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County Notes: Stonewalling & Ducking The Issues

The only mention of the pending employee strike (possibly in early September) due to the County’s failure to provide even a token cost of living increase offer to the nearly 700 member Service Employees Union members is this now familiar closed session agenda item: “Pursuant to Government Code Section 54957.6 - Conference with Labor Negotiator - Agency Negotiators.” 

In July the Service Employees International Union Local 1021 voted to authorize a strike by a whopping 94%. 

So far the County has offered nothing but a de-facto pay cut (health care premiums are going up; no pay increases have been proposed). Discussions among union members and their reps are ongoing. Options range from a strike for few days around Labor Day to perhaps something longer. A short strike might not be enough of a wake-up call on the one hand, but longer than that will strain union members on the low end of the pay scale who are paycheck to paycheck and may not be able to afford staying off the job for long.

Despite the near constant gripes from Supervisors McGourty and Williams about not having enough financial information to offer even a token cost of living raise, they have chosen to cloister themselves in their virtual offices and work on an ephemeral pet peeve “Department of Finance” at least four years in the future (when there will be at leats two new board members) instead of doing what they are supposed to be doing in their “budget ad hoc”: telling the Auditor-Controller-Treasurer-Tax Collector (ACTTC) what reports they want and putting her on the spot. (What they should ask for, of course, is departmental budgets vs. actual from the CEO and department heads.) At the last Board meeting in July, ACTTC Director Chamise Cubbison and Supervisor John Haschak reminded the Board that the McGourty/Williams ad hoc has not produced any report requests. All we got in response was McGourty whining about being too busy with the budget prep which, even if true, was two months ago now.

Williams denies that the County’s negotiating position is to “stall,” but that’s what they’re doing. Each month of stonewalling a cost of living raise means the Board saves tens of thousands of dollars. The longer they stall, the less they pay. 

How much would a pay raise really cost?

The County has about 1200 employees at a base pay averaging around $50,000 to $70,000 per year, many of them are in the $25,000 to $30,000 range. So in very round numbers each month they delay translates to $50,000 to $70,000 for each percentage increase they can delay. The County says each percentage increase is about $1 million a year for 1200 people. But we don’t think it’s that high. If you count the General Fund only — about a quarter of the total budget — the cost of a 1% raise for the general fund employees is about $15,000 to $20,000 per month which should be affordable. 

The CEO’s office insists that giving non-General Fund employees a raise (and billing the raises to the State and Federal Grants) would cost the General Fund some unknown amount because the managers of the non-General Fund employees, whose pay for some odd reason is not billed to the state and federal grants, would have to get proportionate raises too, a bogus argument on two counts. 1. Management and overhead should be billable to the grants, and 2. the management and department head bargaining units are subject to negotiation too; they need not be automatic raises.

Meanwhile the County continues to barely limp along trying to correct and pick up additional tax assessments and corresponding revenues in the dwindling hope that in two years they will have corrected some of the assessments (but not collected) for maybe half of the unassessed properties at most. But they have yet to demand or receive a written report on how that’s going and have shown no sense of urgency about it. 

At last report the County had a whopping $28 million reserve in the General Fund, i.e., a general reserve of around 30%, more than double what most counties carry. As we have said before, they could draw down that reserve while making a priority push on increased property tax collections and penalties and interest and easily cover the cost of a modest cost of living raise for General Fund employees. 

But as usual nobody has even asked the CEO’s office for these numbers so that they can be effectively dealt with in labor negotiations.

A slo-mo train wreck may not be as dramatic or destructive as a high-speed crash, but it still means the trains don’t move. 


Williams: “The County needs to cut approximately $11M in annual spending to balance the budget. Cutting all boards and commissions not required by law will save taxpayers approximately $1M per year. Fiscal responsibility will come in the form of many small changes.

Independent of that reality, I have concerns over the financial record keeping and reporting. The reporting is secondary because if the records are not properly maintained, we get a garbage-in-garbage-out result. Your elected Auditor-Controller-Treasurer-Tax-Collector has untenable performance and decision-making, 

but the dysfunctional systems and processes began long before. When all is said and done, you’ll see that you’ve attacked the messengers for being honest about findings.

I support market wages and COLAs during this time of inflation. I’m not the block on issuing COLAs, but we are required to pass a balanced budget, so any raises need to be matched with dollar-for-dollar cuts. The first $11M of trimming will get us to break even.

Since I’ve been on the board, we’ve raised wages to 90/95% of market (GF vs non-GF positions), then 3%, 3%, 3%, 2% COLAs. The raises were so significant in the initial move to market that the independent retirement board recently obligated an additional $3M/year of county revenue.

When the 1170 positions are compared on a total compensation basis to Humboldt, Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Sutter, Yolo, El Dorado counties, and Ukiah, Santa Rosa cities, you’ll find almost all are at market now. I say total compensation, because Mendocino pays into Social Security, whereas Sonoma does not.

