UKIAH -- Measure AG, the citizen-initiative to raise a temporary half-cent sales tax to develop mental health facilities, calls for an independent oversight committee to review the expenditure of funds. But the proposed ordinance, which is only 419 words long, is silent on what considerations would inform the committee’s review, and what role their review would play in governing the facility. Measure AH, a companion bill that proposes to adopt the language required by the State Board of Equalization to administer the tax, is also silent on the subject, though the argument in favor of it, which is signed by a majority of the Board of Supervisors and Sheriff Tom Allman, states that “The Board of Supervisors is committed to working with the proponents of Measure AG, the Measure AG oversight committee” to develop the facilities. Measure AJ, a measure that in a purely advisory role lays out how to spend cannabis taxes raised if Measure AI passes, asks voters if they want some of the cannabis tax dollars to go to mental health. The argument in favor of the measure speculates that “The County may soon have money to develop facilities but additional funding is needed for staffing and operations.”
It is clear that any funds raised by the sales tax can be used only for developing the facilities, which narrows the scope of the committee’s recommendations. However, the ordinance does not specify whether those facilities would be purchased or built from the ground up; or where they would be located. The ordinance states that “No funds may be used for other incidental but necessary purposes, including the staffing of such facility.”
According to Allman, who has spearheaded the measure, the all-volunteer committee would research options about the facility, then make suggestions to the Board of Supervisors, which would have the final say on the expenditure of funds. “I cannot imagine the Board of Supervisors making a decision that would go against what this 11-person mental health commission would make,” he stated.
Estimates of how much money would be under the committee’s purview vary. County Auditor Lloyd Weer, who based his projection on the State Board of Equalization’s figures from 2015, wrote in his analysis of the measure that the total funds raised by the bill could be in excess of $34,320,000 over the five year period that the tax will be in place. In its own analysis, the County Executive Office cites a range from $36.3 to $37.6 million.
It is not yet known who exactly would be on the committee, but the ordinance is clear on which bodies will be represented in its membership. Each of the five county Supervisors would select a member of the commission. A member of the Behavioral Health Advisory Board and a representative of the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), a grassroots mental health advocacy organization, would also sit on the committee. The remaining members would consist of the Mental Health Director, the County Auditor, the County CEO, the Sheriff, or representatives selected by these officials.
Sonya Nesch, of NAMI, said that “as soon as we have the money, that’s when the committee will meet and ensure that every penny will be spent precisely as it was intended.”
Allman said a needs assessment, which he characterized as “a factual document based on where we’ve been and a very educated guess of where we’re going,” would be conducted to determine the parameters of the need. “If we get it done by the right people,” he said, “we’re not going to pay for something that’s not going to be done for the benefit of Mendocino County.” The assessment, he continued, would fall into the category of facilities development, so the ordinance allows for the $50,000 to $100,000 cost he estimated for the study to come out of the money collected by the tax. Because he expects the facility to be available to mental health patients in Lake County as well, he explained that the assessment would include the need in Lake County, as well.
Auditor Weer, who will be on the committee, said he will probably be responsible for answering financial questions, but that he does not believe there has been any discussion about the committee or its makeup as of yet.
At a ballot forum in Ukiah on September 29, Allman explained that after five years, when the temporary sales tax expires, the committee will be disbanded. “After the facility is developed,” he told the attendees, “the County of Mendocino will be running it, so we don’t need this dinosaur of a commission that’s going to run it forever. We have a Behavioral Health Board in this County.” In an interview, he said “the Board would have the power to pull their people and put new ones on.”
Assistant County CEO Alan Flora, who worked closely with Beacon Economics to develop an analysis of the measure, said in an email that he is not aware of committees in Mendocino County that have formed specifically for the review and recommendation of expenditure of funds, but he referred to a similar model in Humboldt County.
The committee in Humboldt reviews applications for funds raised by a public safety tax, and makes recommendations to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors as to how that money should be used. He said that in the matter of the oversight board for the mental health facility proposed by Measure AG, “The [Mendocino County] Board of Supervisors could likely have significant discretion on what they wanted the commission to review or provide input on,” but that input from the Executive Office “...would be conjecture. My only insight is based on conversations with the Sheriff,” he went on. “I believe his intent, should the measure pass, would be to immediately convene the commission and begin work on a needs assessment that would help define the scope of the facility,” he wrote.
Flora expects that the committee, as well as other interested parties, would make recommendations on the staffing of the facility as well, but that the ultimate decision would be up to the Board of Supervisors. Examples of staffing options to consider include hiring a private contractor to run the facility; staffing it with county employees, or following the example of the facility in Humboldt by relying on a mix of county staff and contractors.
Sarah Reith 23 October 2016