Tuesday’s meeting of the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors was certainly shorter than many a recent meeting, but not for lack of substantive issues. On the docket were the State of Covid post-reopening, a half-billion-dollar proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, the controversial mental health initiative known as Laura’s Law and more.
Let’s get right into it.
A week from today, California will do away with its color-coded blueprint metrics along with most of the mandatory protective health measures that have gone along with the tiered system. In his latest update on local pandemic conditions, Humboldt County Health Officer Dr. Ian Hoffman said it’s still not entirely clear what comes next.
Recently updated guidance from the state says that fully vaccinated people can go maskless in most settings — indoors and out — while the unvaccinated should still mask up in any indoor settings besides the home and in crowded outdoor settings where physical distancing isn’t possible.
As for going back to the office, Cal/OSHA, the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, says that if anyone in your workspace is unvaccinated then all employees must wear their masks.
And since kids under age 12 aren’t eligible for vaccination, people will still be required to wear those lower-face coverings in settings such as schools, camps, daycare and youth sports — likely into the fall when students return from summer break.
Oh, and businesses can still require customers to wear masks “since it will not be possible to know who is vaccinated or unvaccinated,” Hoffman said. Surely no one will have a problem with that.
“There are also settings in which everyone will be required to mask regardless of vaccination status like on public transportation, health care settings, schools and other congregate settings,” he added. But all the capacity limits — those that have applied to retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters, etc. — will go away come June 15, though businesses can still apply them voluntarily, if the owners so choose.
Is Humboldt County ready for these protective measures to fall by the wayside? Well, Hoffman said we’re “rounding the corner” on a recent surge in COVID-19 cases, adding, “We’re hopeful the end is in sight.”
The county’s case rate and its test positivity rate are both half what they were just a few weeks ago, and more than 70,000 residents — about 62 percent of the eligible population — have received at least one dose of vaccine. “This is great news,” Hoffman said.
It could be greater, though. Northern California residents have the lowest level of COVID-19 antibodies, aka seroprevalence, of any region in the state — 46.9 percent compared to a statewide level of 72.1 percent.
“While this is not a perfect measure, it does reflect a combination of both vaccination and natural immunity from infection,” Hoffman explained. In other words, our community remains vulnerable to COVID-19.
“We still have work to do,” Hoffman said. There will be fewer restrictions starting next week, but it will remain important to increase our vaccination rate, keep testing and keep wearing masks in select settings to reduce our risk, he said.
Following this update, First District Supervisor Rex Bohn asked whether the county can rescind its local emergency proclamation as a means of maybe cutting back on some of the extra staff hours that have proliferated throughout the pandemic.
Ryan Derby, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Emergency Operations Center director, said that rescinding the state of emergency would prevent the county from getting reimbursed from the state and federal governments for certain operations. Michele Stephens, the county’s public health director, echoed that point, saying extra positions and overtime costs are largely getting reimbursed via state and federal grants.
Bohn countered that state grants are still taxpayer money, “not pixie dust,” and if we keep spending it we’ll run out of funds for roads, the elderly and other worthy causes.
Hoffman assured him that many emergency operations are starting to wind down.
Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson voiced concern about those who continue to downplay the seriousness of the virus by suggesting that unless you catch it and die it’s really not a big deal. Maybe the county should continue to report hospitalization rates, he said, because COVID-19 is “a serious, deadly and preventable disease, and the best prevention is vaccination, by far.”
Bohn asked Hoffman to respond to some of the questions and claims he gets from constituents, including the unfounded theory that everyone who happens to test positive for COVID upon their demise gets added to the COVID death toll.
Hoffman said that’s not the case. “If the death is not related directly to COVID then we would not report that as a COVID death,” he said.
Regarding concerns about the speed at which the vaccines were developed, Hoffman acknowledged that it was fast but said “the science for [mRNA vaccines] goes back decades,” and they do not have the power to alter your DNA. Like foods, they’re made up of fats, sugars and acids that get broken down and leave the body quickly. “[T]he only thing that sticks around is your long-term immunity,” Hoffman said.
He closed by rattling off some statistics: more than 4,300 cases in the county, resulting in 46 deaths and nearly 200 hospitalizations. Meanwhile, among the 70,000-plus who’ve received at least one shot of vaccine, none have gone to the hospital or died.
Bohn said the county should be repeating that last part over and over, the way corporations repeat their catchphrases to imprint them on the brain.
Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell, who has declined to disclose her vaccination status, remained silent during this discussion.
The proposed budget
The county’s proposed spending plan for fiscal year 2021-22 tops out at $505.63 million, a nine percent ($40.1 million) increase over the budget that the board adopted for the current year. However, the county’s handy Open Budget website reflects a current operating budget of $547.84 million, making this the first fiscal year that the county has breached the half-a-bil mark.
