Pot Fantasies & Pay Raises

by Mark Scaramella, October 11, 2017

AT THE LAST (October 3rd) meeting of the Supervisors, Ag Commissioner Diane Curry told the county leadership that 21 pot cultivation applications are now approved and 17 have been officially denied, apparently because the applicants wanted to grow in an area not zoned for pot cultivation. “There are still a few with open complaints,” Curry said. “A few” are ready to be permitted, waiting for the applicant to come in and sign the application.

CURRY then told the Board that Fish & Wildlife wardens had raided and “abated” an applicant on Highway 20 west of Willits a couple of weeks ago. Curry said she spoke to the Fish & Wildlife Director who told Curry that “he understood we had denied the application, but that’s not true.” The raid was conducted based on an allegation of illegal water diversion. “Staff was out there and working with them,” said Curry. “It was another surprise as to why that applicant was targeted.”

SEVERAL BOARD MEMBERS bemoaned the raid and wondered why F&W wouldn’t at least check with Mendo to verify the permit application status. Apparently, after the last raid, the Board had thought that F&W had promised to check with Mendo before any further raids. (It’s possible that some F&W wardens are still worried that checking with Mendo might lead to the target being tipped off and harvesting the plants before the Wardens arrive.)

CODE ENFORCEMENT CHIEF, Trent Taylor, said that as far as he knows Fish & Wildlife raids are based on calls to the state’s anonymous Cal-Tip line, so that growers with annoyed neighbors are more likely to be raided than totally illegal outback growers who are far from any neighbors.

COMMISSIONER CURRY noted that as far as she knows only three of the 734 pot cultivation applicants have suffered Fish & Wildlife raids — “which is not terrible,” she added.

TRENT TAYLOR told the board that most of the several hundred complaints his office has dealt with so far involve small growers, only about a third of which are permit applicants. He also said that some growers appeared to be stalling when asked about violations, saying they were thinking about applying but hadn’t got around to it yet, when in fact they just wanted enough time to bring in their crops this year and get legal next year, if then.

SUPERVISOR McCOWEN requested that if someone is clearly stalling he hopes that there would be a “robust response.” But so far the only “robust responses” seem to be the random Fish & Wildlife raids.

* * *

NOW THAT THE COUNTY’S pot permit and legalization program is finishing its first (calendar) year, it seemed like a good time to look back at the budget assumptions and other matters relating to “the largest new program undertaken by the County in many years,” as the County's 2017-18 Budget book described it. (If you can't name another new program initiated by the County ever, you're not alone.)

THE COUNTY staffed up for their new pot program very fast, and early on it looked to us like they were just as quickly stepping into budgetary quicksand.

ACCORDINGLY, last March we asked the since-disappeared Deputy CEO Alan Flora how he saw the pot program playing out. Mr. Flora replied at some length.

BUT FOR OUR PURPOSES now, Mr. Flora replied (in part):

“Currently the cannabis program is budgeted in the Agricultural Commissioner's budget (Budget Unit 2710). The program is budgeted separately from the traditional responsibilities of the Ag. Commissioner’s Office (internally), but it is not reflected separately in the County Budget. The FY 2017-18 Budget will include a separate budget unit for the cannabis program so the finances specific to that program are more externally transparent. The Board has not provided specific direction on reporting applications and/or costs, however we would envision the Ag. Commissioner reporting on the program during quarterly budget reports.”

ALTHOUGH AG COMMISSIONER Diane Curry (who just got a big raise) has made several reports to the Board since then, the “envisioned” reporting on the program has never mentioned her budget. Nor has any other pot related department mentioned their budget.

FLORA CONTINUED, “The Agricultural Commissioner's Office has estimated that with 350 applicants the annual program cost would be $745,832. The Board adopted fees in January that would cover these costs. Of course this is somewhat of a moving target and adjustments will need to be made if the number of applicants fluctuates significantly from that estimate. For example, if the County receives 500 applications, the fee structure should still be valid as far as the amount of time required to process a single application, but the County may need to hire additional staff to handle the increased workload.”

MS. CURRY has not mentioned staffing in her reports either.

ON MAY 21, during the Quarterly Budget Review, CEO Carmel Angelo told her captive Board of Supervisors, “What I would like to see is that we actually have a workshop in the summer when there's usually more time, the agendas are not that full in July or August and that workshop would be dedicated to looking at — you are really talking about performance measures — when you're talking about performance measures, Assistant CEO Flora is working on metrics, we are really looking at outcome measures for departments. What you're talking about is more about performance measures. So what I would like to do is have a workshop with Human Resources and really look at some of the areas that we are working on — that Human Resources is working on — and also get direction from the board because it is a much bigger issue than what you have discussed in the last three minutes. So I'd like to go ahead and schedule that for the summer.”

GUESS WHAT HAPPENED “in the summer”? That’s right: Nothing. Nor has the subject come up since.

