The Board of Supervisors took a first step in planning for the creation of a department of finance this week. The item, “Discussion and possible action including direction to staff to develop a contingency plan for the creation of Department of Finance based on best practices of successful counties,” earned the ire of Treasurer Tax Collector Auditor Controller Chamisse Cubbison. She told the Board that upgrades to the finance system, shake-ups at top levels of key departments, and the pandemic have all played a role in the recent financial confusion. But she identified another source of confusion, as well, saying, “I continue to feel like a scapegoat for your lack of understanding of financial matters related to the county, and your inability to make hard decisions.”
Supervisor Glenn McGourty, who co-sponsored the item with Supervisor Ted Williams, said he wants a higher level of professionalism in the county’s financial sector. Cubbison’s was not the only department in his sights. “Having people handling the public’s money, it’s absolutely critical that we have the best person in place,” he declared. “While we have hard-working people with this task, they don’t necessarily always have the capacity to really deliver the information that we need. As supervisors, we have no control over them, since they’re elected officials. Then we’re being held to task when something goes wrong, like when money has not been properly allocated to pay our insurance premiums, or reports don’t occur on time for closing the books…properties aren’t properly assessed or tax bills sent out…We’re hoping for a level of professionalism that can raise the overall quality of the government we deliver.”
Supervisor Dan Gjerde noted that in order for property taxes to be collected, they have to be assessed. He said the vacancy rate in the assessor’s office has been as high as 67% in the past few years, and is now down to about 25%. “But there’s going to take some time for the assessor’s office to catch up, and start bringing these buildings onto the tax rolls, which is just the first step in the process of billing it,” he explained. “As we discuss this, the challenges with the county’s finances involve many county departments, and they’re not solely resting in any one department.”
Williams added that there is a history of missing records, saying that, “It’s difficult to generate reports if you don’t have good record-keeping. And it’s not about one person. Because this is a long-term situation. It’s been building, probably, for decades in this county. The quality of the records I expect, and the reporting, is such that, if some money were missing, hypothetically, we would be able to look at a transaction log and see when it went missing and where it went. You don’t have that today in this county. Believe me, ask your staff if they can get a transaction report going back ten years…We don’t know where the money goes. So checks and balances? Today? We don’t have them.”
Cubbison complained that the Board has not communicated clearly what they want from her, and that she correctly predicted that top staff would quit when the auditor controller and treasurer tax collector department head positions were merged into one. But she said she is highly qualified for the position. “My staff has worked through the combining of the office,” she told the Board. “They have stuck by me because I am a leader and I take care of them. I make sure they have what they need. And I take exception to the idea that somehow I am the wrong person for the job. There is no one else in your county system who has the experience and the background that I do.” She told the Board that when Marin County appointed a director of finance, the formerly elected official ended up in the position. “After a nationwide search, they still ended up with the same person,” she concluded.
County Counsel Christian Curtis said the voters would have to decide two questions if the Board decided to move ahead with creating a department of finance: One is whether or not to create the department in the first place, and the second is whether that position would be elected or appointed.
Supervisor John Haschak, who was the only vote against consolidating Cubbison’s two positions, had some concerns, including, “If we’re going to put it all into the CEO’s office and have this fiscal department reside there. Right now, we have a CEO that we really trust and have a lot of confidence in, but we can’t make policy based on personalities…I don’t see it moving into the CEO’s office in the immediate future.”
“I think that would be one of the considerations that would be undertaken while trying to develop a plan, is what does it actually look like,” replied Supervisor Maureen Mulheren. She added that her priorities are reporting and redundancy, “And making sure that there are multiple layers of people that know how to serve functions. Especially as it relates to our financial system…If everybody in a department up and moved to Arruba, who knows how to do the job, or what kind of guidance document is there to be able to move forward and complete the job.”
The direction to staff was low on detail, and did not include a date to report back with findings. Mulheren’s colleagues agreed unanimously with her interpretation of the item to, “Formally direct that staff look at a contingency plan. Not that the plan won’t happen, not that it will be brought to the voters, but that this is a formal direction from the five board members to direct staff to look into these items.”