I expect someone to surface the idea of new or increased taxes. How about we live within our means before asking for additional taxes? The public should not allow the board to use tax increases to balance the budget. It’s possible to pay market wages, provide public safety and roads, within existing revenue. Address the 30% underassessment of property tax and there won’t be so many potholes.”

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Mark Scaramella Replies:

Changing the subject and making unsupported claims does not address the issues we raised.

We never mentioned increased taxes.

“Attacked the messenger”? If the messenger, i.e., Williams, delivers unsubstantiated messages, it’s not attacking the message or the messenger to point that out.

Williams says $11 million should be cut to balance the budget. Where’s the analysis that produced that estimate? Why has he suddenly discovered this particular shortfall? Cut from what? The General Fund? Or the total budget? Which departments? 

“Untenable”? Ms. Cubbison has responded a number of times to unsubstantiated complaints from McGourty and Williams, therefore, by definition, they are not “untenable.” Her main response, that McGourty and Williams have not specified what reports they want remains unaddressed, despite McGourty conceding that it is his and Williams’ budget committee’s assignment and it hasn’t been done.

Williams now says his “concern” is record keeping, not the reporting gaps he’s been griping out for years? That’s new. Which records are not being kept? Why hasn’t Ms. Cubbison been given an opportunity to respond to this latest allegation? 

Until Supervisor Williams provides the bases for his claims and addresses the basic issues that we raised and the responses that Ms. Cubbison is already on record with, we’re not inclined to argue about these new allegations and complaints. If this is an example of the Supervisors’ approach to County management, it’s no wonder the County’s finances remain in stagnant turmoil.

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AS WE APPROACH THE END of the Supervisors’ month-long “recess” which they all insisted was not a recess, just no meetings, during which they were all getting paid for all the meetingless “work” they claimed to be doing, we wonder if they really did anything. Frequent on-line poster Supervisor Ted Williams hasn’t posted anything about doing any county business; Supervisor Maureen Mulheren has posted more of her usual cheery local activities notices, Supervisors Haschak, Gjerde and McGourty have been silent. On Thursday, the next Board meeting agenda is expected to be posted. A CEO report is also due which is supposed to contain a written report of Assessor (Clerk-Recorder) Katrina Bartolomie’s tax assessment update progress. It will be interesting to see if any of the Supervisors are listed as “sponsor” for any of the agenda items, or if the agenda is just the usual accumulation of departmental rubberstamp requests (including the retroactive ones). 

PS. Despite the County claiming to have no money for employee cost of living increases, according to her latest Supervisor’s Report Supervisor Mulheren reports that she went to a County-paid Conference in Texas where she “attended the NACO Annual Conference in Austin, Texas. There was a lot of discussion re Mental Health, Homelessness and Economic Development. [She has to go to Austin for that?] I also got a chance to hear Dr. Drew Pinsky and his thoughts on our Behavioral Health System. [She has to go to Austin for that?] He thinks we are not supporting those that need services but can’t ask for it themselves well enough whether that be because of mental health or active substance abuse issues. [Doesn’t the County pay the Schraeders almost $30 million a year to do those assessments?] And I had a chance to do some line dancing with the Women of NACO.”

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IN A NOT-SO RELATED NOTE, the County’s “Disaster Recovery” person (if there are more than one we’re not aware of them) will be holding one of their “outreach” and “listening sessions” at the Boonville Senior Center/Veterans Hall on Wednesday evening, September 13, from 5:30 to 7:30pm when they will discuss “resilience” with an eye toward grant applications on such topics as Emergency Preparedness, Community Planning and Capacity Building, Infrastructure Systems, Economic Resiliency and Sustainability, Health and Social Services, Housing, and Natural Systems and Cultural Resources.” And if you know what that means as a practical matter you’re much more up on “resiliency” than we are. (Anderson Valley’s Fire Department has an extensive and impressive Disaster Plan but we doubt it’ll even come up in the County’s attempt to “listen.”)

IRONICALLY, the local meeting place for this “listening session” — the AV Senior Center — was itself the subject of a modest local proposal a couple of years ago to upgrade it into an emergency community center. The idea was to simply install a back-up generator and hook up an external emergency water system backup. The County (in the person of General Services Agency Director Janelle Rau) rudely spiked that proposal saying it couldn’t be done without a much bigger building upgrade (the County owns the building) and with prevailing wage contractors instead of volunteers, despite the obvious fact that all the work would have been separate from the building itself. Something tells us that although the County’s Disaster Preparedness person is probably well-meaning, the County isn’t interested in listening to much of what these sessions may produce, much less acting on it. If they were, we’d have seen a much more receptive County response to the local proposal. 

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