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County Notes: Dubious Claims

Independent Coast Observer reporter Susan Wolbarst covers the Board of Supervisors for the ICO. In her October 20, 2023 report about the suspension of Auditor-Controller/Treasurer-Tax Collector Chamise Cubbison, Wolbarst says that “Since election, she [Cubbison] has not delivered requested financial materials to supervisors in a timely manner, causing them to request a state audit of the county’s finances, which is ongoing.”

Ms. Wolbarst seems to be reasonably assiduous in her Board coverage, uncritical as it is. So surely she must know that the Supervisors themselves had previously established an ad hoc committee of Supervisors Glenn McGourty and Ted Williams to specify what “financial materials” they want from the Auditor-Controller/Treasurer-Tax Collector. But at last report McGourty admitted that his committee had not done that because, McGourty claimed, they were too busy preparing this year’s budget. (Also not true, but irrelevant here.) Further, as Ms. Wolbarst must know, Ms. Cubbison has repeatedly asked the Board to tell her what they want with no response or results. 

In fact, the Supervisors have never requested any specific financial materials in their effort to blame Ms. Cubbison for their own shortcomings. In her reports to the board, Ms. Cubbison has asked several times that Supervisors specify what they want. For example, the Board could cite reports from other counties. Cubbison has maintained that she can’t deliver reports to the Supervisors until they tell her what they want. 

If conventional reporters are going to repeat the Supervisors’ false claims about Ms. Cubbison, it would only be fair to at least acknowledge that they are claims by the Supervisors, not undisputed facts, and that Ms. Cubbison disputes them as she has done in several board meetings.

* * *

Last Labor Day weekend, Ms. Cubbison told AVA reporter Mike Geniella 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. “No examples of incorrect or incomplete reporting to the state have been brought to the attention of the Auditor-Controller / Treasurer-Tax Collector,” said Cubbison. … 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.

Right there, given the timing of subsequent events and in hindsight, one can see that Cubbison’s steadfast refusal to fall on her sword combined with her criticisms of members of the Board and the CEO are probably a key factor in her abrupt suspension. Remember, at the end of the short discussion suspending Cubbison and appointing Deputy CEO Sara Pierce as Acting Auditor-Controller/Treasurer-Tax Collector, Supervisors McGourty and Haschak said they expected “cooperation” from Ms. Pierce.

* * *

Measure B Fund Status: Incomplete Staff Work Again

Item 4c on Tuesday’s Board agenda: 

“Discussion and Possible Action Including Acceptance of Ad Hoc Report; and Possible Direction to Staff Regarding Measure B Funds for Substance Use Services Request for Proposal #018-23 for Innovative Continuum of Care Programs for Youth and /or Adults to Help Clients Achieve and Maintain Sobriety and Mendocino County Jail Behavioral Health Wing (Sponsors: Supervisor Mulheren and Supervisor Haschak)”

This item was requested at the last Board meeting when the Board directed staff to look at the actual cost of the Ford Street expansion project proposal, determine the balance of Measure B funds, and see what portion could be used to finish the new jail wing, if any. An opinion on the legality of using Measure B money for the new jail wing was also requested.

Attached to Tuesday’s agenda item is a powerpoint presentation that purports to be responsive to that request. But it’s not. 

Specifically, the presentation simply says that there is $6,366,639 (down to the dollar) in “Unallocated Capital Facility Funds.” But there’s no breakdown of how they arrived at that number. A proper presentation would have shown how much Measure B sales tax money has been received, how much more is expected to be received, how much has already been spent, how much is allocated and for what, and how much is allocated for services. (The text of Measure B specifically says that not less than 25% of the money is to be spent on services, not facilities.) The presentation was also supposed to include state grant funds and opioid settlement funds and their planned allocations.

The presentation says that over $25 million is allocated for the Psychiatric Health Facility (PHF) (including a “prudent reserve”), and that an almost $9.4 million state grant has been awarded for the PHF. But there’s an important note: “grant dollars are not guaranteed” and “are not paid up front” but only reimbursed after they’re spent). They don’t specify how much in total money is available. There’s no mention of how much has already been spent on the minimally used Redwood Valley Training Facility and the Crisis Residential Treatment facility on Orchard Avenue in Ukiah. (Probably around $6 million for just those two facilities.) Supervisor Mulheren had also asked back on October 17 that opioid settlement funds be included in the rundown. They are not. 

