January 2011 - Sierra Scoop Column

Happy New Years! I wish everyone good health and prosperity in this coming year.

I want to jump right into Mono County’s recently adopted budget. This year’s budget is set at ~$71.5 million, ~$3 million more than last years. In order to balance the budget, more than half of the reserve (savings) was used. In times when property taxes have decreased (~7.3%), development has all but stopped and State & Federal programs might be decreasing, raising the budget was anything but fiscally sound.

At the November 2nd board meeting, non-County agencies (Jazz Jubilee, Historical Societies, etc) submitted requests for ~$103,000 (money that does not need to be paid back). The BOS agreed in August not to exceed $92,000 for these causes. However, three Supervisors agreed to OVERSPEND by ~$11,000! Is this what is meant by “frugal”?

Over the past year, I have heard the Supervisors many times say that there is not enough money to stripe our streets, in particular in Antelope Valley. Yet they seem to find $11,000 when they all agreed to stick to budget! By the Supervisors putting off year after year the striping required for safety, are they not putting our school buses, our children, our elder and everyone else in danger during rain and snow storms?

Here are just a couple of other “over-budget items”. Auchoberry Pit - $15,000 budget, currently over $135,000 spent. Walker ball field, $140,000 budget, over $400,000 spent. And there are many other examples all over the county!

As much as there are many “great and worthy” causes to be funded, to continue to go over budget is fiscally irresponsible! While the Supervisors keep saying they need to be frugal, they keep increasing spending with no end in sight!

Visit my blog to leave a question or comment.

Additional Information - 

Mono County's budget was approved in late August during a two day meeting. The 2010-2011 budget can be found here at the County's website (A PDF reader is required). The budget is created by County staff and was presented to the Board of Supervisors (BOS) at this August meeting. The process was rather straight forward, each department head discuss their own departments budget. The Supervisors questioned (cursory) the department heads. It appeared that the Supervisors really had no interest in the meat and potatoes of the line items. Instead, each and every department head was asked why they had requested the amount for Travel. While the county is facing a reduction in it's main source of income, property taxes, doesn't it seem reasonable they would be interested in the big dollar items, such as overhead?

The county had an ~ $4.5 million reserve, in the end, they used well over half of this amount. The Finance Director, Brian Muir, suggested that if they were to tap into this reserve, that they limit themselves to only $1.5 million. This would allow three years of tapping the reserve, hopefully, in time for the economy to turn around. Due to a failed Solid Waste Enterprise Fund (our garbage) that has been running in the red for a few years now, the County ended up "loaning" this fund ~ $1.2 million in order for it to meet its financial obligations. This is yet another example of throwing money at a problem versus tackling the problem and fixing it! As a side note, County staff has suggested that the "tipping" fee (the cost to take garbage to the County dumps/transfer stations) be increased from $50 to $96 / ton. This would absolutely increase all fees for garbage, whether you take it in yourself or have D&S or Mammoth Disposal pick it up. I'll post more on this at a later date.

I mention in this months column one example of the BOS finding money when they want too. At the November 2nd 2010 BOS meeting, Bob Peters (interim District 4 supervisor) suggested that all of these non-county agencies and organization are worthy organizations, and that he thinks the BOS should fund each of these fully. Now during the budget discussions in August, the Board was adamant on sticking to budget amounts, in particular, this budget item! 

As soon as Bob Peters finished his statement, Vikki Bauer (District 3) ask Bob "is that a motion Bob?", in which he said "it could be" and then she said "I'll second that". Hap Hazard (District 2) was completely against spending over the agreed amount of $92,000. Hap made a point that it appeared that some of the organizations padded their requests above the previous years amounts, thinking that they would be reduced at this meeting. Hap stated that if they were reduced along with some other minor changes, that they could stay within budget. There was very little discussion on this before Bing Hunt (Chairman and District 5) called for a vote in which Peters, Bauer and Hunt voted for spending a total of $102,845! This is ~12% OVER budget! 