ON JUNE 2, 2017, we quoted from the Final 2017-18 County Budget: “…The Board has also directed increased enforcement efforts to be managed through the Code Enforcement Program in Planning and Building Services. Code Enforcement positions are not funded by permit fees and therefore discretionary dollars from the cannabis tax are used to cover the increased costs of this program, including the cost of a full-time Deputy County Counsel and a 0.5 FTE Legal Secretary in the County Counsel’s Office to support the Code Enforcement Program. Similarly a new position in Public Health and a contract for public outreach regarding cannabis education [sic] are funded from cannabis tax dollars…”

THE CEO’S “Net County Cost” chart showed ($1.7 million) of Cannabis Tax Revenue (but it’s in parens, which presumably means loss of revenue). This would seem to have been the $1 million road allocation ($1 million of the projected cannabis fee and tax revenue was supposed to go to upgrading the County’s awful rural roads) plus $700k for enforcement: two code enforcement officers, 1.5 lawyers, a hearing officer, 0.5 of a Human Resources Tech, and two public health staffers (one a nurse).

ON TOP OF THAT were six Planning & Building staffers, three more public health staffers, a legal secretary, another human resources staffer, and three “Ag/Measurement Standards Specialists.” Or 14 full time pot program staffers plus six in "code enforcement" which probably represents another $2 or $3 million in gross expenditures.

IN THE 2017/18 BUDGET, CEO Angelo insisted that the County will “Utilize a conservative approach to budgeting anticipated cannabis dollars, recognizing we are budgeting a new and unpredictable revenue stream.”

AS OF THAT BUDGET 2017-18 projection in June the County had committed at least $2 million in projected pot program expenditures (not counting the hoped for allocations to roads, law enforcement, emergency services, or mental health). People were hired, vehicles were bought, programs were put in place, offices were expanded — all with projected dope money, and all based on the presumption of at least 600 permit applications filed, paid for and approved (a low number considering the number of pot growers in Mendocino County is probably more than ten times that).

SO FAR there are reportedly 734 applications, a few of which were denied while a very few were approved. But they seem to be taking more staff time than anyone "envisioned," even with the additional staffing the County has hired to help with the anticipated but largely imaginary pot permit largesse.

THE POINT: Despite vague references to reporting and metrics and budget status reviews (which we all knew was more empty rhetoric, including those who mentioned it), the pot program’s financial viability remains unexplored and dubious.

WHAT WE'VE seen so far is a kind of reverse Midas effect — less money for law enforcement by way of fines, seizures, forfeitures, and mitigation fees. Although law enforcement isn’t supposed to use those funds for basic operations, these revenue reductions are going to put pressure on all the County’s law enforcement operating budgets.

UPSHOT: The County’s Pot Program Budget so far is mostly smoke and more smoke.

PS. Remember Measure AJ from November of 2016 which passed comfortably? It was supposed to instruct the County to “use a majority of [marijuana business tax] revenue for funding enforcement of marijuana regulations, enhanced mental health services, repair of county roads, and increase fire and emergency medical services.”

NO ONE HAS EVEN ASKED for an accounting of those funds, even though Measures AI and AJ were put on the ballot and sold as the sensible alternative to the Pot Growers' own Measure, Measure AG.

* * *

AFTER SOME bureaucratic gibberish about “compensable factors” and some mild discomfort at even having to discuss huge raises for the Ag Commissioner, the Chief Probation Officer, the Human Resources Director (who had one of her own employees promoting the raises, even though the Human Resources Department should remain neutral on such things), and the Planning & Building Director, Supervisor Carre Brown, dependable supporter of whatever staff wants to do, moved to approve the raises. Supervisor Hamburg quickly seconded the motion. After Supervisor McCowen made an ominous “I’m going to predict that we are going to hear from some other department heads and elected officals on this,” the Board voted 4-1 to approve the huge raises which amount to about $100k per year for the four overpaid bureaucrats with only Supervisor Dan Gjerde dissenting. At no time did they discuss whether these people deserved raises or whether the budget impact had been calculated. PS. We agree with McCowen that it won’t be long before big raises are proposed and similarly rubberstamped for the County’s two dozen or so other top officials.)

* * *

SUPERVISORS Carre Brown and Dan Hamburg refused to volunteer to be considered for the ad hoc committee on combining Ukiah and County dispatch to save some money for both agencies. Readers may recall that Sonoma County-based Coastal Valley EMS, the agency that the Board has blindly turned emergency services over to lock-stock&barrell, tried to push through a dispatch RFP and privatization schedule until Supervisor Gjerde got back from vacation and convinced Supervisor Georgeanne Croskey that putting Calfire’s local Dispatch operation out to bid was a bad idea. So Croskey changed her earlier vote for the RFP and joined Gjerde and McCowen in postponing the Dispatch RFP indefinitely. But Hamburg and Brown, citing a version of staff-right-or-wrong, streadfastly refused to reconsider — even when faced with a phalanx of local firefighters and cops who explained in detail why privatizing Dispatch was a very bad idea.

IN EXPLAINING this week why she had no interesting in saving the County and the City of Ukiah some dispatch money by consolidation, Brown specifically referred to the prior week’s 3-2 vote to hold off on the Dispatch RFP, adding that she was sure Supervisor Hamburg felt the same way. “Thank you, Supervisor Brown,” replied Hamburg, indicating his solidarity with Brown’s nonsensical and petty refusal. In the end Supervisors McCowen and Croskey were appointed to the dispatch ad hoc committee, but not until Brown and Hamburg had reminded the other three Supes that they had no intention of participating in the “cooperative” manner they always talk about.

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