travel agent or drop by the airline ticketing store to evaluate your flying options. To be sure, fares were regulated by the Civil Aeronautics Board and generally uniform, but the airlines prided themselves on their service, meals and other comforts like pillows and blankets.

Now airlines can inundate you with a myriad of fees and penalties and change fares throughout the day. Additional leg room and aisle seats are priced higher while there are sudden reductions in quotas for such categories as elderly discounts. If you are confused, they can say “get an app.” That is, if you can ever get a human voice to respond.

Apps designed to help you navigate the confusions associated with the complexities of air travel are encouraging some airlines to concoct new, more daunting complexities.

Some apps are free, while others that really get down to the details cost a few dollars. For instance, Packing Pro ($2.99) breaks down lists for “men, women, couples, and families, as well as business trips, light-packing and super-light packing. There are pre-trip to-do lists, which include taking out the garbage and setting up an automatic email response,” with adjustments for “whether you’ll be washing clothes while traveling.” It is a wonder that Packing Pro doesn’t remind travelers to pee.

Where are you Voltaire, Swift and Emerson (“On Self Reliance”)? I’ve had cab drivers tell me that the more younger drivers rely on GPS, the less they know about how to get around their city on their own.

Will Rogers once said, “Advertising is the art of convincing people to spend money they don’t have for something they don’t need.” Advertisers don’t have anything on the marketers of apps. Dependency may soon run riot! And who will help you choose between the blizzard of choices? Or will confused and overloaded consumers throw up their hands and say to the vendor – “just take me; I’m yours.”

Blogger Scott Sterling concedes that there are valuable apps such as the insurance apps “that let you photograph damage from an accident.” But he is turned off by the gluttony apps, the “realistic Tazer gun simulator” app (Real Tazer, 99¢) and “mind-numbing” apps attracting teenagers like Logo Game.

Tasteless apps abound. There is, for 99¢, the iFart Mobile reported on The Daily Beast. This app “plays a wide variety of flatulence sound effects labeled with names like “Burrito Maximo” and “Forrest Dump.” “Available for iPhone and iPad,” too. Yes indeed!

The Daily Beast commentator asserts that “useless apps far outnumber useful apps,” and picks out ten that are “utterly useless.” Here are some: Toilet Sound Machine Extreme (iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad, 99¢). And Zips (iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad, 99¢) an app that lets you unzip it using the touchscreen to reveal a photo of underwear. “That’s all it does.”

And I Am Rich (iPhone, $999.99) is called “the still-reigning champ of useless apps.” Introduced in Apple’s App Store in 2008, “I Am Rich did absolutely nothing. You paid a thousand bucks for an image of a glowing ruby. After a few curious saps purchased the app by accident, Apple pulled it from the store. Six people, however, bought it on purpose before its removal.”

Things are getting so “wild and crazy,” that, according to blogger Adam Rosenberg, the Vatican had to issue a statement declaring that the recently released Confession iPhone App is not a substitute for the actual Rite of Penance.

The FTC notices when hucksters start selling apps that involve quackery and has already prosecuted and shut down two purveyors of acne apps. The FDA is trying to figure out how to deal with so-called health apps that could cheat and endanger people with claims to address conditions from flabby abs to alcoholism. These can give worthy health apps a bad image.

A Boston University based study reported by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting found that “of 331 therapeutic apps, nearly 43% relied on cellphone sound for treatments,” and “another dozen used the light of the cell phone” as a remedy.

Both Apple and Google point to their lengthy guidelines for rejecting apps that are deceptive, that crash or damage users’ devices or offer gratuitous violence and explicit sex. Clearly they need to do more. “Happtique, a subsidiary of the Greater New York Hospital Association,” is launching “the nation’s first app certification service, which will evaluate apps for safety and effectiveness,” according to the New England Center.

In the meantime, tell us about apps that advance social justice reforms in our nation or communities. (http://www.facebook.com/ralphnader) You know, apps that facilitate greater civic participation or that promote peace and justice; apps that strengthen our democracy. They may be around, but you’d never guess from the deteriorating reality that is our political economy. ¥¥

(Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition.)

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PRELUDE

Wind buffs the serried drifts from storms

That buried in whispers the ice bound earth;

Rounds split and stacked, inside I’m warm

As flames bloom from their andiron berth—

No winter can snuff the fire I’ve built

As it smothered what’s under the crusted snow quilt.

* * *

January 17, San Diego, 76° and sunny. I’ve lived here over 50 years but I spent my first 15 years in Alaska where winters were great if you were a kid.

— John Wester

One Comment

  1. Taylor Ellis January 18, 2013

    Ralph Nader, always a ray of sunshine! I love that he includes his facebook page.

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