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Unfairly Maligned County Auditor Speaks Out

Chamise Cubbison, Mendocino County’s embattled chief accounting officer, typically shies from public posturing, choosing only to appear at Board of Supervisors meetings to formally defend her office’s functions.

Chamise Cubbison

Cubbison, however, shed her public reticence over the Labor Day weekend, and during a rare interview accused some county supervisors of playing backroom politics, and failing to place their demands for updated fiscal information on a CEO office staffed with several more budget analysts than Auditor-Controller has.

Cubbison said the reality is that “county departments are asked to provide the CEO quarterly annual projections, which likely provides most of information they seek. That information is not shared with our office, but rather with the CEO, who determines what information goes to the board.”

Cubbison said some board members are deliberately trying to create a perception of chaos surrounding delayed financial reports from a newly combined office of Auditor-Controller/Treasurer-Tax Collector to further their quest to create a county Department of Finance under the county supervisors’ oversight rather than other elected officials.

Cubbison described the enforced merger in late 2021 as an “impulsive’ act by the county board. She accused her board critics, led by Supervisors Ted Williams and Glenn McCourty, of continuing to demand ongoing financial updates from her newly combined office knowing that it does not have the “staff or software configuration in place to produce” them.

She said board members are “unable or unwilling to understand the expected differences” between the county’s budget based financial system, and the county’s annual, comprehensive financial report, which is prepared according to accepted accounting principles.

Cubbison said it is difficult to assess the County’s true financial status, including the actual amount of discretionary general reserves available, until her understaffed office can get caught up from a calamitous forced merger by the Board of Supervisors of the Auditor-Controller and Treasurer-Tax Collector offices.

Cubbison said she believes updated reports soon to be complete will show there is only about $10 million available in the County’s general reserve in the face of a $421 million budget for the current fiscal year.

“There should be concern because that’s nothing really,” said Cubbison.

Now a newly announced state Controller’s Office review of her office’s handling of delayed annual financial statements has sparked more clamor from supervisor Williams who pronounced that it was exactly what the board needs. “Oh, it’s the best news,” Williams declared in an on-line news story published Saturday.

State Controller Malia Cohen confirmed the new review after the County board voted unanimously to seek the state audit. Williams and other supervisors claim the lack of up to date reporting from the County office had created a ‘fiscal crisis.’

Leadership of the County’s largest labor union have joined in, contending that negotiations for a new contract are being hampered because of the delayed financial reports.

“It’s turned into kind of a circular firing squad, with everybody pointing fingers at each other,” union leader Julie Beardsley told KZYX news reporter Sarah Reith in a story published Saturday. 

Cubbison said the focus on her office is unfair, and that there are many factors involved in the complicated state of County finance reporting.

Her rare interview over the long Labor Day weekend underscored the deepening divide between the veteran County finance employee and board members. It reflects the continuing fallout from County Supervisors’ decision to consolidate the Auditor-Controller/Treasurer-Tax Collector into one.

Veteran County finance officials, including former County Treasurer Shari Schapmire, Auditor Lloyd Weer, the Mendocino County Farm Bureau, and others warned the board a sudden consolidation would disrupt the flow of financial reporting on the local level, and to state and federal agencies. The short staffing and exodus of senior employees in both offices exacerbated the situation.

“What has happened, and where we are now was predicted,” said Cubbison.

Cubbison said Sunday she welcomes the state Controller’s newly announced audit of the County’s financial reporting systems despite the distractions that come with it. State Controller Malia Cohen officially confirmed on Friday the new audit although Cubbison said it has been ongoing since Aug. 11.

“We already are cooperating with the state auditors. We have nothing to fear,” said Cubbison.

Cubbison said she is confident that any impartial outside review will lead to public recognition that it is political meddling by some supervisors who are trying to justify their quest to create a new county Department of Finance controlled by them.

