Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022 @ 4:45 p.m. / Local Government
Transparency Debate Continues As Del Norte Supes Adopt County Budget By 4-1 Vote
Del Norte County Board of Supervisors meeting
The Board of Supervisors has adopted Del Norte County’s 2022-23 budget.
But the vote wasn’t unanimous. Though the county held two public workshops last week, elected officials resumed a debate about transparency.
District 3 Supervisor Chris Howard attempted to school his colleagues Valerie Starkey and Susan Masten about the budget process through Auditor-Controller Clinton Schaad. Howard said his colleagues should have asked questions when the preliminary budget came before them in June, criticizing Starkey and Masten for airing their concerns at the “11th hour.”
Starkey and Masten said they did ask questions in June, but were told “it is not something that we do here.” Though she praised staff for organizing the workshops, Starkey opposed adopting the final budget.
“I would just like this Board to make space for the fact that I don’t do it exactly like you do,” Starkey told Howard. “I see it differently and I think we should all have the opportunity to process things, make the request for things, the way that we see it.”
Tuesday’s meeting concluded a 14-day public hearing allowing residents to request changes, additions and to ask questions if they submitted them to county staff in writing.
Auditor-Controller Clinton Schaad presented a 2022-23 budget to the Board of Supervisors that is balanced at about $181 million. The budget had an ending fund balance from the 2021-22 fiscal year of about $8.5 million that was rolled over into this fiscal year. It also includes a contingency fund of about $550,000 to $650,000 that can be used for “just about anything,” Schaad said.
The 2021-22 budget also includes $1.2 million in Measure R tax revenue in a capital improvement fund that hasn’t yet been allocated, Howard said.
The budget must be adopted by Oct. 2, Schaad said.
On June 28, when the Board of Supervisors got its first look at the county’s preliminary budget, County Administrative Officer Neal Lopez said department heads would be able to talk about their requested items publicly during the public hearing period in September.
At that time, Masten asked if the county would hold public meetings during the public hearing period. Board Chair Gerry Hemmingsen said, “we have to.”
During Tuesday’s discussion, Starkey had requested that about $100,000 be set aside to help with the transition of the Animal Services Division to the Del Norte County Sheriff’s Office as well as the potential relocation of the Agricultural Department. She also requested funding to repair livestock fencing and shelter, repave the parking lot at the animal shelter and provide a more secure facility.
Starkey argued that these things are needed and should be included in the budget.
Howard said the county could use its Measure R capital improvement dollars as well as the contingency fund to do those repairs.
“We don’t have to get down to such minute detail prior to this hearing, that’s the micromanagement comment I made,” he said, adding that those Measure R dollars could be used capital improvements as well . “It’s really the department head’s job to bring it to us (to) bless it. They thought ahead about the needs, and maybe the short comings in various departments. It’s worked well, at least for me, for the last seven years.”
Though the Del Norte County Sheriff’s Office has been selected as the new home for the Animal Services Division, Schaad said he hadn’t heard of a plan of relocating departments until Starkey brought it up last week. He said he didn’t know if $50,000 would be enough to relocate the Agricultural Department.
Schaad also noted that public workshops and public hearings are two different things.
Restructuring the budget to set aside the $100,000 Starkey requested for the restructure of Animal Services and Agriculture could include potentially reducing the contingency fund and earmarking it for that purpose, he said. Using the $1.2 million in Measure R dollars for public infrastructure projects could also be discussed, he said.
The county, Schaad said, is in a good financial position due to a lot of one-time funding. Though the budget workshops were informative, the process is year-round.
“There is money in the budget that can be used for projects,” he said.
Board Vice Chair Darrin Short, who represents District 1, mentioned a meeting he had with San Benito County’s county administrative officer at a recent conference. That county administrator said they start their budget process at the beginning of the year and it lasts until June. Each department head was given a chance to make their statement, Short said.
Short suggested Del Norte County may want to adopt a similar practice that gives each department head a chance to tell the Board what their needs and struggles are in open session so the public could hear it too.
Short also advocated for Measure R capital improvement dollars to be used to repair the livestock shelters and fencing at the animal shelter. He requested that topic be placed on the Board’s Oct. 11 agenda.
Hemmingsen said the accusation that the budget process wasn’t transparent felt like a “slap in the face to me because I’m as transparent as they get.”
He also didn’t like Starkey’s proposal to set funding aside for Animal Services, saying he didn’t know if it will cost $10,000 or $2 million.
“I don’t like going into something without a plan,” Hemmingsen said. “And that’s what this $50,000 is to me. It’s kind of a grandstanding move — ‘Look at what I’m doing. I’m going to do this and I’m going to make the rest of the Board look bad’ — I don’t like that.”
Schaad told Hemmingsen he shared his consternation about the accusation that the budget process isn’t transparent.
“I report to 25,000 voters,” he said. “I am an elected official for the whole county. Part of my job is watching the money. This talk about not being transparent, it’s a slap in the face.”
Starkey apologized, saying she wanted the process to be more transparent and that it wasn’t her intention to criticize any individual colleague.
Masten suggested the Board of Supervisors hold budget workshops earlier next year, because she felt that several items were raised by department heads that her colleagues could consider in the future.
“What I am hopeful for and will be recommending is we start early in this process and do the budget hearings in a different way so the process is open for the public and for us to participate,” she said.