Tuesday, November 28, 2023

How Serious is the County’s Alleged Fiscal Crunch, and Who is to be Believed? Who Knows—Op-Ed

Mike Geniella’s incisive voice and watchful eye have been aimed at Mendocino County for many decades as a long-standing reporter for the Press Democrat and the spokesman for Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office. Now retired, Geniella finds the writing habit hard to shake. We’re excited to host a column from him sharing his thoughts, comments, and concerns about life here in Mendocino County.

The array of local leaders who addressed the alleged fiscal crisis

A flurry of pronouncements and pontifications garnered headlines this week but brought little clarity to the true state of the County of Mendocino’s finances.

Some critics argued the county’s books are a mess, and that state intervention is needed to bring order to its record keeping. 

Supervisor Ted Williams went so far as to brashly claim the county has ‘three sets of books,’ leaving board members unable to decipher the county’s true financial condition.

County budget experts and the former county Chief Executive Officer bashed Williams’ claims, and every one of them raised questions about he and other board members understanding of basic budget processes.

A check with outside financial analysts showed that despite all the handwringing and finger-pointing, the county’s credit rating remains a solid A+.

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The county’s credit rating as of August 12 is still in the top tier, according to Fitch, Moody’s, and S&P, the three recognized credit rating services for government and corporate financing in the U.S. 

So, how serious is the county’s alleged fiscal crunch, and who is to be believed? 

Who knows.

County Supervisor Ted Williams last week triggered the intense local debate by convincing fellow board members to unanimously ask the state Controller to step in and review county finances.

Oddly, Williams this week was downplaying his widely publicized concerns. In a series of text exchanges focusing on his complaints, Williams wrote this week about hard-to-get updates, and incomplete reporting. Instead of answering a series questions or elaborating on his positions, Williams glibly concluded, “If there is not a problem you should be able to request a balance sheet.” 

That’s it. 

Newly elected county Auditor Chamise Cubbison, who oversees a newly combined auditor/tax collection office, fired back that Williams and other naysayers are spreading misinformation, and false claims about an alleged lack of adequate fiscal reporting.

Cubbison said there are several factors at play, including the stress of the recent board-mandated merger of county financial offices, the departure of veteran auditing and tax collecting employees, and chronic office vacancies. Cubbison said her office is struggling to meet relentless demands from county administrators and board members for updated reports on a multitude of financial issues.

Former Tax Collector Shari Schapmire, a veteran of county finances, was blunt in her assessment: “The majority of this board is ill-equipped to comprehend the financial complexities that are inherent in the operation of the county.”

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Board claims also provoked a response from former CEO Carmel Angelo, now a local government management consultant in San Diego.

“If there is a lack of fiscal leadership at the county level, it lies with the board itself,’ declared Angelo. Angelo said when she left office earlier this year county reserves totaled $20 million, and board members had been briefed about what was needed as the new fiscal year unfolded including the county’s ability to cover increased costs of new labor agreements.

“What is going on here?”  Angelo asked.

New county Chief Executive Officer Darcie Antle was soft pedaling the so-called ‘crisis’ by week’s end.

Instead, Antle was quoted in an interview as saying there are ‘areas of concern’ including close to $70 million in long-term debt service and rising interest rates as the county contemplates refinancing bonds to fund a new jail. Antle said a reported $3.6 million shortfall in the county financed health plan was caused by the Covid pandemic, and high-dollar claims that followed. Before that, Antle said the county in fact had a robust reserve in the health plan.

There’s no doubt the county is facing rising costs, a flat revenue stream, and an estimated 400 unfilled county positions that are hampering service levels. 

County Supervisor John Haschak wrote this week in a letter to constituents, “Whether it is a planner, jailer, road worker, or Human Resources director, qualified applicants are hard to come by.”

“We certainly don’t want to lose any of the employees we have, “said Haschak.

So, what are local taxpayers to believe?

Are county finances seriously out of balance? Is there need for possible state oversight, and an overhaul of how the books are kept? Is this heated rhetoric the result of the demands surrounding labor negotiations? Or are these mismanagement claims baseless and undermining public confidence?

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Hard to tell.

Haschak to his credit proposed a special Board of Supervisors’ meeting with Antle and the administrative staff, and Auditor Cubbison and her assistants in hopes of clearing the air.