Current strife between the board and the County’s employee union because of contentious new contract talks also is exacerbating the confusing state of County finances, said Cubbison. Labor leaders representing more than 700 County employees are threatening a strike if the County board doesn’t agree to cost of living wage increases this year.

Despite the board’s constant public criticism of her office, Cubbison said “No examples of incorrect or incomplete reporting to the state have been brought to the attention of the Auditor-Controller Treasurer-Tax Collector.”

In fact, said Cubbison, the County’s financial reports that are delivered to the state are reviewed regularly, and that the County office has been cited for ‘Excellence in Financial Reporting’ every year since moving to its current model.

Last year, the Standard & Poor Global Rating Service raised the County’s credit rating, citing its “improved financial position, supported by enhanced financial management policies and practices.”

Since then, however, Supervisors Williams and McGourty keep complaining they can’t get up-to-date financial information to make critical decisions, including pay and benefit talks with County employees.

Williams gleefully called the new state review the “best news,” in a published weekend news story. He declared, “We’ve been begging for an audit for quite some time. There’s a lot of open questions about the County’s record keeping, and inability to report. Taxpayers deserve to know how their money is being spent, and I’m here to help support the state in any way possible.”

Cubbison said Williams’ contentions are bunk.

She said what is really at issue is the board’s apparent lack of understanding of how County financial reporting works.

Cubbison asked why Williams and other supervisors aren’t relying on the seven current budget analysts in the CEO’s office for the information they seek, rather than adding to an already crushing workload in her  depleted office.

So far, complaining supervisors have yet to provide examples of reports they seek from any other County in the state despite their insistence her office compile the information they seek.

“Why doesn’t the board ask for the information they seek from their own Chief Executive Officer?,” asked Cubbison.

She said the CEO Darcie Antle has several budget analysts on staff, who are receiving quarterly projections from County departments, which contain budget-related information the supervisors seek.

“That information is not provided to the Auditor-Controller/Treasurer-Tax Collector but rather to the CEO who determines what information is shared with the board,” said Cubbison.

Cubbison said the CEO’s Office has access to the County’s financial system.

“It would likely assist the CEO in providing the best service to the board and the County if her staff learned more about the finances and had a better understanding of the financial reports of the County,” Cubbison asserted.

On her level, Cubbison said reports for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2022, have been delayed due to several reasons but chief among them is the “impulsive consolidation” of the two central County finance offices.

Cubbison said the board acted “with no consultation with the elected officials or the staff of the involved departments, and in spite of opposition from current incumbents, staff, community organizations, and members of the public.”

The repercussions from the board’s rash move lingers, said Cubbison.

Cubbison said the departure of veteran employees and early retirement of the former Auditor-Controller and Treasurer-Tax Collector who opposed the move, along with other key senior employees, “left the remaining offices critically short staffed in the highest positions during already trying times due to lasting impacts from ongoing (Covid) pandemic, finance and property tax system upgrades, and implementations of new government accounting standards."

The fallout is delaying required reporting to state and federal regulators, and the still pending 2022 fiscal year financial report.

Much has been made about a recent public records act request by Moody’s financial rating service for delayed financial reports, raising the possibility in some board members’ minds that the County’s rating is at stake.

Cubbison said in her follow up call with the chief Moody analyst involved, he acknowledged that wording cited in a widely distributed email among County officials had “incorrectly created a heightened sense of concern.”

“I reiterated what had previously been communicated to Moody’s, which was that the County does not prepare draft financial statements and that the County’s outside auditors were presently working to wrap up their audit of the period in question.”

In fact, said Cubbison, she expects to be able to provide the County’s financial report to the rating agency by next week.

“Even with the ongoing 2022 financial audit, a 7-year state controller’s property tax audit, a 4-year state controller’s court revenue audit, and a still pending close to the 2023 fiscal year,” Cubbison said her office is diligently working with the new state audit about the office’s internal controls.

“We are swamped with outside interference, but we are doing our jobs,” said Cubbison.

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