Most of the rest of the presentation is a detailed breakdown of the Ford Street facilities project — an obvious attempt to sell the Board on the benefits of the project and the value of handing over several million Measure B dollars. (None of it would go to services.)

A proper presentation would begin with the available funds (Measure B plus the state grant of $9.4 million and the already borrowed $10 million for the previous overrun coverage, plus the opioid settlement money whatever that is.) Then itemized deductions would be listed for admin costs (spent and not yet spent but allocated), the Training Facility, the (overpriced) Crisis Residential Treatment Facility, the overpriced PHF, the Ford Street expansion project, and the 25% reserved for services. (Measure B specifically called for an annual audit to be overseen by the (nearly defunct) “oversight committee.” But there has never been an audit, despite lip-service that one should be have been done.)

What will probably happen, however, is that the Board will jump on the ill-defined unallocated funds estimate of about $6.4 million and declare that a big chunk of it will be shifted to the new jail wing because they are all convinced that they can’t pay for the ever-increasing jail expansion any other way. Legalities will be glossed over. The requirement that 25% of the money be spent on services will be ignored. Ideas like Adam Gaska’s suggestion that they “borrow” Measure B money and pay it back later will not even come up. Nor will anyone point out that there’s no need for a 16-bed PHF (eight beds should be plenty for Mendo cases) other than Behavioral Health Director Jenine Miller’s insistence that the only way to pay for staffing its subsequent operation is to build it at 16 beds and rent more than half of it to out-of-county reimbursables. 

As usual, despite their recent $150k “Strategic Plan,” Mendo isn’t capable of any kind of comprehensive planning, much less a comprehensive, responsive report on Measure B funds. As we have pointed out before, all they do is react haphazardly to edicts from the state, contort their own rules to fit whatever is in front of them at any given time, flaunt the voter approved measures, and try to repair their own self-created mistakes after they arise month after month. 

As Measure B committee member Shannon Riley noted at the last Measure B committee meeting, they have not spent “one nickel” on services. At the rate they’re going now it’s unlikely that they ever will.

* * *


Back in the early 2000s, I happened to be spending a day or two a week in Norm Vroman’s District Attorney’s offices with Vroman’s permission. (Vroman, who ran a pretty good DA’s office, had hoped that I’d write a book about it. As it turned out, I got a number of good stories out of the experience and the cases, but I wasn’t able to spend enough time there to write a book about it. Our agreement was that I wouldn’t write about pending cases, or quote anyone without their permission.)

Anyway, one day a copy of a “workload chart” that had been prepared by then-presiding Judge Eric Labowitz was circulating around the DA’s offices. The chart purported to assess the time required in each courtroom for various categories of cases. Unsurprisingly, by the Labowitz analysis, all the courtrooms were busy, busy, busy. The charts attempted to show the utilization of each courtroom for each day of the week down to the hour of the day. The Assistant and Deputy DAs at the time, two of whom are now sitting judges, all got a big laugh at Labowitz’s time estimates. It appeared to me and some of the attorneys that the objective of the chart was to show that the courtrooms were all fully utilized. But we all knew that was not the case. In fact, most of the time the top floor courtrooms sat empty. On any given day if you went to the top floors you would be surprised if more than one of them was in use. And even then, sometimes the only people in those courtrooms were the bailiff and clerk. 

Obviously, there was no attempt to question Labowitz’s self-serving time estimates. And nobody would ever suggest using the courtrooms more efficiently, especially since the judges who run the place like to have their own personal courtrooms, despite the fact that the majority of them are woefully under-utilized. 

