MENDOCINO Co., 6/21/20 — Mendocino County’s Grand Jury, an oversight committee comprised of 19 local citizens, has released three reports for the 2019 – 2020 session, including an analysis of the current state of the county’s emergency notification system, a look at safety in county schools, and an examination of how tax dollars are being used to provide local services, particularly those provided by the county’s multitude of special districts.
In particular, the jury found that county government has failed to address long standing issues concerning emergency notifications for residents, and has yet to implemented a plan or allocate adequate funding to upgrade the system efficiently. The jury did not find significant cause to be concerned about school safety in the county, although made recommendations to improved communication and campus response time to increase student safety. In the third report, the committee warned that the current system of special districts collecting taxes for public services is on the brink of being dysfunctional.
Every year, the Grand Jury is empowered to look into the activities of Mendocino County’s various government agencies, and issue a report on their findings. The reports are available on the county’s webpage, and by law require a response from the local officials or agencies named in the reports within 60 days. This year, the reports include: “The Emergency Communications System in Mendocino County,” “School Safety,” and “How Tax Dollars Pay for Services,” along with a report examining the continuity of past Grand Jury responses.
More coverage of the Grand Jury can be found here, and on the county’s website, where past reports are also posted. Here’s the link to the full reports from this year. Responses to the Grand Jury reports are required within 60 days. However, this year the Grand Jury reviewed the responses to the previous year’s reports, and found that the the responses lacked a specific timeline for implementing changes, and recommended a review of responses be conducted annually.
The reports are fairly simple to read, but include many months of research on issues relevant to Mendocino County residents, although the reports note that some of the group’s inquiries were stymied by the shelter-in-place orders and precautions implemented during the pandemic, including visits to more remote emergency communications equipment. Members of the jury conducted interviews as well as research into past Grand Jury reports to better assess what progress has been made over time, particularly in the case of updates to the county’s emergency notification system, and the efficiency of tax revenue as it concerns the current administration of public services.
Emergency Communications System
The Grand Jury ‘s first report considers the county’s emergency communication systems, which have been a cause of widespread concern for residents after the increasing severity and scale of wildfires over the last several years, and repeated incidents of technical difficulties with the system during those times. The jury found that despite over a decade of concern over the increasing obsolescence of the county’s emergency notification system, and calls for upgrades or repairs, the county has not allocated adequate funds to address the scale of the problem, and has prioritized repairs that they fear will be tangential if larger issues are not addressed first, including significant site issues at a number of more remote microwave sites around the county.
The Grand Jury pointed to two previous reports on the issue, and while acknowledging that budget limitations are in play, highlighted the lack of timely and preventative action by the supervisors, writing, “The lives of Mendocino County residents depend on the integrity of the remote microwave-radio buildings. By de-prioritizing these buildings, the County is not well positioned to protect the Life, Health, Safety, and Welfare of its residents through the ECS.”
The report describes reports of specific issues in detail, including water leaks at a number of locations where equipment is stored, as well as a reliance on equipment that is no longer being sold or maintained by the original manufacturer, considered operating beyond it’s “end of life” capacity. In addition, the report notes that the county has failed to integrate systems between emergency repairs conducted by contractors and regular building maintenance and inspection, hampering coordination and relying on the knowledge of individuals rather than efficient formal processes or systems.
One finding in the report, regarding the county’s budgetary allocations towards repairing the system, was that the county while the county had allocated funds to replace equipment, supervisors had not prioritized setting aside money to ensure that all the buildings adequately housing the equipment were being maintained or repaired. “Not making necessary upgrades to the remote sites prior to installing an approximate $8.2 million in new ECS [emergency communications system] equipment is equivalent to buying all new furniture for a house with a leaking roof,” the report states.
The jury recommends that the county fully fund the current “Public Safety Microwave Replacement Project” through Phase 3, replace the sheriff’s dispatch console, begin to implement and utilize shared tracking, work order, and repair systems, as well as implement documented regular maintenance procedures, in order to ensure more efficient and effective use repairs to existing equipment. The jury also recommended exploring potential “chargebacks” as an additional revenue stream from shared use of the equipment, which was recommended by a 2009 report.
How Taxes Pay for Services
In the report entitled, “How Tax Dollars Pay for Services,” the jury found that special districts, which provide numerous county services to county residents including fire protection, water, and more, are likely to become a financial burden to the county due to lack of projected revenue. The jury noted that a similar issue was considered by the Grand Jury in 2012, and a a repayment plan developed in 2015 that initially balanced the budgets, but that there is currently no plan in place to address a similar scenario occurring in the future as tax revenues are expected to decrease significantly this year and beyond.
The jury recommends that the supervisors manage the “Teeter Plan,” current in use as method to manage the budget, remove special districts that are not contributing to it, and consider discontinuing the use of “Teeter Plan” altogether.
The California Legislature updated the statewide education code beginning in 2019, in part to improve student safety in schools, and in the “School Safety” report, the Grand Jury examined a cross-section of policies at local school districts in Mendocino County, in addition to conducting research and interviewing staff at related agencies, to assess whether Mendocino County schools are in compliance with current state recommendations. Overall, the Grand Jury was largely satisfied after their inquiry into school safety, and in their assessment concluded that in general, students feel safe in the local education system, above state and national averages.
The jury did have recommendations regarding school safety, including increasing coordination between local school districts and law enforcement to ensure no more than a five minute response time to any school campus. The jury also recommended increased communication between school districts, Mendocino County Office of Education, and first responders, and for MCOE to retain a copy of districts’ safety policies on hand. The jury also called for districts to provide greater support for mental health services, counselors, and crisis intervention, and to provide support for monitoring online communications by staff and students.