“You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.” — Yogi Berra
At their last Board meeting on Tuesday, July 25, 2023 before taking an unprecedented entire month off (a “recess”), the Board of Supervisors discussed creating a “Department of Finance.”
The discussion arose only about a year and a half after they rashly consolidated the offices of Auditor-Controller and Treasurer-Tax Collector in December of 2021 against the advice of the incumbents and everyone else who had an opinion on the subject.
From the minutes of the December 14, 2021 board meeting: “Upon motion by Supervisor Williams, seconded by Supervisor McGourty, it is ordered that the Board of Supervisors adopts an ordinance repealing [the existing County Code on the two separate offices] for the purpose of consolidating the Offices of the Auditor-Controller and the Treasurer-Tax Collector.” The motion passed 4-1 with Supervisor John Haschak dissenting.”
Although the Board continues to claim that they “only” consolidated the positions, not the office, their own minutes make it clear that they consolidated the offices, although since the consolidation was done without planning or organizational direction, they apparently can claim whatever they want. They have shown no interest in how the consolidated offices function since then, other than near constant griping about not getting reports — whatever those as-yet undefined reports may be.
In opening the discussion, Supervisor Ted Williams said the Board wants a Department of Finance to get “regular financial reports” such as “Department reports, budgeted versus actual, on a monthly basis.”
Unbelievably, Mendo has never done monthly departmental reporting, as we have noted for years, if not decades. Nor has the Board formally asked for it, despite their claims to the contrary. Although Williams claimed they’ve asked for monthly reports several times, when asked to cite a “board directive” saying so, Williams didn’t respond. Williams also said the Board doesn’t even know “who is responsible for generating the monthly reports.”
Hint: It’s the CEO and the department heads. The board can shuffle the financial offices or officers all they want but that won’t change that simple fact.
Supervisor Glenn McGourty implied that the County’s current financial staff is unqualified, as if he would know.
“While we have hard working people with this task [reporting, presumably], they don’t necessarily have the capacity to really deliver the information that we need as supervisors.”
The board has acknowledged that they have never specified what they “need,” choosing instead to complain about it ad nauseum, then blaming their own fecklessness on the fact that the Auditor-Controller Tax Collector-Treasurer is an elected official over whom they say they have no control.
This excuse would be more credible if the board specified what they want and who is refusing to provide it.
In fact, the Board has no idea what they want beyond someone with the grand title of “Director of Finance” who has the magical ability to telepathically discern what the Supervisors want. McGourty admitted as much saying, “Long term, I would like to see us have a real clear picture of what that is.”
County Counsel Christian Curtis told the Board that creating a Department of Finance would require that the public vote on the creation of the position as well as on whether it would be elected or appointed by the Supervisors and that the process would take up to four years considering election timing and incumbency and so forth. Oddly, the Board seems oblivious to how hard a sell that would be, given the public’s general distrust of this Board of Supervisors. As Supervisor Haschak noted, “the people of Mendocino County would have to vote on this and they would have real concerns.”
Supervisor Dan Gjerde at least seemed to realize that whatever a Department of Finance might look like, “the challenges with the County’s finances involve many county departments and they are not solely resting in any one department.”
Auditor-Controller-Tax Collector-Treasurer Chamise Cubbison wasn’t even officially involved in the discussion. She had to come to the podium under “public expression” to even comment:
“I take exception to this board bringing forward this agenda item and its wording. I continue to be dismayed by this board, or certain board members, inferring that my staff or myself are unqualified, not doing our jobs, or are not professional. I continue to feel like a scapegoat for of your lack of understanding of financial matters relating to the county and your inability to make hard decisions. The board took action to combine the offices with no plan in place and in spite of opposition from myself, the former Auditor Controller, and the former Treasurer Tax collector along with community members and community organizations.”
Ms. Cubbison went on at some length defending herself and her staff, pointing out the problems they’ve had converting to the new property tax system and the new accounting system on top of existing requirements as well as the additional tasks the Board has imposed on her office such as the Cannabis tax amnesty program and the transient occupancy tax allocations. She also told the Board, “I have requested that the board members who are asking for financial information in a different way, provide examples of those financial reports from their colleagues in other counties. To date I have never seen examples of such reports.”
When Supervisor Haschak asked how the Board’s “budget ad hoc” committee of Williams and McGourty were doing on that, McGourty admitted they had been remiss, blaming it on their “really, really hard” work putting together [i.e., rubberstamping] the last annual budget. Which means that he acknowledges that they were supposed to do that but haven’t and probably won’t.
