The County of Humboldt expects to spend roughly $571.4 million during the 2022-23 fiscal year, an increase of about four percent over last year’s budget. At today’s meeting, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the recommended annual budget following a presentation by Tabatha Miller, the county’s chief financial officer and interim assistant auditor-controller.
Miller told the board that the budget was “almost identical” to versions they’d seen during previous hearings in June and earlier this month. Nearly half of the planned expenditures — $268.2 million, or 47 percent — is allocated to the Department of Health and Human Services. Another $120.4 million (21 percent) will go to the Public Works Department, with Law & Justice getting the third-largest chunk of the budget with $108.1 million (19 percent).
Miller and the supervisors made some oblique references to the financial reporting gaps under former Auditor-Controller Karen Paz Dominguez. For example, Miller noted that the board hasn’t been given any info on the beginning balance of the general fund “for a while” before offering an estimate for the current fiscal year — $24.7 million, conservatively.
The county’s fiscal staff, including contracted outside auditors, are still working to close last year’s books, and Miller noted that the outside auditors have found “big posting errors,” including $18.2 million that had been incorrectly added to the general fund balance.
The county has set aside $5 million in general reserves, nearly doubling the “rainy day” emergency fund balance to $10.6 million, which is still well short of the target balance of $17.6 million.
“So we still have some room to grow,” Miller said, “but we’ve made some pretty significant progress in establishing those outside reserves.”
The county is using just under $5.2 million in one-time funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) on staffing costs, covering about 50 employees. Miller said the county will need to focus on filling that revenue hole during the next budget cycle.
First District Supervisor Rex Bohn took a veiled swipe at Paz Dominguez, saying, “It’s nice to get a budget in a somewhat timely manner” before asking whether the budget’s $443,000 in penalties and interest from the Internal Revenue Service will be “the last surprise we have.”
“I don’t know that I can say that,” Miller responded.
County Administrative Officer Elishia Hayes voiced appreciation for Miller and the rest of the budget team, saying, “This year in particular has been a very difficult budget year for all of us.”
“I think we can echo that,” Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass said.
The board voted unanimously to approve the budget.
Food Bank Update
Leaders of Food for People, the nonprofit managing the county’s officially sanctioned food bank, delivered their latest annual report. The 40-year-old organization, which runs a network of 18 food pantries from Garberville to the Oregon border and east to Hoopa and Bridgeville, has had to change things up in recent years due to the pandemic as well as a sewer disaster at their Eureka headquarters in February of 2020.
The average number of people served monthly increased from 12,000 to 16,000 as the pandemic unfolded, Executive Director Anne Holcomb told the board. More recent increases in fuel and food costs have led to a 25 percent increase in costs, which she said is “really concerning.”
There have been delays and cost increases in the process of getting the new Eureka building built.
“We couldn’t have asked for a worse time to try to be starting a building and construction project of this magnitude because the prices went through the roof,” Holcomb said, adding that shipping delays for steel and other building materials extended the project’s timeline by six to nine months.
But the new building, which is slated for completion by the end December, will have added storage and operational capacity, Holcomb said. The project’s cost, after many delays and price increases, now stands at $6.1 million.
“And I can say we’ve already raised over $ 6 million, so we are just in the last bit — I’d say we have about $50,000 to $100,000 left to raise, depending on how all of our change orders come in,” Holcomb said. “We’re really excited for everything it’s going to offer, and at this point we’re just hoping we can raise the rest so we are not taking on debt in the current rates.”
In the afternoon, staff from the Department of Health and Human Services delivered a presentation on the county’s latest Point in Time (PIT) count of local homeless residents and a report on services for that population.
Robert Ward, the department’s housing coordinator, explained to the board that in the early morning hours of January 26, staff and volunteers attempted to get an accurate count of the local homeless population, defined, in this case, as “people living in a place not meant for human habitation as well as people in emergency shelters and transitional housing.”
Ward said there are several different methods for counting the homeless population, all of which inevitably miss some portion of unhoused residents. This year’s count was 1,648 homeless residents, down slightly from the previous count in 2019. But Ward noted that 746 of those folks are estimated to be chronically homeless, which represents a significant increase from 2019.
