Remember a month ago when Mendocino County Supervisors created an uproar by asking the state Controller to step in and take a hard look at County finances?
Things seemed so bad then that the public was left wondering if anyone at the county administration center had a true grasp of the County’s $355 million annual budget, and whether income was keeping pace with spending.
Board Chairman Ted Williams at the time brashly claimed then that the county had “‘three sets of books,” leaving him and the other four supervisors confused and unable to decipher the County’s true financial condition. In an era when the County’s overall monthly operating costs total in excess of $29 million, Williams’ claims grabbed headlines.
So, imagine the surprise the other day when Williams boldly announced that actually all seems well with the County’s coffers.
In an official county press release Williams bragged about an upgrade in the County’s overall creditworthiness by a key credit ratings service and suggested the current board had triggered some kind of fiscal turn around.
Williams said there are several key factors for the S&P Global Ratings credit rating upgrade to “AA,” including the County’s “improved financial position, supported by enhanced financial management policies and practices that (S&P) consider strong.”
Williams, of course, credited the current board and a change in leadership at the county administration center.
“Leveraging a newfound drive to bolster professionalism, staff and the Board were able to convey the state and trajectory of County finances with inordinate transparency,” boasted Williams.
“When people asked for the County’s good news, I answer without hesitation: our hard-working staff. Their diligence is reflected in our new, upgraded credit rating, which will benefit bottom-line County finances for many years to come.”
All good and well. But in reality, the improved credit rating has more to do with what was accomplished over the past decade by staff, and not in a miracle month suggested by Williams.
Former County Treasurer-Tax Collector Shari Schapmire said Friday the budget dance orchestrated by Williams and other county supervisors is clumsy at best.
“The county was in a true financial crisis a decade ago. We didn’t even have a contingency fund,” said Schapmire.
Schapmire said county officials then pulled together, dug deep into County finances, and worked diligently to restore stability.
“It took a lot of effort, time, and hard work but the County enjoys improved credit ratings thanks to the work done over the past decade, and not something done in recent weeks,” said Schapmire.
Despite the impression Williams suggests about the credit upgrade, Schapmire said, “There’s been no quick fix.”
Schapmire, a respected veteran county employee, repeated her past concerns about a push by current board members for a new Office of Finance that County supervisors would oversee rather than oversight being the responsibility of other elected county officials led by the newly combined Auditor/Tax Collector office.
“We really need to have a checks and balance system in place,” said Schapmire.
“Board members clearly did not understand how difficult they have made the jobs of others, and how necessary it is for independent oversight of the county’s budget process.”
Carmel Angelo, the county’s former Chief Executive Officer, also weighed in Friday on Williams’ pronouncement this week. Angelo retired in May after 15 years with the county.
“Elected and appointed county officials for a decade worked to bring Mendocino County out of a global economic downturn,” said Angelo. “Those were the people who were responsible for meeting payroll, developing a very health reserve, and improved credit ratings.”
Angelo said past board members studied the County’s budget, and “knew where the money was and how to stretch it.”
Angelo specifically recalled how former Supervisor John Pinches “carried the County budget book with him in his truck. He could tell you what page to find any information on the county budget.”
Angelo credited former Supervisors John McCowen, Dan Hamburg and Carre Brown for spending “many hours in the CEO’s office figuring out how to assure the County could meet its payroll, pay off our debts and set aside money for the next economic downturn.”
The County’s Debt Committee then was made up of Angelo, retired Auditor Lloyd Weer, former Treasurer-Tax Collector Schapmire, Janelle Rau and others who developed long-term policies that “…helped assure financial accountability, and an ability to secure low interest funding to pay off County debt.”
Angelo said credit ratings for municipal governments do not happen by chance, let alone seemingly overnight. Ten years ago, the county’s credit standing was admittedly shaky at best, she said. Governments at all levels had been hit hard by a global recession, Angelo recalled.
“To say this Board of Supervisors is responsible for an improved credit rating and a transparent form of government negates all the good work of the hard working, ethical supervisors and County staff over the last decade,” said Angelo.
For Williams to suggest a financial miracle has happened on Low Gap Road during the last month is laughable. His pronouncement underscores a public perception of fun and games in the boardroom at the expense of hard work and diligence.