Last Thursday, Feb. 28, the County of Humboldt held meetings in each of the five supervisorial districts to give a report on the budget for the next fiscal year and solicit public feedback on how they'd like to see spending prioritized. The meeting took place from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., just a few hours before the now infamous sequester was scheduled to go into effect, presumably wrecking havoc on the American economy.
"You're probably hearing a lot in the news about the federal sequester that is scheduled to go into effect -- and of course the economists worry about whether or not that could impact general economic growth nationwide,” said Chris Smith Hanes, CAO (County Administrative Officer).
Here in Humboldt County, the outlook is somewhat favorable.
Despite an estimated $1 million in increased revenues, funding reserves are currently below the levels required by county policy. Still, the county's five-year economic forecast predicts growth in taxable sales, home prices and property tax revenue.
In 2010, 2011, and 2012, property tax revenues grew slightly but growth never exceeded 2% per year. And none of those years came anywhere near the 10% growth Humboldt County saw in 2005 and 2006. Humboldt County's unemployment rate is slightly below the California state average (9.6% vs. 9.7%), but significantly higher than the national average at 7.8%.
Another aspect of the budget meeting dealt with what the county refers to as its core roles.
1. Enforce laws and regulations and protect residents
2. Provide for and maintain infrastructure
3. Create opportunities for improved safety and health
4. Encourage new local enterprise and ensure proper operations of markets
5. Support business and workforce development
6. Protect vulnerable populations
The first and third core roles received significant attention from the citizens in Miranda, many of whom were at the meeting to represent cash-strapped rural volunteer fire departments. The fire fighters in attendance expressed an interest in negotiating a larger share of the county's revenues from Proposition 172 -- legislation from the 1990s that created a half-cent sales tax increase to fund sheriff, police, fire, and corrections agencies.
Proposition 172 was statewide legislation, but the funding it generates is allocated at the county level. At first, 100% of Humboldt County's Prop 172 money went to the law enforcement community. They eventually negotiated a 1.6% share for fire protection services -- and that was later increased to 1.8%. Still -- 98.2% of Prop 172 revenue currently goes to law enforcement.
"The smaller departments are really struggling out here," Lon Winburn, Fire Chief at the Fortuna Volunteer Fire Department and President of the Humboldt County Fire Chiefs Association. "I know we have a meeting coming up to discuss Prop 172, and the fire chiefs would certainly like to discuss moving up to 2%."
"And I think that fire protection certainly fits into those core roles as a part of public safety," Winburn added.
Several people also urged the county to take action on behalf of in-home health service workers, raising their pay from $8.00 to $9.50 over the next two years. A number of residents from other parts of the county also urged officials to consider expanding the Code Enforcement unit so it has the resources to address illegal development issues in rural areas like Shelter Cove, Hoopa and Orleans. Currently, the Code Enforcement Unit consists of just one officer, Jeff Connor. The department was downsized after controversy in 2008, when the CEU worked with law enforcement to conduct marijuana raids in Southern Humboldt.
"The only thing that stood out for me was the call for more code enforcement," Second District Supervisor Estelle Fennel said when asked about how the priorities expressed by her constituents varied from those expressed by residents of other districts. "I don't think that would've been a high priority in Southern Humboldt, for instance. But generally speaking I think the county as a whole is on the same page."
At last week's meeting, Humboldt County unveiled a new video conferencing system that allowed rural residents in each district to make public comments from remote locations, rather than driving to Eureka. The technology features a large-format HDTV fitted with a web-cam and a speakerphone. On screen viewers saw a PowerPoint presentation with live audio, augmented by a picture-in-picture video feed showing other remote locations where Humboldt County residents were listening in.
In Southern Humboldt, the gathering was hosted at the District Office of the Southern Humboldt Unified School District in Miranda. Elsewhere around the county, residents gathered in Ferndale, Blue Lake, Hoopa, and Eureka. Eureka actually hosted two gatherings -- one for members of the public, and another location where Supervisor Virginia Bass and County Administrative Officer Chris Smith Hanes led the presentation.
The new video conferencing system got positive user reviews from people who mentioned it during public comment, in some cases thanking county personnel for easing the geographical barrier to participation. Supervisor Fennel said that Humboldt is the first county in the state of California to use this technology for a countywide meeting.
"The ability to participate without traveling 70 miles one way is a huge issue for Southern Humboldt," said Supervisor Fennel.
Southern Humboldt resident Dottie Russell also praised the use of video conferencing technology.
"This opportunity for all of us to get together is long overdue. The federal government has been doing this for a long time, so I'm glad that Humboldt County has caught up. That's terrific," Russell said.
The county also introduced a new web-based platform for public participation on budgetary and other governmental issues. Open Humboldt's front page currently features a survey asking visitors to rate their top budget priorities for the next fiscal year. Readers with Internet access can find that survey online at http://co.humboldt.ca.us/openhumboldt/.
REDWOOD TIMES PHOTO BY DAVE BROOKSHER
Second District Humboldt County Supervisor Estelle Fennell, left, and Fortuna VFD Chief Lon Winburn, standing, during a meeting with firefighters, concerned citizens and county workers last week in Miranda.