Ms. Cubbison also reminded the Board that “County staff and fiscal offices and departments act quarterly to provide extensive information on their projections for year-end amounts.” Which would be an obvious starting point for monthly reports. “Staff works tirelessly providing detailed information to the CEO in quarterly reports,” Cubbison added. “That information may or may not be being provided to you, but it is being done. Staff is working diligently in those departments to provide that information. I am confident that additional information to suit some of the requested information is likely available in some of those reports.” But again, the Board expressed no interest in getting those existing quarterly departmental reports.
As far as tax collection shortfalls, Cubbison insisted that it’s not as bad as some people think:
“The inference that we are not collecting taxes is completely unfounded. We remain at the same collection rate that we have had for the last three years for taxes which is also in line with every other county in the state. We are not behind in collecting taxes. The data at this point is somewhat skewed because of issuing so many bills in May. We have not had the opportunity to necessarily collect on those, but our numbers are coming in as expected.”
That sounds somewhat contradictory, however. On the one hand, they’re “not behind,” but the bills are late and the funds are “not necessarily” collected? Also, there’s the problem of numerous underassessed parcels and reports of unpaid, uncollected tax bills going back several years, some of which won’t translate into revenue for years, if ever.
Cubbison concluded, “I would appreciate it if there is a desire to move toward a Director of Finance that you don’t couch it with references to unprofessionalism and people not working hard. If you want to work towards that, you should do it in a collaborative, cooperative and respectful manner moving forward. You should not try to blame those who are working hard to get the job done and who are actually not failing at that role.”
First District Supervisor Candidate Carrie Shattuck concluded:
“The reason the Board of Supervisors is giving for the creation of a Department of Finance is to get their reports. But it is also that they do not want the position elected. Although that is exactly what they did last year. Chamise Cubbison, Auditor Controller Tax Collector is seven months in into her four-year elected position and is still learning the Treasurer and Tax Collector office. The Board of Supervisors did this merging of offices without a plan and without consulting the Treasurer-Tax Collector or Auditor. Decades of experience in these offices left with the consolidation. One of the main issues is getting the reports out of the computer program as Chamise pointed out. The information did not cross over correctly from our antiquated system, therefore compounding the problem. The Treasurer-Tax Collector told the board that this was a major issue even before the consolidation. Now they want to blow up the department they consolidated before the dust has even settled from the last merging. We have a knowledge crisis in our county. Consolidating more power under the CEO’s office is not going to fix this. The CEO’s office is already filling in for more departments than they can handle. The Human Resources Director is one example. where are we going to get people to run a Department of Finance? We cannot even get people to run other departments including Human Resources. If the Board of Supervisors really wants to get reports then they should be helping to support the Auditor-Controller-Tax Collector. But they rushed into this elected position and failed to actively recruit employees with knowledge of this tax system. Getting the reports is not as important as getting the work done. If the work is not getting done, there is nothing to report. You cannot merge your way out of this.”
Like his colleagues, Supervisor Haschak admitted that he too has no idea what he wants or what is needed beyond bureaucratic generalities:
“We want reliable financial reports and efficient tax collection. How do we get there? This Department of Finance? I don’t see that as really viable. According to County Counsel it would take three and a half years to make that transition. So it’s how do we work with what we have right now and make it better? I’m open to any kind of recommendations. The budget ad hoc committee was supposed to be looking at the financial reports and getting that information to the Auditor Controller Treasurer Tax Collector. They were supposed to be working on that to make sure that we were getting the reports. What is the status of that progress? I call it progress because that’s what we’re trying to do is get that information. Are we making progress in getting the information that the board needs?”
Supervisor Maureen Mulheren wrapped up by trying to make sure the item is deeply buried and mushy, “It is my understanding reading the agenda item that the board will formally direct staff to look at a contingency plan. Not that the plan will happen, not that it will be brought to the board or the voters. But it is formal direction from the five board members to direct staff to look into these items.”
McGourty and Williams confirmed that that was the direction.
And that was all there was to it. Staff is supposed to “look at a contingency plan” for a Finance Director. No dates, no definition, no direction, no examples from other counties.
Two hours of fuzzy blather demonstrating again that Ms. Cubbison is correct in saying the problem is the Board’s “lack of understanding of financial matters relating to the county and your inability to make hard decisions.”