By Jennifer Henion
Triplicate staff writer
With six weeks left to reply to grand jury accusations of poor budget decision-making, Del Norte County officials say they don't yet know what their response will be.
According to California law, agencies asked to respond to the grand jury must either say they agree with the jury's recommendations and will implement them within a certain time, or say that they disagree and explain why.
So far, they're criticizing the report rather than offering to implement its recommendations.
County Administrative Officer Jeannine Galatioto said the report is unclear and the county has done nothing wrong.
The county has until Aug. 28 to formally respond.
The report, published June 28, criticizes the county's budgeting process, saying that:
Department managers were "micro-managed in an attempt to balance the county budget."
The county has allowed state and federal grants to supplant county funding for the Sheriff's Department and district attorney's office.
"I'm just not clear exactly what they're saying and what we are supposedly supplanting. Budgets are cut because there is no money," said County Administrative Officer Jeannine Galatioto.
Sheriff Dean Wilson said the grand jury has a valid concern, but the county still has to deal with a budget shortfall.
A yearly $500,000 grant to Wilson's department pays for 10 essential staff positions, he said.
Wilson said it's clear that the county pays the Sheriff's Department less because of the grant funds, and relying on grants is a gamble.
"My problem is looking down the road with the state's budget problem. I don't see that these grants are going to last," Wilson said.
"If we lost our biggest grant, we would lose 10 positions, and 10 positions is a lot when our total is 48," he said.
On the other hand, county officials are doing the right thing given the county's financial problems, he said.
"I think they are operating as fiscally responsibly as they can, and they're doing their job well. They're looking at limited general-fund dollars. We've got a deficit we've got to deal with, and you have to look at every resource you have," Wilson said.
The grand jury, however, expressed concern that understaffing of county law enforcement offices puts the community at risk.
"The grand jury feels that the office of the sheriff is understaffed and that this office's budget should not be cut by the amount of grants received," the jury concluded.
Regarding the district attorney's office, the jury said severe understaffing "places an undue burden on the current staff. This could prove detrimental to public safety and also impede the smooth operation of the courts."
Galatioto defended the county's decisions, saying the county's budget crisis for the past three years caused major funding cuts to all county departments. This year's county budget is $1.2 million less than last year's.
"Every county is cutting services. Grants are for either providing for new services not already provided or for improving existing services. Whatever services the grants are paying for, those activities are going to stay at the same level. But other services may have to be cut due to budget problems. Is that what they mean by supplanting'?" Galatioto said.
County supervisor Martha McClure also defended the way the budget is managed.
"Supplanting is a pretty strong accusation. I'd say show me.' This budget, when first presented to us with everything the different department heads wanted was $2 million out. It's not supplanting; it's managing a budget," McClure said.
The grand jury recommended that the Board of Supervisors meet with the sheriff and district attorney to "personally review the budget and grant funding."
This is the recommendation to which the county must formally respond.
It also recommended that the next grand jury "continue to monitor the county budgeting and particularly, the office of the chief administrative officer."
It hinted that budget decisions may not have been made properly, saying, "We encourage that, after being elected or appointed, people set aside politics, individual loyalties and agendas and work in the best interests of the whole county, keeping in mind the needs of the people they actually serve."
Finally, the report said the Board of Supervisors should "personally read, investigate and weigh their decisions. They should not rely solely on others for their information."
McClure and fellow supervisors Sarah Sampels and Jack Reese defended the board, saying it's the jury that's not doing its homework, not county officials.
"It's almost as if someone made a complaint about us, the jury followed whatever the complaint said and didn't do any other investigating. They obviously had their own political agenda. Every one of us reads our packets well in advance," said Sampels.
The grand jury is a panel of 16 volunteer citizens that acts as watchdog over local government entities. This year, it reviewed 17 departments or agencies.