Harbor district passes high-deficit budget as public vents about transparency concerns

Budget puts district in the red more than $771K

The Harbor District commissioners listened on as speakers criticized the district’s scheduling of a special meeting to finalize its budget. (Shomik Mukherjee — The Times-Standard)
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The most prominent concern among the public at the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District’s special meeting today was not so much the district’s striking year-end debt and deficit projections, but rather that the district had scheduled a special meeting — not a regular meeting — to finalize its budget, and had posted the agenda just over 24 hours before the meeting began.

“I want to encourage you to not vote on the budget today,” said Vivian Helliwell, a director at the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “The turnout indicates … that the public is interested in the budget.”

Close to two dozen people did attend the Harbor District’s meeting, where the commissioners voted 3-1 to cancel its upcoming July 25 regular meeting and voted unanimously to finalize its budget for the next fiscal year. Commissioner Greg Dale cited several commissioners’ unavailability as cause to cancel the next regular meeting.

The budget projects the district will operate at a deficit of more than $771,000 over the next fiscal year. It also owes debt payments of around the same amount — more than $771,000 — including over $200,000 in loan payments it owes Coast Seafood.

The district plans to cap its dredging expenses at $670,000, though members of the public pointed out that past annual dredging costs have wound up being far higher. But the high costs can be overcome with more responsible practices in depositing sediment, Commissioner Patrick Higgins offered.

Dale and other commissioners expressed openness to amending the budget via a budget committee for the next time around. Despite the bleak outlook of the projections, commissioners said they were hopeful for the future.

“I’m extremely cautiously optimistic about having an improved budget system,” Higgins said. “We’ve got to have change fundamentally for us to be fiscally sound. We’ll get there.”

Kent Sawatzky, a longtime civic advocate, said the district’s budget was not sufficiently thorough in its itemization. He needled the commissioners for what he described as a hasty meeting setup, noting that Dale had apparently not known of the meeting date when Sawatzky spoke to him earlier in the week.

Commissioner Richard Marks similarly didn’t know a meeting was scheduled, he told the Times-Standard on Wednesday. Marks was not in attendance at the special meeting, having traveled to Sacramento for work.

“I will strive, as a chair, not to have special meetings with 24-hour notice,” Commissioner Greg Dale told the public. “I won’t promise that it won’t happen, but that’s why you have the ability to have a special meeting.”

Joan Romo, a Humboldt County resident, complained that the district has no “consistency” in planning crucial meetings, a process she said hurts the district’s transparency. A previous meeting schedule had indicated that the district would next address the budget at its July 25 regular meeting, which the commissioners have now canceled.

“How can we trust the validity of what you say, what you put on paper and what happens?” Romo asked. “That’s my frustration. It changes so quickly … This is getting ridiculous, as far as communication!”

More speakers who took the podium criticized the district’s scheduling of a special meeting. Dennis Mayo, a board member on the McKinleyville Community Services District, summarized the general sentiment.

“I think it’d be prudent to consider (putting) this vote off,” Mayo said. “Perhaps hold a workshop if you could.”

Speaker Scott Frazer put it more bluntly: The public had 25 hours to absorb the district’s budget, he said, a “specific, tangible” example of “discouraging public participation.”

“You have succeeded in confirming the bad impressions that some members of the public have in terms of how you function and the actions that you choose to take,” Frazer said.

Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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