“If we all aren’t on the same page, then we have real problems. The public deserves better,” wrote Haschak.

Indeed. The sooner a special meeting happens the better.

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  1. Having read all the articles and listened to all the interviews, I think it all comes down to this: Ted is not happy that the software package the county bought can’t easily produce a balance sheet, and he is somewhat melodramatically claiming that is indicative of some kind of incompetence.

    • Why doesn’t Supervisor Williams explain his software issues if that is the case? Why doesn’t he share his concerns so we can all understand what they may be. He has certaintly been given the opportunity.

      • I agree. he mentioned it on the KZYX interview, but he probably should of just started with “let’s look into figuring out this software issue” in the board meeting

      • Because it’s not about software. Bowtie Ted wants a Director of Finance that the Board can control. When someone is elected it’s the voters who have control and this upsets Bowtie Ted. He was perfectly happy with Carmel trying to run everything through her office because he controlled her. The Board was Carmel’s boss. This is a publicity stunt, tell voters the finances are in terrible shape so you can hit them with the Director of Finance position, which requires a ballot measure.

  2. On Ms. Cubbison’s LinkedIn page I don’t see any degree in Accounting or Finance listed, just a certificate from the CSAC William “Bill” Chiat Institute for Excellence in County Government (a professional, practical continuing education program for senior county staff and elected officials.). Better than nothing I guess, but a far cry from a degree from a university or college of any distinction. Coupled with the difficulty in recruiting or maintaining qualified staff this is an office in need of serious assistance and direction. Combining the two elected offices was a terrible idea, much like combining the Titanic’s Helmsman with the Navigator duties post iceberg and expecting that person to now rescue that sinking ship.

  3. Maybe the inflation that has caused the extra $8,000,000 (over the original $25,000,000) the county is paying to build the jail should be absorbed by the contractor, not the taxpayers. After all, the public already has to absorb their own costs due to inflation, and that includes prices at businesses and restaurants, as, if those businesses’ costs go up, the public has to absorb those. Why do we then have to shell out for a business that already has a plum (actually windfall, from the government) contract for $25,000,000? All of this for a jail to accommodate, in more comfort, people who commit crimes in our county? Meanwhile, our law enforcement makes serious mistakes, for which they are never called into account, for the most part. These serious mistakes are costing the county millions of dollars in civil lawsuits. Why all the support for these problem areas, at least before more progress is made in correcting them? We should use more bargaining power to get the price down and the quality of services up.
    Who is bargaining on the part of the people? The police/sheriff want a new jail, the legal community wants a new courthouse, but who is controlling cost and quality of service? The public deserves to know how these issues will be resolved, or at least addressed. To keep on going in this manner is not acceptable.

  4. Big problem in little county when the people elected to spend the budget have no clue how much they have to spend. Are the monies coming in a larger amount than they are going out? Or going out in larger amounts than coming in?

  5. County employees got two bonds passed to fund their bloated retirement packages. The past financial officers and ceo r to blame. Taxpayers will never b able to fund the 500 million in extra unfounded retirement. The fbi should investigate corruption and malfeasance in this county

    • The county will just beg and cry to the state and get $$. But that’ll just cover the retirement shortfalls, the rest of the “past” county expenditures such as providing safe roads, emergency services etc. will suffer.

  6. The biggest industry in the county was cannabis. The BOS do not want to have a cannabis industry standing committee to facilitate the licensing process, which they implemented with many non functional rules. So they don’t want to work to promote businesses that makes large amount of money with the least amount of impact, and when the county starts to feel the financial pinch they don’t even want to have a meeting with the appropriate departments in regards to what to do about the lack of funds. I’m not saying there are not problems with the system I am saying this conversation should never had happened in public. When one brings up more than one set of books it implies fraud. When one reaches out to higher government, the state, for an audit this also implies fraud. When fraud becomes an issue the entire system comes to a halt. No one wants to make a move. If you think it was non functional before watch what happens when everyone digs in their heels.

  7. I’ve been asking for over a decade how a governing board can do its job without timely budget reports. Carmel laughed. She’s lucky I wasn’t on the board. She intimidated most supervisors into stunned acceptance.

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