These days, there’s this juggernaut of a new courthouse barreling down on the City of Ukiah and the County of Mendocino and we’re supposed to just roll over and accept a lot of assumptions, most of which have already been discussed and debunked in these pages before. But one of the big assumptions is that we need eight or nine courtrooms. Somehow, for example, Lake County gets by with about half that number, for example. Yet here are our local judges and a bloated state judicial bureaucracy telling us we need a new courthouse with eight courtrooms. Based on…? Well, probably on some cockamamie inflated workload analysis like the one Judge Labowitz handed out a couple of decades ago that assumes that the hilarious chaos and inefficiency of the current court operations will be transplanted to the new one as if cast in stone.

* * *

The Inland Democratic Club held their First District Supervisors Candidate forum, October 12, 2023. Recently a video of the forum was posted on line. The audio is not very good. Nevertheless, it was an opportunity to see the four main candidates for Glenn McGourty’s open seat answer some local questions from the inland Dems. 

Trevor Mockel was a little better than we expected. He avoided his “amazing” facebook rhetoric and actually seemed to have a passing awareness of the issues he was asked about, albeit with no idea what to do about them. Carrie Shattuck was obviously knowledgeable on the issues, but not as blunt as she has been in her frequent Supervisors appearances. “Lobbyist” Madeline Cline is more polished than the others and seems to be on top of state issues as they relate to Mendocino County. Adam Gaska is obviously very familiar with the Redwood Valley area and its residents and has been familiarizing himself with County affairs. 

Most noteworthy to us, however, were Gaska’s comments about the County’s tax collection problems. 

Gaska said that he became aware of how far the County was behind on tax collection while researching some inland property a couple of years ago. He said that the county was behind on tax collection by two years in many cases and that “when a property sells it isn’t always being re-assessed. So the County was not getting the tax revenue that it should. And I found out that if the County doesn’t collect from a person that money falls off. They can only go back four years.” Gaska said he emailed the Assessor’s office and told them that they seemed to be missing some assessments and not getting the revenues. “They just said they were understaffed. I couldn’t believe that.” Then later, “It wasn’t until recently that I found that the problem had not been solved. That was one of the reasons I decided to run for Supervisor. Somebody needs to intervene and do whatever it takes. If county staff isn’t there, they have to give them the resources, especially when it comes to those important tax assessments because that is where most of the money comes from that pays for our Sheriff and our roads.”

That is just the tip of the iceberg. Not only are they behind on tax assessments for properties that have been sold, but they’re behind on re-assessments for property improvements. In addition, there are property owners who have simply not paid their taxes and are delinquent. The delays in new purchase assessments and re-assessments have become so bad that inland realtors these days routinely advise property buyers to set aside money for a delayed tax bill that may come as quite a shock, since it will be for the full current assessed value and may go back for several years. 

This is more evidence that the Supervisors and Senior Staff in Ukiah have dropped the ball. Rather than focusing on what is clearly an understaffed but fundamental county function, they’re playing petty personal politics with the positions and not demanding that their staff give them meaningful reports on what’s being done (or not done) to collect taxes that are due. Nor is there a current list of tax default properties that could be sold for taxes due. And the clock is ticking. Significant revenues that could be used to shore up the County’s ballooning budget gap have been lost and more are about to be lost unless quick action is taken. 

Suspending Chamise Cubbison and replacing her with an inexperienced “acting” Auditor-Controller / Treasure Tax collector will only make the situation worse. And their apparent, but years off, goal of converting the position and/or office into an unelected Director of Finance would not do anything to improve the situation. 

As far as we can tell, only candidates Gaska and Shattuck have shown any kind of competent grasp on the seriousness of this situation and even if one of them were elected and seated in January of 2025, it would be months or more before they could even get the Good Ship Mendo moving away from the rocks it’s currently headed for, if they could steer it away at all.

One Comment

  1. Call It As I See It November 3, 2023

    The tax collecting issue you speak of regarding assessed properties is not the Tax Collector. It is the Assessors Office. An office that was combined nearly 20 years ago. Under the direction of Marsha Wharff, Sue Ranochak and Katrina Bartolomei the assessing side of the office has been treated like the red headed step child in favor of elections. If the BOS would have done their homework, they would have seen this office has been a massive failure since combining.

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