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A special series by Sarah Reith about the financial realities of Mendocino County governance.

Budget crunch still speculative

A glass jar with coins spilling out of it.

The county says it's broke. The union wants to see more numbers, including last year's audit.

May 2, 2022 — The Board of Supervisors will hold a budget workshop on May 3 to prepare for next month’s third quarter budget hearings.

Inflation is up, but revenue seems to be available — if there were enough staff to collect it.

Supervisor Ted Williams gave a preview of tomorrow’s meeting. “We’ve been meeting with each department, and looking at if they have any outside contracts that they can cut, kind of nickels and dimes,” he said. “Frankly, I don’t think we’re finding a lot. A lot of those departments already came in with lean budgets. There may be some services that we can halt, but not without a real impact on the services provided to the public.”

Patrick Hickey, the field representative for Local SEIU 1021, which represents most of the county government’s unionized workers, suspects the situation is not quite so dire, and cautions that more information is needed before making big financial decisions. “What their information showed is that the majority of their revenue streams, property taxes, sales taxes, transient occupancy taxes (ToT), are increasing,” he said. “They're projecting that the cannabis tax may drop significantly. So that’s certainly a concern. But they don’t have a handle on it, as far as we can tell, on the numbers and on the data. They still haven’t released their audit from last year, which normally for counties comes out in the fall. So we really need to have a look at that before we start setting our budget for next year.” Hickey especially wants more detailed information about the reserve funds, which he believes are robust.

The county is in negotiations with all its bargaining units, which always advocate for filling vacant positions with qualified people, and paying them a competitive salary to keep them on the job. Hickey listed a few of the departments he thinks could generate revenue if they were fully staffed. “Environmental health specialists are a fundraiser for the county, basically,” he said. “Positions in the treasury or tax collector and auditor-controller’s office that make sure that we’re collecting all the funds that are due to the county. A number of those department heads have said they’re not able to necessarily do an effective job at tracking down all the taxes that are due because they don’t have the staff to carry out those assignments.”

Union president Julie Beardsley added that some other key positions are funded mostly by state and federal money. “In behavioral health, there are clinical positions that don't offer a competitive salary, so it’s really really difficult to hire people,” she argued. “In public health, nurses, social services, social workers.”

“I’m actually with the union on this,” Williams said. “I think if we do any hiring, first it should be in the areas that are revenue generating. If there’s money that we’re not collecting, maybe that staff will be more than paid for by the revenue that they’re able to collect.” But he said there is a bit of a general fund match for the state-funded positions. “Some of the non-general fund departments still have a hit on the general fund,” he said. “It may not be much, but when you have zero dollars to work with, if we’re paying ten or twenty percent of that overhead, we just don’t have it.” He added that the lack of competitive wages results in the county not having “a pool of applicants showing up, eager to take on those jobs. If we were to pay more, that would be out of the county general fund.” And Williams said that if the county raised the wages for an analyst in a mostly state-funded department, it would have to raise the wages for other workers with the same designation in departments that are funded solely by the general fund.

At the Board of Supervisors’ meeting on April 19, the board agreed to make paying cannabis taxes a requirement for renewing permits, and to consider lowering the minimum tax rate. Interim treasurer tax collector Julie Forrester said delinquent cannabis taxes hadn’t been pursued, and made some suggestions for how to go about doing that. Williams said the tax collector is elected, and the Board of Supervisors does not direct her how to run her department. “My personal view is, we need to have a process that doesn’t have finger-pointing,” he opined. “It needs to be collaborative.” The county doesn’t have exact numbers on how many properties are not on the tax rolls, “but we know some are. We know some that are charged vacant land rates, versus the tax on a three-bedroom house built in the last decade.”

The protocol for updating the tax rolls has not yet been established. And Williams is leery of taking action that could cost people their homes if their living situation involves a zoning violation. “And we’re broke,” he said. “We have less revenue that’s projected for the coming year than we had last year.”

Hickey remains skeptical of the sense of emergency that often characterizes budget discussions. “So much of these projections that the county’s talking about are speculative,” he said. “It’s really over the next number of months, as the county goes through its budgeting process, that we’ll get a little bit more clarity on where we’re really at,” he predicted. “And I think it’s going to turn out to be better than some of the gloom and doom numbers that the county has been bandying about. I think the county is in a much better and healthier position than they’re letting on.”