“We also saw increases of people reporting serious mental illness and substance use disorders,” he said, specifying that an estimated 48 percent of adults suffer from mental illness while 49 percent have substance use disorders.
Humboldt County’s rate of homelessness is roughly comparable to Sacramento’s, which has made headlines for exceeding the rate in San Francisco.
“I’ve heard some people say that [Humboldt County’s] is the highest per capita rate of homelessness in the country,” Ward said. Staff can’t say for sure because many counties don’t collect their own data; rather, they belong to multi-county continuums of care, where efforts and data are coordinated. “But we could be” ranked highest, Ward said, adding, “It’s quite high, that’s for sure.”
DHHS Director Connie Beck then delivered a report on the county’s homelessness services, saying her department’s role has increased dramatically over the past seven years.
“Today we operate several housing programs for specific safety net populations,” including permanent supportive housing for people with serious mental illness, Beck said. The latest project, Pine Hill Village in Eureka, brings the county’s total to 94 units dedicated to people with serious mental illness.
The department also operates a program called Housing, Outreach and Mobile Engagement, or HOME, which accounts for most of DHHS’s housing budget. The program’s recommended budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year is $8,106,625, a total that includes funding from 11 separate grants.
Beck said her department works with just under 100 local landlords and property management companies to help clients secure housing.
“So far, HOME Assist has assisted 269 people with serious and persistent mental illness, successfully obtaining housing,” she said.
DHHS also operates the Cal Works Housing Support Program to assist families experiencing or at risk of homelessness, and a Home Safe Program to help older adults with such services as helping with utility expenses, performing deep cleaning and assistance with hoarding.
Beck outlined a number of other programs in her department, noting that their work with the homeless population involves collaboration with a variety of community-based organizations to offer permanent supportive housing, transitional housing, emergency shelter, street outreach, homeless prevention and case management services.
“The solution to homelessness is housing, of course,” Beck said at one point. This observation may sound obvious, but it highlights a particular struggle here in Humboldt County, where the housing stock is insufficient to meet local demand.
The Board of Supervisors recently authorized DHHS to work with Providence Supportive Housing on a 42-unit HomeKey project, converting the former Humboldt Inn on Eureka’s Fourth Street to a housing unit called the Mother Bernard House.
“There have been three additional HomeKey projects awarded in the county that together aim to dedicate more than 150 additional units for people experiencing homelessness,” Beck said, adding that the Eureka Housing Authority is looking to increase its stock from 196 to 350 units over the next decade.
McKay Community Forest Trail Plan
For the last item on the day’s agenda, the board heard a lengthy presentation from Hank Seemann, public works deputy director of environmental services, on a forest trail plan for the McKay Community Forest on the southeast outskirts of Eureka.
The county has been working for the past eight years to develop the community forest, which sits on a roughly 1,200-acre tract of land formerly owned by Green Diamond and a series of other lumber companies.
A parking area along Northridge Road in Cutten is slated to be the primary public access point to the forest. Seemann said the parking area is now ready to be opened, providing access to four miles of trails that are still works in progress but ready for public use.
“We have a lot of work to do, but I’m confident we can do it because of the community interest,” Seemann said. “And really our job as county staff is to channel and unleash the passion and the skills and the energy of people that are interested in helping develop trails.”
To that end, the county has agreed to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Redwood Coast Mountain Bike Association to develop a bike skills park within the forest.
“One of the exciting things about the McKay Committee Forest is that we’ve got land that will be suitable … especially for mountain bike trails that will be beginner and intermediate trails,” Seemann said.
The board unanimously approved a list of staff recommendations, approving the forest trail plan, a stewardship plan and related environmental documents while directing staff to initiate a process to consider changing the name of the McKay Community Forest. According to a staff report, the forest is named after Allan McKay, the owner of a lumber company that acquired the property in 1875.
Some members of the public have called for a new name. “One commenter expressed that the name ‘McKay’ is associated with a distant historical era and has limited contemporary significance,” the staff report notes. Potential new names identified in the report include “Eureka Community Forest,” “Humboldt County Community Forest” and “Ryan Creek Community Forest.”
Bohn expressed skepticism and confusion about changing the name, saying he likes the past. But Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson said he’s happy to have a conversation about the name-change idea.