In her presentation of this proposed budget, Assistant County Administrative Officer/Chief Operating Officer Elishia Hayes said much of the extra moolah in this year’s budget will go toward large projects, including storm-damage repairs and planning and construction of the Manila and Humboldt Bay trail.
Hayes began by noting with some pride that the county was recently honored with the Distinguished Budget Presentation Award, courtesy of the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada, for the second year running. Congratulations all around, and Hayes singled out soon-to-depart County Administrative Officer Amy Nilsen for kudos and gratitude.
As per usual, the largest portion of the budget will be allocated to the Department of Health and Human Services, with Public Works and Law & Justice coming in second and third, respectively. (See the pie chart above.)
Fortunately, projected revenues are climbing alongside this jump in spending — if not by quite the same margin. Hayes said general fund revenues are expected to hit $148.6 million this upcoming fiscal year, a roughly one percent increase that comes mostly via higher building permit fees and increased property and sales tax revenues. The general fund will use another $6.9 million in additional funding sources to create a balanced budget, Hayes said.
Measure Z, the voter-approved half-percent sales tax assessment, is expected to bring in $12.5 million this next fiscal year. Hayes presented a slide that shows how $71.6 million in Measure Z revenues have been spent in the six years since implementation, with the vast majority going to law enforcement, fire and roads/public works.
Defying economists’ projections, revenues actually increased during the pandemic thanks to increased online sales, lower interest rates, federal stimulus and unemployment benefits, Hayes said. That means the board can allocate an extra $1.3 million to Measure Z applicants this year.
The American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.7 trillion federal stimulus package passed in March, provided $350 billion in fiscal relief to local governments, with $65.1 billion of that set aside for counties. Humboldt can expect to get $13.16 million out of the deal, Hayes said. That money can be used to recoup losses from the pandemic and invest in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.
Each year, county departments and outside agencies get a chance to request extra money, and this year the biggest ask comes from the Humboldt County Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District, which has requested $6 million in financial assistance to develop a new multi-purpose marine terminal.
That’s definitely a chunk of change, but Wilson, who for years served on the Harbor District’s board of commissioners, noted that it comes in response to requests from state and federal governments for Humboldt to prepare for potentially developing our port as a hub for wind energy development.
Larry Oetker, the Harbor District’s executive director, called in to make a case for the $6 million request, noting that it’s being driven by such esteemed authorities as the U.S. president, the state governor, the California Energy Commission and the Paris Climate Accord.
“They’re the ones asking Humboldt County to develop the port to prepare for the offshore wind industry,” Oetker said, and he argued that the Harbor District can’t undertake such an ambitious project on its own. He asked for an opportunity to give a presentation to the board at a future date.
Mary Ann Hanson, executive director of First Five Humboldt, also called in to advocate for increased child care funding, and several board members expressed support for the cause.
A follow-up budget presentations will take place June 21 at 1:30 and 5:30 p.m. with final adoption of the budget anticipated for June 29. You can get a more detailed look at the proposed budget via this link.
Following up on an issue they discussed in April, the board next considered whether to implement an assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) pilot program, which would allow for court-ordered treatment of certain people suffering from serious mental illness. Despite an absence of state funding, such programs have been implemented in a patchwork of counties as a result of Laura’s Law, state legislation named after a woman who was killed by a man who refused psychiatric treatment.
Back in April, county staff recommended that the county opt out of Laura’s Law, reasoning that the it already offers similar services and that few patients would actually qualify for the program. However, many members of the local psychiatric care community, including the local branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), strongly urged the county to opt in.
After much discussion, the board in April directed staff to come back with a plan to implement Laura’s Law or similar type of program and to request an extension from the state on the deadline to opt out of Laura’s Law.
Today the board reconsidered the matter, and it again proved a somewhat divisive issue. Bohn talked about the intense community pressure to do something about homeless folks who clearly suffer from mental illness and wander the streets.
“I feel like a broken record; how do we address this?” he asked.
Emi Botzler-Rodgers, the county’s behavioral health director, said these challenges are “complex and multi-faceted,” with people often suffering from a range of interconnected issues, including homelessness, substance abuse and mental illness.
Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone said he fully supports a pilot program, though he said it’s time for the state to step up and fund such initiatives.
Speakers during the public comment period were divided. Some folks involved with the Humboldt County Transition-Age Youth Collaboration expressed opposition to Laura’s Law, suggesting that court-ordered treatment and increased interactions with law enforcement can be counterproductive.
Others disagreed. Tim Ash, from the local branch of NAMI, sad there are many misconceptions about Laura’s Law, including that notion that it leads to physically forced medication. “The facts are, putting people in front of a judge does work,” he said. “It doesn’t work for everybody, but it’s the only thing that works for some people.”
In the end, the board voted unanimously to implement the Laura’s Law - Assisted Outpatient Treatment pilot program and authorize the Department of Health and Human Services to issue a request for proposals for outside agencies to operate the program.