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Local News

"We're going to have to look at cuts."

A gray-haired woman in a gray jacket sits at a computer monitor.

The Board of Supervisors reviewed county funding needs during a budget workshop, in preparation for next month's mid-year budget review.

The Board of Supervisors found a lot to complain about at Tuesday’s budget workshop, as they tried to quantify what the county’s current funding needs are. Auditor-Controller-Treasurer-Tax Collector Chamisse Cubbison stood by her estimate of $2.2 million carry-forward from last year’s budget, but CEO Darcie Antle cautioned that there may be surprises in a long-delayed outside audit.

A recent finding is that the cannabis department is more than half a million dollars in the hole, as staff spends an estimated 200 hours on each application and cost recovery remains an enigma. Nevertheless, supervisors approved a $1.6 million contract with a company that reportedly has 20 planners available to process applications. Supervisor John Haschak summarized his concerns with the department

“We have a department that has a $1.1 million budget,” he began. “And their revenues, which were supposed to cover all of that, were at about less than ten percent, seven percent of what they were expected to come in. We didn’t have a department that even brought up the issue until the Executive Office found it, is that correct?” Deputy CEO Tim Hallman confirmed that it was. “And then we’ve had this issue of the possibility of paying off some of those salaries with the LJAGP money.” (Cannabis Department Director Kristin Nevedal secured more than $17.5 million in state funds called the Local Jurisdiction Assistance Grant Program, intended to help jurisdictions bring as many applicants as possible into compliance with environmental regulations so they can qualify for their state annual licenses.) Haschak continued: “But then we’re finding that that might not even be a possibility, because of the restrictions of supplanting existing positions with that money. And so it seems like we have this department that has totally bungled the $1.1 million. And it looks like the county general fund is going to have to pay…Whether it’s $600,000 or seven, we don’t really know.”

Monique Ramirez, a cottage grower in Covelo, aired her own frustrations. “I don’t really get what’s going on with the county’s process,” she said. “It makes no sense. This whole, 150-200 hours to process an application. If we look at our cannabis approved fees list on the website, it says it’s $90 an hour for department staff to review applications…so $90 times 200 hours, that equals $18,000 for a county permit.” She had a suggestion: “Take an application and walk it all the way from beginning to end, and have a timer, sitting there seeing how long it takes to process. And let’s get some data behind all of this stuff. Because it’s ridiculous, and the public needs to have more transparency with all these departments.”

Supervisor Ted Williams argued that the county is stuck trying to fulfill state requirements with insufficient funds and an unworkable ordinance. He was also morose about a recommendation to appropriate more bond money for the new jail project, which has not yet broken ground but continues to grow more expensive.

“I take offense with calling it a jail expansion,” he said. “I mean, let’s be honest. This is an unfunded mandate by the state. And while it’s true the county may have some culpability in not building a jail since 1985 when it should have started, this is also a change in state policy that’s putting a burden on the county that the county, quite frankly, can’t afford to absorb. So I would rather, throughout our language, not call it expansion. I don’t know, call it a jail unfunded mandate…Furthermore, I don’t think the $1.5 million increase here in bond financing will be enough. We’re going to see further increases in that jail project. It’s just inevitable. But I can’t think of a better plan than this allocation.”

Supervisor Dan Gjerde had an entirely different concern about $1.6 million that the county spent on Project Roomkey, an initiative to provide motel rooms to homeless people during the pandemic. The money is supposed to be reimbursed by FEMA, which has still not paid the county for millions of dollars in previous disaster reimbursements. The county has not received a letter of obligation from the federal agency for the motel rooms yet, but it also hasn’t heard that it won’t get the money. Gjerde argued that, rather than chalking up the money as lost to a federal government program, the county should consider the $1.6 million as its own. “I disagree that the Roomkey program should even be on that list” of funding needs, he said. “There’s no confirmation that we’ve done anything incorrect with the program, and if we’ve fulfilled the obligations of the program, we should expect that we should get reimbursement. We shouldn’t be throwing in the towel on that.”

CEO Darcie Antle argued that staff was not throwing in the towel, just letting the Board know that the possibility of not getting reimbursed was a concern of the Executive Office. “I would just let you know that we have to have a letter of obligation from FEMA, or it will be a hit to the general fund, at the end of the year,” she emphasized.

But staff continued to count on FEMA reimbursements for this season’s winter storm damage. Deputy CEO Sarah Pierce told supervisors to expect a general fund impact of around a quarter million dollars, just a fraction of the actual cost of the damage.

“So we’re close to $3.5 million that will be submitted to FEMA for reimbursement,” she reported. “So on a rough estimate, that would probably be a general fund impact of $230-250,000 as it stands right now.”

Antle promised that next month’s mid-year budget review will be more precise, as Williams lamented that, “We’re supposed to have a balanced budget.”

“You don’t have a balanced budget,” Antle reminded him.

“Maybe we have $2.2 million that will help offset some of this,” he said. “How do we cover the remainder? What do we do?”

Antle’s reply was blunt. “We’re going to have to look at cuts,” she warned.

Local News
Sarah Reith came to Mendocino County in 2008 and worked as a reporter and freelancer, joining KZYX as a community news reporter in 2017. She became the KZYX News Director in March, 2023.