As worthy as these organizations are, should they, just as each of us do, learn to do with less during these hard economic times? Some of these organizations have requested upwards of $15,000 for each of the last 10+ years. For a complete list of organizations and the amount requested/given click here.

I also mentioned an issue regarding striping County owned roads. In Lee Vining, they have a "streetscape improvement project" where the County must assume ALL liability on the sidewalks down the main street along with clearing of snow. Currently, CalTrans assumes liability and clears the sidewalks. The reason for this is that the County (via grant money) is planting trees within the sidewalks. This has been a project that Lee Vining has had in the works for the past 10 years or so. In exchange for the County accepting liability and the cost of clearing the snow, CalTrans originally agreed to several miles of striping, anywhere the County needs it.

This streetscape project came up many times during the 8 months I attended BOS meetings. The topic of striping in the Antelope Valley came up constantly with the board saying they do not have the funds to strip County roads. They have been hoping for quite some time to use CalTrans for this purpose. However, as of the middle of summer, CalTrans was backing away from doing any striping even though the County still has to accept the above mentioned conditions.

Being a resident of the Antelope Valley, I drive these roads constantly and when the weather is poor, one hopes to stay on the paved surface. Seeing that the County has not striped these roads in years, nor do they put up snow poles (as they have in past years) puts our school buses, our elderly and our children at great risk. I have spoken to one bus driver who says "I really know these roads well and I still have problems during bad weather".

So the County can find $11,000 to over spend on a single budget item yet they cannot find the money to strip our roads. I ask, "what does this say about the value of our children and elderly?".

Auchoberry Pit

This"pit" is located directly north of the Marine Housing project on the west side of the highway. The County has spent considerable time in late 2009 and in 2010 creating a sloped hill (to reduce liability from someone falling).

This project was discussed at an evening meeting in Walker on August 18, 2009. The discussion was should the County spend about $4000 to fence off the top of the cliff or about $15,000 to grade the hill. It was noted that if the grading was done, that County staff could be used, thus they would be taken away from regular duties. In a 5-0 vote, the BOS approved grading the slope. On August 28, 2009, the BOS agreed to spend "up to $15,000 currently budgeted in the Capitol Improvement Projects budget".

This project was started in late 2009 and was halted due to winter weather. It was started up again in Spring of 2010. The vast majority of grading was complete in late 2010. According to the County, the final price tag on this project (which is not yet completed) is over $135,000. This is $120,000 OVER budget. And there is no public record of the BOS ever approving spending any amount over the original approved budget of $15,000. In discussion with County staff, when asked about this over spending, they state "well its not real money we are talking about, seeing that the staff are paid anyways". Now I don't know about you but when it is agreed upon that $15,000 is the limited, that includes ALL costs. In fact this appears to be true, otherwise how would the County know that $135,000 has been spent?

In the 2010-2011 Final budget, this is what the County is reporting...

"Auchoberry Pit Restoration Antelope Valley  Estimated Cost = $15,000  Current Bal = $11,258 (only $3742 has been spent on this project?), Fiscal 2010-2011 expenditure = $2000  Comments = finishing grading, initiate SMARA"

Walker Ball field

At a special BOS meeting on August 21, 2007, a presentation regarding Proposed Improvements to the ball field in Walker was presented. The County was asked for $140,000 while the Coleville High School Boosters would supply $15,000 and labor and that the Marines would provide labor and equipment. After many problems on this project, an additional $52,000 was approved on November 18 2008 to complete this project with an additional contingency of $18,000.

According to top County staff, the total cost of this project has now topped $400,000. Yes you read this correctly, that is $400,000. This is $208,000 OVER budget. When was this additional amount ever approved by the BOS?

And yes County staff once again says "this is not real money that we are talking about". 

Just with these two projects alone, there has been a total of $328,000 that has been OVER spent. And yet, it appears that no one is held responsible for any of this overage. What are your thoughts?

Visit my blog to leave a question or comment.