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Mendo’s New ‘Budget Deficit Plan’

ITEM 4c on this Tuesday’s Supervisors Agenda was:

“Discussion and Possible Action Including Approval of Presentation of a Budget Deficit Plan for Fiscal Year (FY) 23/24 and 24/25 Focusing on Revenue Management, Expense Management, and Leadership Accountability; and Direction to Staff as Needed.”

What was supposed to sound like a major step forward in reducing the budget deficit was undermined right off the bat by the clumsy wording of the agenda item. Instead of saying “budget deficit reduction plan,” they call it a “budget deficit plan,” as if they were planning for a budget deficit.

In the attached “plan” there’s a series of steps under the important heading of “Property Taxes”:

• “Address findings from the 2017 Board of Equalization (BOE) audit: Address and rectify any issues identified in the 2017 BOE audit to enhance compliance and efficiency.”

Comment: Oh, that’s a great start! 2017? That was seven years ago

• “Enhance property tax management: Conduct a thorough review of property tax assessment methods, ensuring accuracy and identifying opportunities for improvement.”

Comment: In the attached schedule this item (#12 on the deficit plan schedule) is supposed to be finished by June 30 and is said to have been underway for the last two weeks or so. But there is no reference to the specific tax collection problems that have been identified previously, such as unassessed property improvements, unassessed structures, non-payment of taxes due… Therefore, there does not appear to be any real intent, much less a plan, to get to the bottom of the tax collection deficit. Remember this deficit reduction item follows on the heels of last June’s Board Directive that the CEO report include a monthly report of assessment improvement statistics toward a very limited goal of putting half of the estimated unassessed properties and structures onto the tax rolls. There hasn’t been a single report in the CEO Report since then, nor has there even been a significant oral report from the Assessor’s office other than that they’ve hired some appraisers and they’ve issued some supplemental assessments.

• “Implement measures for auctions, liens, and delinquent accounts: Strengthen efforts to recover overdue property taxes through auctions, liens, and effective follow-up procedures.”

Comment: Here they at least identify the basic steps involved in collecting delinquent taxes, albeit after the fact when all that’s left to do is impose liens on tax defaulted property. But listing the steps and taking the steps are two different things.

• “Optimize Aumentum for improved property tax administration: Leverage Aumentum, a comprehensive property tax management system, to streamline processes and enhance overall administration.”

Comment: The County’s relatively new Aumentum property tax system — purchased by former CEO Carmel Angelo and implemented without a crossover period before it was accepted and approved — has been plagued with well known problems for years. Are we supposed to believe that those problems have been magically solved and the system can now be “enhanced”? As recently as last month Assessor Clerk Record Katrina Bartolomie was still saying that they were working with the vendor and their IT department and they were still thrashing away at the problems.

• “Establish performance tracking metrics and accountability measures: Develop key
performance indicators to monitor the effectiveness of property tax initiatives and ensure accountability. 

Comment: “Performance tracking metrics”? “Accountability”? In Mendo? Har de har. 

The rest of the list of Budget Deficit (reduction) Plan items are simply titles without much substance. The text accompanying the “plan” is chock full of the usual vague and highly UNaccountable language which is supposed to sound like action is being taken when it’s obviously not. There’s a heavy reliance on verbs like: Improve, investigate, optimize, audit, evaluate, ensure, increase, prioritize, explore, leverage, enhance, emphasize, strengthen, etc. All words we’ve learned over the years mean basically nothing.

We’ll have more about some of the specifics in the deficit plan list after the Board is presented with it. (For example, the relocation of the Veterans Service Office is buried in the list as a budget deficit plan item.) But given the lack of specifics for most of the items, the “plan” reads more like a jargonized wish list, an attempt to flood the gullible public with lots of empty verbiage about the budget deficit, when the particulars and the history demonstrate nothing of the sort.

* * *

Meanwhile, the Spending As Usual Plan continues with items like Agenda Item 4d:

“Discussion and Possible Action Including Approval of Sideletter of Agreement Establishing a One-Time Hiring Bonus for the Agricultural Commissioner/Sealer of Weights and Measures or for an Assistant Agricultural Commissioner due to the Critical Need to Hire for the Position, in the Amount of Forty Thousand Dollars ($40,000) Divided Over Three Years for Agricultural Commissioner/Sealer of Weights and Measures or Twenty Thousand Dollars ($20,000) Divided Over Three Years for an Assistant Agricultural Commissioner.”

