The countywide half-percent sales tax ushered in with Measure Z has been in effect for close to a year now, and it generated nearly $9 million for the 2015-2016 fiscal year budget. Voters approved the tax measure with 55 percent support in response to an urgent campaign to fund public safety, though when it came time for local agencies to apply for that sweet cash, there were some rather unexpected requests.
The City of Rio Dell, for example, asked for $25,000 to build an Avenue of Sculptures; a SoHum group wanted $6,000 to set up a “respite center” for confused migrant weed trimmers; and the county’s then-chief administrative officer, Phillip Smith-Hanes, took a moon shot, requesting $2.75 million to toss into the General Fund.
The Citizens’ Advisory Committee ultimately recommended the money be granted almost exclusively to public safety agencies, and the Board of Supervisors followed suit, selecting 15 projects (of the 46 applications) to receive full or partial funding.
This year there are 43 requests totaling nearly $14 million. The county has projected $9.85 million in Measure Z revenue for the upcoming fiscal year, plus another $1.23 million in unused funds from this year, so the majority of these requests could be filled, if the county so chooses. [Addendum: Public Information Officer Sean Quincey reminds the Outpost that more than $5 million in Measure Z revenues is already tied up in ongoing commitments such as salaries for employees of the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office and the Probation Department.]
The Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Measure Z Expenditures will meet March 10 to start evaluating the proposals, though the ultimate funding decisions will of course be made by the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors.
This year’s applications are less outlandish, as a group, than last year’s, though some head-scratchers still came in. More importantly, this batch of requests reveals a great deal about the state of Humboldt County in 2016, including its struggles to address homelessness, the sorry state of its finances and the troubles wrought by an overloaded court system.
Below we take a look at those three themes, as they’re revealed in the Measure Z applications; plus we offer a bonus grab-bag of highlights from the other requests.
Clashing Homeless Philosophies
When the County of Humboldt and City of Eureka recently joined forces to formally adopt a “Housing-First” strategy on homelessness, it put many local nonprofits in an awkward position. Perhaps chief among these is Affordable Homeless Housing Alternatives, Inc.
AHHA’s admirable vision statement holds that “Everyone has a human right to a safe and legal place to live.” The group’s members were instrumental in convincing the Eureka City Council to declare a shelter crisis last month. But as the name suggests, AHHA’s approach calls for a variety of housing options — everything from emergency shelters to campgrounds, rest areas, “micro-housing villages” and more.
Which is precisely the opposite of the Housing First approach now favored by the county and Eureka. Informed by Sacramento consulting firm Focus Strategies, the city and the county have concluded that emergency shelters, transitional housing and other stopgap measures are less effective at actually reducing homelessness — and ultimately more expensive — than placing people directly into permanent housing.
Where does that leave AHHA, a group fundamentally dedicated to a different approach? Well, judging by its applications for Measure Z funding, AHHA plans to continue its multi-pronged, transitional-housing strategy while simply slapping the “Housing First” label on everything.
Led by tireless activist Nezzie Wade, the group submitted three applications, all aimed at creating new transitional shelter options. The first asks for $55,880 to create a “Safe Parking Program,” which the group describes as multi-site overnight parking areas where services would be provided to homeless people living in their vehicles.
The second application seeks $55,548 to establish a “Sanctuary Camp.” This transitional housing approach calls for multiple “organized villages” with up to 30 residents each, requiring staffing from one full-time employee, plus volunteers and residents.
Finally, the group requests $63,933 to build a village of tiny houses, another transitional housing model where onsite workers would help coordinate services from the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services.
In all three applications AHHA suggests, contra the Focus Strategies report, that transitional-housing solutions such as these are compatible with the Housing First approach. The group argues that there’s simply not enough permanent housing stock locally to implement that approach immediately, and people need “safe, healthy, legal” places to stay in the interim.
In that unwieldy mega-meeting last month, Focus Strategies’ founder Megan Kurteff Schatz said the two models are fundamentally at odds, and she urged the city, the county and local stakeholders to commit to rowing in the same direction. The Board of Supervisors’ decision on these AHHA requests could reveal whether the county is indeed all-in for the Housing First model.
Paying Overdue Bills
Following in the footsteps of her predecessor, Interim Chief Administrative Officer Cheryl Dillingham went big, requesting close to $1.5 million in funding. The biggest ask is for a cool $1 million to cover accrued unfunded liability for the California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS).
The underfunding of CalPERS is a significant problem throughout the state. Stock market losses and rising benefit costs, among other factors, have dramatically eroded the program’s finances. But how exactly does paying overdue retirement benefits relate to public safety?
In the application, Dillingham argues that paying off these debts will reduce future pension costs, “thereby freeing up General Fund dollars to be spent on essential services such as public safety.”
