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Board takes up taxes, deputies, and menthol cigarettes

A YouTube meeting screen. On the right, in large view, a woman gives a presentation to five people in smaller view.
Assessor clerk recorder Katrina Bartolomie speaks about the county tax roles to the Board of Supervisors.

April 6, 2022 — As the county faces the possibility of a multi-million dollar shortfall, the Board of Supervisors gave the go-ahead to the assessor’s office to devise a program to assess taxes — but not penalties, on unpermitted structures that are not currently on the tax rolls.

The Board also approved a program to grant hiring bonuses up to $20,000 for the sheriff’s department. Supervisors agreed to amend the local tobacco retail ordinance to expand the prohibition on flavored tobacco products to include menthol cigarettes. And residents on three miles each of Spy Rock and Bell Springs Road can expect chip seal over the next five years, rather than dust-off.

Supervisor Ted Williams, who sponsored the item about updating the tax rolls, invited Redhawk Pallesen to share his research into properties that have been assessed far below value and which he believes are shortchanging the county’s coffers.

Pallesen said he had used publicly available data to calculate that approximately 3,000 homes in the county are unpermitted. “Using current tax rates, this means that there’s about fifteen million dollars annually in lost revenue for the county,” he reported.

Palleson said the census, which requires a physical address, only counted two of the approximately thirty homes on his road. He then expanded the search to about a mile and a half of his property, which he reported resulted in 47 unpermitted residences, 39 of which included unpermitted cannabis operations. He did not include other improvements that would have enhanced the assessed value of the property.

Assessor/clerk/recorder Katrina Bartolomie told the board that her office does not share its findings with Planning and Building, and that adding structures to the tax rolls would not trigger code enforcement action due to a lack of permits. She also stated that her office would only use a satellite system if it was impossible to gain information about the property any other way.

Ron Edwards was skeptical. “I really need to call foul on this one,” he said, pointing out the lack of any attachments to the presentation that would have provided some detail in writing to the public. “This really should be an education program,” he went on, adding that many people don’t realize that their ability to finance their property is dependent on the structures being legal. “You know, you are opening this up, with the cannabis program, to see what the unintended consequences are when you go down this road. And it’s just going to be horrendous.”

The board agreed to ask Bartolomie and the Executive Office to come up with a plan to assess the properties and collect taxes on them, but, as Bartolomie noted, “We can’t move forward on this at all until we have staffing.”

Bartolomie has had one applicant for the position of assessor’s aide, and is trying to bring up her clerical staff, as well.

The sheriff’s office is also attempting to solve its staffing shortage. Pending a formal meet and confer with the county’s labor negotiator, the board agreed to allow Sheriff Matt Kendall to offer a $7,000 signing bonus to recruits who paid their own way through the police academy, and a $20,000 bonus to full-fledged law enforcement professionals coming into the department from another agency. Kendall told the board that he recently lost a deputy who left the department for higher pay elsewhere. He told Supervisor Dan Gjerde that an initial meeting with law enforcement groups indicated that the view of his proposal was favorable.

“If we approve this, is this going to create morale problems?” Gjerde asked, wondering if long-time deputies would resent newcomers for getting a bonus while they get nothing extra. Kendall told him that his undersheriff had met with the Deputy Sheriffs Association and the Law Enforcement Managers Association and was told that “they were not upset about it, because it would help them get their days off.”

If the proposal meets the approval of the labor negotiator, Kendall will try to attract more deputies and report back to the board in a year.

Sheriff’s deputies will be authorized to enforce the amended tobacco retail ordinance, which is cracking down on flavored tobacco, including menthol cigarettes. The tobacco prevention program of Public Health is also working with the cities to ban flavored cigarettes, citing studies that prove flavors increase addiction among young people. Supervisor Maureen Mulheren supported the amendment, but said she thought it didn’t go quite far enough to solve the problem.

“We are not focusing enough on the reasons why people choose to smoke in the first place,” she said, raising the issue of people using substances to alleviate depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems. She also pointed out that it’s possible to order tobacco products online, and that neighboring counties do not ban menthol. “WIthout a united front, people can simply go to another location to purchase products,” she said. But, in views of an anticipated federal ban on menthol, she concluded, “Hopefully that will help solve some of the problem of crossing jurisdictional lines.”

Williams supported the amendment, too, though he said he shared some of Mulheren’s concerns and hoped she would help clarify how to report outcomes. “You look at countries that have decriminalized drugs and you see a drop in drug use,” he mused, acknowledging that, “The difference is street drugs aren’t backed by advertising and marketing firms that you see in corporate tobacco. So it’s not completely apples to apples. But I would like to track to see what positive effect do we see from this change. Where is it falling short, and what are the logical next steps, based on those findings?”

Local News
Sarah Reith is the lead reporter for KZYX News. She joined the KZYX News team in 2017, and covers local politics, water, law enforcement and the arts in Mendocino County.