Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022 @ 5:55 p.m. / Local Government
Masten's Request for a More Public Budget Process Pits Her and Starkey Against Hemmingsen and Howard
“I guess that’s OK,” was Supervisor Gerry Hemmingsen’s response to Susan Masten and Valerie Starkey when they asked for more public input before they adopted Del Norte County’s 2022-23 budget.
Hemmingsen acquiesced to their request for additional public meetings or a public workshop to allow the community to better understand the budget process. But that consent was reluctant. Hemmingsen argued that Starkey and Masten can “go to any department head you want” to get their budget questions answered.
Hemmingsen’s colleague, District 3 Supervisor Chris Howard, also pushed back against Masten’s request, stating that there are 27 departments and he’s not in a position to “micromanage specific details of the department budget that comes to us.”
Both Masten and Starkey countered by saying that other counties offer more opportunities for the public to better understand how they develop their budgets.
“The other counties are much larger and have much larger budgets than we have and they provide transparency and openness to residents to be able to have that opportunity,” Masten said. “I, quite frankly, have questions about some of these things and we are not given that opportunity. Not all of the department heads are here for us to ask these questions. That is not micromanaging, that is being fiscally responsible as a supervisor that oversees this government.”
In addition to directing staff to prepare a budget workshop, the Board of Supervisors unanimously opened the public hearing process and continued it for 14 days.
According to County Administrative Officer Neal Lopez, the 2022-23 budget is balanced and comes in at nearly $182 million. There is about $39 million in the county’s general fund, he said. Supervisors were initially expected to adopt the final budget on Sept. 27.
Masten, who was appointed to the District 5 seat by the governor earlier this year, initially requested to hold public meetings on the county’s budget and asked for her colleagues’ support. She said she had researched the practices in other counties and in some cases they do five days of meetings before they finally adopt a budget.
She said it provides the opportunity for both residents and supervisors to ask questions of department managers.
“I don’t understand the resistance and maybe you can explain why there’s this hesitancy or why you don’t want this to occur,” Masten told Hemmingsen. “It’s a reasonable request. Other counties offer this to their constituents and they embrace it in fact. And, in fact, they even allow for the residents to come in prior to the budget process and meet with managers and engage with, what are the programs you want to see? What are we not doing and what are some new ideas so that can be considered in the budget process for next year.”
Howard said county staff had been developing its 2022-23 budget for the last four months with county supervisors.
“When we do have a question that occurs we do have the opportunity to go to the department head,” he said. “Is it your intent to go into the detail because you want to split some hairs within their very limited budgets, whether it’s general fund or state-mandated funds, to take some of that authority away from them to put more in the board’s authority?”
Both Masten and Starkey argued that though they could approach individual department heads as county supervisors to get their questions answered, the public doesn’t get that benefit.
Starkey asked County Administrative Officer Neal Lopez what the process is for the public to ask questions before the budget is adopted, noting that the Board of Supervisors had asked for a better review process.
According to Lopez, anyone having a question about the budget or account can submit a written document to the Clerk of the Board and it would be up for consideration by the Board of Supervisors. But, he said, the county has never received a query from the public.
Starkey said before she feels she can approve an item she wants to know all the background information so she can be fiscally responsible to county residents. She pointed out consistencies that she saw in the budget, an example of which concerns vehicle replacement not including patrol cars. She said a separate line item called for $200,000 to replace patrol vehicles, which she found confusing.
Starkey also brought up a line item in the budget regarding fixed assets to be replaced, but then said she only sees what the budget team picked for inclusion in the document her colleagues are being asked to adopt.
“We get this agenda Friday afternoon,” she said in response to Hemmingsen’s question if she attempted to get her questions answered. “I can answer all these myself, but then it’s not clear to the public and I would have to go and answer all these to the public.”
Hemmingsen said Starkey’s job is to find the answers to her questions and convey those to the public.
“I think to convey to the public who’s right here that they have the opportunity to comment on the budget and we’re not being transparent, I think it’s insulting — at least it’s insulting to me,” he said.
Starkey denied Hemmingsen’s assertion that she said the county wasn’t being transparent, but asked for a county workshop to go through the budget line by line.
County Counsel Joel Campbell-Blair said he and staff can plan for a budget workshop, pointing out that it is common practice in other counties and in Crescent City.