The county’s projected unfunded liability at the end of the 2012-2013 fiscal year was more than $213 million, according to the application. That’s because the state overestimated the county’s payroll in recent years, and like any investment, changes in up-front capital can have an exponential impact on future balances. Dillingham says addressing this deficit now rather than later offers “the biggest return on the investment with Measure Z dollars.”
It’s worth noting that the county considered requesting another $550,000 to put into its General Fund reserve. County officials briefly — and mistakenly, according to a spokesman — posted a draft application online yesterday. Officials had decided not to submit this particular request, and the draft application was quickly deleted — but not before a Times-Standard reporter had downloaded it, leading to a mistaken report.
Also falling into the “overdue bills” category is a $2.5 million request from the Department of Public Works to cover road repairs. Public Works Director Tom Mattson argues that the poor-to-fair condition of county roads has hampered the response times of emergency responders.
“If something is not done the roadway conditions will eventually become very poor and even fail,” Mattson warns. “To compound the problem, this next fiscal year the Road Fund is receiving over one million dollars less from the state gas tax, so all road improvement projects are on hold.”
The county’s Facilities Management division is also seeking money for repairs — specifically, $300,000 to fix up the Arcata Veterans Building. The place needs a new commercial kitchen hood, electrical upgrades, siding repairs and some bathroom improvements, according to the application.
Facilities Maintenance Manager Don Morris argues that the vets’ center will get more use if it’s “a safer, more attractive and accessible building.” And better attendance leads to “more revenue for the veterans organization and secures their place in the community.”
Humboldt County Superior Court has gotten so backed up recently that it’s causing all sorts of problems. In December the court borrowed $110,000 from the Judicial Council of California to deal with a surge in homicide cases and underlying staffing problems. Meanwhile, two Humboldt County judges (Dale Reinholtsen and Christopher G. Wilson) were recently admonished for failing to decide cases in a timely fashion while also submitting false paperwork so they still got paid. Both judges’ cited heavy workloads as an excuse.
Several Measure Z applications reflect this challenging state of affairs. The Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office is asking for $106,588, $80,000 of which would go toward “extraordinary expenses associated with the large number of witnesses needed to prosecute pending homicide cases.” The balance would buy a new vehicle for DA investigators.
From the opposing side of the courtroom, Humboldt County Public Defender Kevin Robinson submitted a request for $629,722, saying that with the increased caseload his department is “unable to provide competent representation” to those who can’t afford private attorneys. The funding would help his department staff up with more attorneys, investigators and office workers.
Interim CAO Cheryl Dillingham also seeks to address the overload with a $50,000 request to create two new courtrooms in the county courthouse. “In 2015,” the application states, “the Court had over 200% of average homicide filings and a significant number of felony trials and almost one hundred misdemeanor trials pending.”
The increased caseload is expected to continue, Dillingham writes, but since the state pays for court operations, the only cost to the county would come through converting existing space into new courtrooms. And that space is available, she says, though it would require the relocation of some unidentified, existing county services.
Other Interesting Applications
- The Fortuna Union High School District is requesting $51,570 to hire a campus supervisor who can keep misbehaving students in line. “To date this school year we have had over 100 suspensions and assigned nearly 1,000 after-school detentions,” the application states. “Many of these suspensions are for drug use and fighting. Having another set of eyes on campus would be a tremendous asset to the day to day operations of the school.”
- Alcohol Drug Care Services, Inc., asks for $575,000 to purchase and renovate an old skilled nursing facility just outside Eureka city limits. By bringing all of its detox and residential treatments services under one roof, the applications states, ADCS could better serve its clients, thereby modifying criminal behavior and hopefully reducing the number of repeat offenders.
- Think the printing press days are behind us? Not in Humboldt. The City of Blue Lake wants $1,560 to produce 990 Public Safety Educational Brochures to distribute among locals. “There remains confusion within the community as to whom to dial for sheriff services,” the application notes. Meanwhile, City Ambulance of Eureka filed a request on behalf of emergency responders countywide, asking for $9,370 to produce a “comprehensive paper map book” of local roads. Who needs paper maps in the age of smartphones and GPS? Local emergency responders do, said Jaison Chand, COO of City Ambulance. “In our rural area, digital maps don’t take most of these rural roads into account,” he told the Outpost.
- Humboldt’s homeless problem isn’t limited to humans. The nonprofit Humboldt Animal Rescue Team requested $10,000 to help “care for and find homes for more homeless and unwanted animals in Humboldt County.”
- The Humboldt Waste Management Authority is asking for $40,000 to help dispose trash and garbage that’s illegally dumped around the county and in Eureka — specifically due to transient encampments. “Long term gain can be measured in large part by the restoration of sensitive tidal habitat and public lands and trails that are returned to full use,” the application says.
- Lastly, the county’s Auditor/Controller wants $48,940 to cover the increased workload of cutting paychecks to an extra 50-65 county employees hired with Measure Z revenues.
You can read through all of the funding applications on the county website.