Humboldt County Board of Supervisors. | Screenshot.


Humboldt County First District Supervisor Rex Bohn may have been half kidding when referred to yesterday’s special meeting of the Board of Supervisors as “doomsday,” but County Administrative Officer Elishia Hayes wasn’t amused.

“That wasn’t exactly the connotation I’d like to start off with but yes, Supervisor Bohn,” she said before introducing the reason for the gathering: With the county government staring down the barrel of its second consecutive annual budget deficit in excess of $10 million, the board was being asked to consider a dozen potential money-saving measures.

The 12 options varied in significance and complexity, and over the course of the meeting’s four-hour runtime they generated varying degrees of angst and support from department heads. 

In preparation for the day’s hearing, staff from the County Administrative Office had conducted an employee survey and met with department heads to get a sense of each one’s priorities and to gauge potential institutional resistance.

“I do just want to acknowledge that this is a stressful topic for staff, for your board [and] for department heads … ,” Hayes said. “[T]here are a lot of feelings around these topics.”

For example, Assistant CAO and Chief Operating Officer Karen Clower said department heads voiced strong opposition to the prospect of mandatory employee furloughs, but a majority of them would support closing offices to the public on Fridays to allow employees to focus on their workloads.

Other options being explored include various ways to centralize services, which Clower said would serve to increase resiliency, lead to better succession planning and allow for more collaboration.

One such option would create a “one-stop” permitting shop by locating Planning and Building, Public Works Land Use and Environmental Health in one location. Another would involve switching to a system with a county executive office, wherein a CEO would oversee the county’s appointed department heads and their respective departments. (Under the current system, department heads report directly to the Board of Supervisors.)

Clower went through each of the dozen proposals one by one, detailing department head feedback and the costs of pursuing each of them. As outlined in a report prepared for the meeting, staff recommended pursuing some options, further analyzing others and rejecting the remainder.

Her presentation took about an hour, and by the end of it Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson was a bit overwhelmed.

“This list is too big for normal humans to analyze and digest and make, you know, robust decisions on [during a single session],” he said. Instead, Wilson recommended making a few preliminary decisions at this meeting and pursuing others through a more systematic “iterative process.” He went on to offer his initial thoughts on the various proposals before the board.

Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone addressed the subject of a recent report from the Civil Grand Jury, saying it’s “foolish” to be leasing property when there are opportunities to purchase buildings and consolidate services into under-used facilities.

“You’ve got to start making some shifts in order to make anything happen,” Madrone said. The county is getting ready to set its 2024-25 fiscal year budget, and if all budget requests get approved it would result in a roughly $13 million deficit, he noted. 

“And then that leaves us 10 million in our reserves, and what next year?” Madrone asked. “We’re out of money. We’re done. We have no options whatsoever but to start laying everybody off and all kinds of crazy decisions that would have to be made.”

He suggested temporarily moving the Planning and Building Department out of the dilapidated old hospital building it shares with the Sempervirens Psychiatric Health Facility (on Wood Street in Eureka) and constructing a large multi-story structure in its place with parking on the ground floor. 

One quick aside about that: As if to illustrate the dire conditions of that building, a waterlogged ceiling tile fell onto Planning and Building Director John Ford’s desk over the weekend. 

“Obviously, the roof above is leaking,” Ford said when reached via email. “The mess has been cleaned up, and there is a trash can sitting on my desk to collect the dripping water.  I understand Building Maintenance will come back tomorrow to put sealant on the roof to stop the leak and replace 3 ceiling tiles.”

Here are photos of the damage, submitted by Ford:


“This does not seem to be structural, and so the cost [of repairs] is [limited to] the staff time, sealant, and ceiling tiles,” he told us via email.

Regarding other potential cost-cutting possibilities, Bohn said he recently read that artificial intelligence will soon enable grant applications to be filled out in half a day, where previously it took mere humans as long as five days. Bohn also spoke in favor of losing staff through attrition but not via layoffs. 

When it came time for department heads to address the board, Connie Beck, the director of the Department of Health and Human Services, said she was opposed to the idea of creating new administrative costs in the form of a county executive office. 

“To me, this feels like a revenue grab on the backs of our most vulnerable people in our community,” Beck said. “I’m not opposed to a different reporting structure. I’m really opposed to adding additional costs to our budgets right now.”

Other department heads encouraged the board to be careful and meticulous in its decision-making processes. Some voiced concerns about consolidating services such as human resources, public information officers and information technology. Others expressed frustration with the limited range of answers available in the survey that had been distributed. 

Fourth District Supervisor Natalie Arroyo said she’s interested in exploring the CEO model and supportive of the proposal to close county offices to the public on Fridays. Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell made a multi-part motion, including these components:

  • proceed with the plan to close certain offices (those that “are able”) to the public on Fridays with “ample” public messaging about that change
  • evaluate the consolidation of IT security
  • revisit other centralization plans whenever “better budget times” allow
  • review the “one stop” permitting plan
  • review the potential combination of Public Works’ Facilities Management unit with the County Administrative Office’ compliance team for the Americans With Disabilities Act, and
  • hold further discussions about the CEO model with individual board members and department heads

Bohn suggested that on weeks with holidays, county offices should remain open to the public on Fridays. Otherwise, on weeks with Monday holidays, those county offices would be closed to the public for four days straight.

Bushnell said she’d worry about how confusing that might be in terms of messaging to the public. Bohn let the matter drop. Wilson expressed appreciation for the department heads on behalf of the board, and the motion passed unanimously.