“We have a financial crisis here”: Mendocino’s board of supervisors admits county books are unreliable

Mendocino County Board of Supervisors Chambers. [Photo by Sarah Reith]

Mendocino County Board of Supervisors Chambers. [Photo by Sarah Reith]

A discussion by the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors about cost overruns for the new prison construction project turned into a plea for help from the state, as county management admitted they did not have a clear idea of ​​the his financial situation.
“I would like to ask my colleagues for support on the direction of the CEO’s office to contact the state controller’s office to help us tidy up our books,” said supervisor Ted Williams, about half an hour into the meeting. .

Minutes after hearing that the state review of construction documents is causing delays of months and that the cost estimates for the new prison are now $ 7-8 million over budget, Williams told his colleagues how frustrated he is. lack of financial information, even after a budgeting process that began months ago.

“I have three and a half years in a term,” he said. “I worry, I’m getting to the point where I can’t use the excuse anymore, I’m new here. Yet in three and a half years I have not been able to obtain a credible financial report. I know we have three different sets of books. They are all different. Because?”

CEO Darcie Antle confirmed the main point. “I’d agree with you. I’m not entirely sure,” she acknowledged. “I think a lot of the reasons we asked for a break in union negotiations is that we don’t know. We don’t have a clear vision of what books are and where finances are. And those discussions must continue with the new auditor. ”

Nobody seems to have a clear idea, and this is a problem for grassroots workers, the public and the leadership. SEIU Local 1021, the union that represents the majority of county employees, filed a complaint with the Public Employee Relations Council last month, detailing the information requested during contract negotiation. The union wants a 5% cost of living adjustment, which according to field representative Patrick Hickey would cost the county $ 3.2 million. The county released some information to the public a few days after the union filed the complaint, but Hickey said he too is frustrated by the lack of details. He is still looking for specific information on differentiated pay and temporary and part-time workers that will help the union understand the impact their proposals will have on the county budget. “This is something we unveiled in November,” he said last week. “So we tried to keep track of whether the county analyzed small information from us as the negotiations progressed.”

While no one seems to have the information anyone wants on the budget, the county has had an unprecedented amount of money to work with in the past year and a half. Local agencies are still receiving their awards from the county’s $ 22 million deal from PG&E. And the county received nearly $ 17 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA. Maria Avalos of UVA, a Latin advocacy group, asked for more details on how those funds will be spent and how decisions will be made. She noted that over $ 4 million of ARPA funds have been earmarked for the county’s key services and infrastructure. “So I’m just wondering, where is the breakdown of where that money is going to go?” she asked during the public comment. “Will he be able to be found by the public? And how is the local government making the decision to use the funds? And will there be a public contribution? ”

Williams is among those who are agitating for financial transparency. But he told his colleagues yesterday that he doesn’t think anyone can provide detailed financial information about the county. “We have an external audit happening,” he told her. “When was the last time this board, you and I who were on this board, voted to order the auditor to incorporate the external audit recommendations? I don’t think I’ve done it yet. I don’t know if the previous tabs have done this. But it does mean that we are paying for an external audit, we are receiving advice on the changes we need to make to meet accounting principles. And then we’re ignoring the advice. So how much accumulated error is there and in how many years is it? Ten years, is that thirty years? Is that why we have different sets of books, with different numbers? Why do we never incorporate the results of the external audit? I think we have a financial crisis here, and we just don’t know how bad it is. ”

Supervisor John Haschak pointed to a recent reorganization in the county’s main financial offices. But Williams thinks the problem goes well beyond the decision to consolidate the positions of auditor-controller and treasurer-debt collector.

“It is really ironic that this council voted to consolidate the two positions when those people in those positions said not to, and that consolidation would not help, and we are now in the position where we are asking the state to step in to help this position that we partly created it as a council, ”Haschak said.

“So I want to answer this. Part of the reason I advocated consolidation is that I couldn’t get financial data, “Williams replied.” And we had an auditor pull out and, shortly after, I learned we have a $ 4.5 million hole. in the health plan. Why didn’t this council know we had a $ 4.5 million hole? We would have planned accordingly. There’s an institutional problem here that this county doesn’t have a series of books that anyone believes in. There isn’t no one in this county today that you could ask how much money we have in our name and get a straight answer. How can I do my job, voting on a budget, if I don’t know how much money we have to spend? ”

Supervisor Glenn McGourty called for a structural change. “You want to have people who really know finances, who are properly trained,” he said. “That’s why I supported a professional finance department, which is what most large organizations have, where people are nominated based on their skills and a proven track record of managing money well. And if we look back at the history of Mendocino County, the auditor-controller and the tax-treasurer, we don’t see this pattern. So I still think we’re going to need a long-term structural change in the county government on this. This won’t go away until we do. ”

The council voted unanimously to ask the state for more money for the new prison and to seek help from the state controller for county tax matters.
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