Staff costs could ‘devour’ Measure Z funds

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – Humboldt County’s Board of Supervisors is facing what the chair of the Measure Z Advisory Committee has called a “powerful policy decision” on the spending of public safety tax revenue.

​The dilemmas of declining Measure Z sales tax revenue and the increasing amount of ongoing personnel costs were discussed at the November 19 supervisors meeting.

​As a batch of Measure Z contracts was approved, Measure Z Advisory Committee Chair Glenn Ziemer referred to a letter he sent to the board last September. The letter warned of “a developing financial trend where the inflationary increases to ongoing personnel costs are causing a significant decrease in the discretionary funding portion of the Measure Z revenue.”

The committee is “concerned that this trend is accelerating at a pace that will result in the totality of the fund being allocated to ongoing personnel cost with no allocation to other applicants in the near future,” the letter states.

​Ziemer noted the letter’s date – September 12 – and told supervisors that “it’s unfortunate” it hasn’t been included in an agendized discussion earlier.

​“The problem that we see and the trend that we see that’s discouraging to us is that in the current year we’re spending 77 percent of the fund on ongoing, recurring salary expenses in the law enforcement community,” he said.

​He added that in the current fiscal year, about $8 million of Measure Z revenue is spent on maintaining previously-approved law enforcement personnel salaries, leaving only $3.2 million for funding new requests.

​“And we find ourselves, every year, with 10 to 20 times the requests as the available revenue,” Ziemer said.

​Committee members are concerned that as salary inflation continues, the Measure Z revenue – which is declining – will soon be “completely devoured” by ongoing law enforcement personnel costs.

​“I don’t think that was the sense that was presented to the community,” said Ziemer, adding that with inflation, the salary costs are “going to have some general fund impact at some point.”

​Noting that lack of general fund impact was promised when Measure Z was put before voters, he said the committee will “probably put some limitations” and “at least” cap personnel costs in 2020.

​“That policy decision is going to be a little touchy with some of your departments, quite frankly, and it may be politically touchy for you as representatives,” he continued, adding that it would have been preferable to discuss it earlier because “this is a long term, powerful policy decision.”

The September letter suggested meetings with a board subcommittee but with the advisory committee finalizing its Measure Z recommendations on Dec. 12, time’s too short. Supervisor Mike Wilson suggested having the committee advance its recommendations on the personnel spending as soon as possible, without having intermediary meetings.

​It’s an issue that the board has been aware of. “One of the things we’ve said over the last few years is that we need to be careful about how much goes to personnel-related expenses because they can cut down the funds for other grants and programs,” said Supervisor Estelle Fennell.

​Supervisors generally indicated they’ll listen to what the committee says but Supervisor Steve Madrone outlined a specific stance. He said he supports capping personnel spending but would “take it further.”

​Saying “we’re getting very little” for another Measure Z priority – road maintenance – Madrone noted that the Sheriff’s Office has open Measure Z-funded positions due to lack of success in attracting applicants for them and retaining deputies.

​Madrone suggested capping personnel contributions to a level that matches actual hiring. And he said that if wages for sheriff’s deputies are increased, the county will have better odds of filling the positions funded by Measure Z.

​The cost of higher wages will be offset because filling the positions will reduce overtime expenses, he added.

​Supervisors voted to approve a series of Measure Z funding contracts and also directed staff to prepare for a Dec. 10 discussion on “modifying the allocation of Measure Z funds.”

​Among the approved contracts is one with the City of Arcata for $247,357 of Measure Z funding.

​It pays for continued funding of a school resource officer and two juvenile diversion counselors working in schools in the third and fifth supervisorial districts.

​The city had sought to expand existing funding and had requested a $353,367 contribution.


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