What makes them think that throwing money at this position will produce results? Need we repeat the real problems with filling this position? (Yes. A Human Resources Department that the Grand Jury says is ill-managed; a very limited pool of candidates; a year of a part-time loaner Ag Commissioner from Sonoma County who was supposed to provide the County with time to hire a permanent replacement but did not, even though the year should have been plenty; an already very high base salary of at least $125k… plus very generous perks… Now they’re going to add hiring bonus? 

* * *

The two mysterious closed session items from a couple of weeks ago about “Significant Exposure to Litigation Arising from Complaints Against a County Official” are still listed, worded exactly the same as before, apparently unresolved, and without any attempt to quantify the “exposure.”

* * *

And then there’s an embarrassing new “exposure”: Closed Session Item 6f: “Anticipated Litigation: Significant Exposure to Litigation Arising from Mailing of Incorrect Ballots for March 5, 2024, Presidential Primary Election.” 

In other words, not only do the recent ballot snafus undermine the integrity of the upcoming election just a few days before Election Day (after hundreds if not thousands of people have already voted), but the County expects to be sued over it.

* * *

Bad Legal Advice, Again

A contributing factor in the latest ballot mixup is a decision in 2021 to use census blocks rather than local precincts to draw supervisorial district lines based on what County computer maven Leif Farr told KZYX’s Sarah Reith last week was “based on legal advice and was common throughout the region at the time.” 

But we are not told what the “legal advice” was nor who gave it. 

The “advice” was given to the County’s 2020 redistricting committee which produced the first redistricting of Mendocino County Supervisorial districts in decades and resulted in, among a number of other significant revisions, Hopland being bounced from the Fifth District into the First (with Potter Valley). 

I happened to have served on the redistricting committee in 2010 when we considered several options which would have had similarly significant impact on Supervisorial Districts. 

All our committee work was ultimately ignored and tossed aside by then-Fourth District Supervisor Kendall Smith who wanted to keep the town of Mendocino in the Fifth District to make sure that nobody with even a hint of “conservative” leanings could ever be elected Fifth District Supervisor.

In 2010 the main “legal advice” the redistricting committee got was that although the redistricting targets were supposed to be one fifth of the population in each district. The law allowed variations of up to 10% above or below the one-fifth target. However, “to avoid a lawsuit” we should not exceed 3% above or below the one-fifth target for each district. The Fifth District is the most sparsely populated with no major cities. Some of the 2010 committee members (including me) wanted to move the Town of Mendocino into the Fourth District with Fort Bragg and leave the Fifth with whatever other precincts could be included by minor boundary adjustments. But that would leave the percentage allocation for the Fifth district more than 3% below the target 20%. Whenever we wanted to move even a small block of voters (a precinct) from one district to another, there would have to be compensating adjustments elsewhere, especially if the plus/minus 3% rule had to be observed. 

The chances of the County being sued for exceeding the plus/minus 3% allocation were effectively nil, but there we were contorting district boundaries into some very weird shapes just to stay within those plus/minus 3% numbers based on “legal advice.” And woe unto anyone (basically me and Larry Mailliard at the time) who suggested we ignore the “legal advice” and just go by the law.

Then there’s the question of whether the boundaries should be drawn based on census counts or registered voters. In 2010 there was no question that the allocations should be based on registered voters, i.e., precincts. The option of considering census data within precincts for redistricting never came up. 

My guess is that the shift in political dynamics in recent years to more emphasis on slicing and dicing the population up into various ethnic “communities” or self-identifiers has shifted the “legal advice” to a preference for district allocations to accommodate various ethnic categories which can only be done with census data since ethnicity is not a factor in voter registration rolls which is what precincts are based on. 

The old way of allocating districts based on voter registration data was a much more neutral way of allocating districts. But now here we are in the 2020s trying to factor in a more complicated approach which splits up already small precincts into different supervisorial districts partly based on various shades of ethnicity, contorting the redistricting process into a version of an M.C. Escher drawing and introducing a whole new layer of potential error with no real benefit to “democracy.”

All because of the attitude that “legal advice” must be followed.

When the “legal advice” makes no practical sense, the citizen committee which receives it should be able to tell the legal advisor to shut the hell up.

But of course, they never do.

So here we are with a whole new legal “exposure” produced by the very legal advice that was supposed to reduce the risk of a lawsuit, but has instead only made it worse.

Somebody may have made a few mistakes in trying to figure out which individual addresses should have been assigned to which districts or mistyped some of the basic data. But the real mistake was in following that stupid “legal advice” unquestioningly in the first place.

One Comment

  1. Adam Gaska February 28, 2024

    I would have to watch the meetings again but they were led by Charlotte Scott and Leif Farr. I assume that’s where the advice came from.

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