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

"We have examined the budget, and the claims of no money just don't add up."

A crowd of union members in purple shirts outside an administrative building.
Members of SEIU Local 1021 outside the county administrative building on August 16.

August 18 — Union members packed into the Board of Supervisors chambers at last week’s meeting, scoffing at claims of a financial crisis and calling for an increase in pay.

“We’ve been hearing that the county can’t afford a cost of living increase because there’s a financial crisis,” said Patrick Hickey, the field representative for SEIU Local 1021, which represents most of the county’s unionized workers. “But is there? In a word: no.”

The county has asked for a year-long pause in negotiations over a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) to assess the financial situation on the national as well as local levels.

And the Board contemplated a program to exempt media from paying fees for public records act requests, even as a new system of including public comment on meeting agendas has drastically reduced the public discourse.

Hickey argued that in the last five years, the county has overestimated expenses and underestimated revenues, sometimes by more than 100% for one source of tax funds. Union members clapped and cheered as he shared his data points with the Board. “The only potential funding shortfall is in cannabis taxes,” he declared; “which everyone who was paying attention knew was coming. But every other funding stream is increasing. How can the Board take action to support county employees? Number one: there are 264 funded, unfilled positions. Repurpose some of those funds. The county has argued that there is no money there because it gets used up by overtime and extra help. But you need to look at the actual data. If you review the past budgets, and the recently released annual comprehensive financial report, you will see that that is not true. There is an increase in overtime and extra help, but it doesn’t come close to using up the savings when those positions are not filled. Number two: for this year’s budget, the county has projected no increase in sales tax revenues. Let’s take a look at how well the county has done in forecasting sales and use tax revenues.” In the last five years, he said, “actual revenues are regularly higher than projected, and expenses are regularly lower than projected. The budget is a fiction, designed to make the Board look prudent and effective. The Board needs to understand this, and make decisions accordingly.”

Not all of the presentations were quite as data-driven. Jessica Christensen shared responses to county job postings on Facebook. “We are advertising that your check can be up to $1850 per paycheck,” she began. “Up to. And this is what the public had to say about that: ‘Mendocino County is a gorgeous place to live. But the job market couldn’t suck harder if it attached a nozzle to it.’” She went on, including some frank language from users of the site, as union members laughed and held up their signs.

Union President Julie Beardsley predicted what will happen if more workers become dissatisfied and leave the county. “Falling behind in employee compensation will result in a lack of services, phones not being answered, long wait times for permits, and it will put the most vulnerable in our county at risk,” she declared.

The public is also no longer privy to correspondence with the Board of Supervisors on matters of public interest. Up until the beginning of June, comments addressed to the Board about items under discussion during the meetings would be attached to the pertinent agenda item. They were often plentiful, and they ranged from expert opinion to angry one-liners. But a new system, called Granicus, requires commenters to create a password-protected account, which has not caught on.

I was first surprised on June 21, when it appeared that no one besides supervisors and county staff had anything to say about a controversial proposal for a sales tax. Since then, only county documents have appeared on the agendas.

Since the new system was in place, I have obtained at least three important letters about topics that are clearly in the public interest — just not by way of the agenda.

Chamise Cubbison, the elected Treasurer-Tax Collector/Auditor-Controller, wrote to the Board of Supervisors on August 2, characterizing assertions they had made about the county’s budget as false. Earlier that day, the Board had agreed to ask the State Controller to help the county with its budget, due to an alleged financial crisis. Cubbison informed the Board that the meeting had been full of misinformation, and that she had not been given a chance to respond. That letter made its way into my hands informally.

On July 29, Cannabis Department Director Kristin Nevedal wrote to the Board of Supervisors about updates to the manual for the cannabis equity grant program. Mismanagement and delays in administering the direct grants to qualified applicants were the subject of a recent Grand Jury report, called “Building the Airplane While it’s Flying.” I also obtained this piece of correspondence, from a public servant to elected representatives, informally.

I happen to be on the mailing list for the Redwood Valley Municipal Advisory Council, which wrote a letter to the Board dated August 10, urging it to adopt a standing committee to address cannabis issues. They wrote that, “As is obvious to everyone now, the roll out of the cannabis permit program has been fraught with hiccups and missteps sinc ethe inception.”

At the meeting no August 16, the Board directed cannabis concerns to the General Government standing committee. The cannabis community has been requesting this for years, but the Board has held firm on its position that the entire Board should hear cannabis matters, and that an ad hoc committee should take up specific, narrowly defined problems. But the Board changed its position during a discussion about an item on a retroactive contract amendment that was pulled from the middle of the consent calendar. The public did not have a chance to see who, besides the MAC and the cannabis community, had weighed in on that decision by writing to the Board.

The most recent agenda consisted of 66 items, and contained only one public comment, which was a memo from the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance, an advocacy organization that has long been working with the Board and the public to establish and clarify its position.

I shared my thoughts about this with the Board during public comment on Tuesday. I said that previously, I have been able to gauge the level of public interest in an item, including the thoughts of people who are not well-versed in advocacy; and that I find value and interest in what the public has to say.

Williams responded that he agreed, but that the Clerk of the Board’s office is down from five employees to about 1.5. The union members, who were in the room for public comment, booed and groaned. Williams said the clerk is charged with saving emails as pdf’s, and manually uploading them as comments. “We simply didn’t have staff time, based on the number of comments,” he said. “I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have that simplified model that we had before, but it's a struggle, and it’s not just in the clerk’s office. It’s across the board. Every problem that we look at, we say, we don’t have enough personnel to carry it out. Yes, it’s a problem…I don’t know what that solution is today. It’s not as easy as directing staff to put back in place what was in place previously. Because we simply don’t have the staff time to carry it out.”

The County recently used close to $370,000 in one-time American Rescue Plan Act funds to remodel the Board of Supervisors chambers, including new chairs, a new telecom system, and an automatic door system.

Beardsley, the union president, summarized her position: “We have examined the budget, and the claims of no money just don’t add up.”

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.