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

Board funds water agency

A shallow creek with riparian foliage and a large rock with the word ROCK spray-painted on it in yellow.
Orr Creek, running through Low Gap Park in Ukiah.

The Board of Supervisors also heard that code enforcement is up, and covid cases are once again threatening to overwhelm the healthcare system.

June 7, 2022 — In the first round of budget hearings on Tuesday morning, the Board of Supervisors agreed to use $250,000 from the PG&E settlement money for a water agency, though the structure and duties of the agency have yet to be defined.

And the board asked staff to revise plans for enhanced code enforcement, even as code enforcement manager John Birx reported that in the last year, his staff has more than doubled the number of cases closed, with compliance. The board set aside $500,000 last year for enhanced code enforcement, but that money has not been used yet. And there is more money to combat illegal weed. Sheriff Matt Kendall has $600,000 from the state for overtime and per diem costs for large-scale busts. He said he’s expecting a busy summer, and he’s willing to share those funds with code enforcement.

But the county is facing a number of shortfalls, with over a million dollars a month in healthcare claims. Cannabis taxes are down by about five million dollars and FEMA has not yet committed to about $8 million of expenses the county fiscal team hoped would be eligible for federal assistance.

But county worker Jenna Bunker cried foul over a hefty wage increase for half a dozen management positions, even as other workers have been offered a zero percent wage increase. “I think if you can afford to raise pay for these positions, anywhere from eight to fourteen percent, you can afford to give the rest of us a reasonable cost of living adjustment increase,” she declared.

And concerns about overwhelming the healthcare system are back. Public Health Officer Dr. Andy Coren provided a quick covid update, saying that case rates are up 500% and hospitalizations have increased by 300%. “We know that these are underestimates now because of the use of over-the-counter home tests that are not reported,” he stated, adding that there are currently three outbreaks, which has placed the county in the CDC’s highest transmission risk level. Many other counties are experiencing the same wave, with Alameda County re-instituting its universal indoor mask mandate. “So I and others in our public health team are watching this very carefully,” Coren said. “As much as we do not like this, we must consider mandating universal indoor masks for our county to preserve hospital care.”

One of the items on Wednesday’ agenda was a proposal to put a water and fire tax on the November ballot. Early projections are that the tax would generate $7 million a year. But the Citizens’ Committee for the Library Initiative, which has been gathering signatures for a quarter-cent tax to fund the libraries, has come out against it, calling it a competing tax. And Supervisor Dan Gjerde sent a five-point memo to his colleagues, arguing against it. Supervisor John Haschak agreed in a brief interview that it’s the wrong moment for the tax, though, as a member of the drought task force, he does support funding a water agency.

Gjerde said he had already found a way to free up $250,000-$300,000. “We have an ordinance, that this board can amend, that says the county will provide a fifty cent match for every dollar collected by the Business Improvement District, the tourism commission of the county,” he said. “At this point, I no longer support that match to apply to the business improvement fees collected within the cities. If we were to amend the ordinance to make that match for revenues collected by lodging operators in the unincorporated part of the county, we would free up over $300,000 of the county general fund. And since they've told us that their plan is to increase the advertising budget by 92% this year, this is the perfect year to not provide that city match. They would still have an increase in their marketing budget, just not a 92% increase. Meanwhile, we could spend that $300,000 on other essential county services.”

But ideas about a county-wide water agency have not been quite as refined. Gjerde suggested a committee approach, with members from around the county allocating funds to various communities for their specific needs.

Supervisor Glenn McGrouty suggested re-hiring Josh Metz, whom he said had been crucial in bringing water money into the county. He also thought someone at the UC Davis extension office might be a good fit to head up an agency.

Supervisor Ted Williams characterized the situation. “I think we have a water crisis,” he acknowledged. “I mean, we have a climate change crisis, we have a staffing shortage crisis, a living wage crisis, housing crisis. This county is all about crisis. So if it were just one or two, I would be all over supporting this. My worry is, we go down this path of spending $350,000, and we've created some bureaucracy that doesn’t generate a drop of water. And I wonder if it would be more effective for the water districts to work with outside consultants…because if you put us in the middle of that, the accounting and the office space and the staffing, everything that goes into public employment, I don’t see a lot of water coming out of it.”

At the moment, the water agency is lodged in the county Department of Transportation, along with $190,000, which Director Howard Dashiell said is enough to cover the bare minimum.

CEO Darcie Antle said the money the county received last year from the State Department of Water Resources is only for hauling water to residents. But there is close to a million dollars elsewhere. “The only other money there is, if you want to use it, it’s a one-time fund, PG&E $960k set-aside for local match for water type grants,” she said. “So you would be depleting your set-aside for future grants, under water, if you were to use those funds.”

McGourty and Haschak agreed to come back to the board with a plan by September, when another round of state water grants is expected to become available.