Monday, June 4, 2012

(NAPA) Grand jury blasts use of flood money for Calistoga projects

BY SEAN SCULLY - The Weekly Calistogan

County officials should not have allowed the city of Calistoga to spend more than $4 million on various water projects using money collected under a special sales tax designated for flood control and environmental restoration, the county grand jury said in a report released Thursday.

“It is difficult to conceive how inappropriate expenditures of this magnitude could have occurred,” the report says (A PDF copy of the report is available here).

Specifically, the grand jurors said that the city should not have spent $2.7 million of the tax money to help fund a new 1.5 million-gallon water tank on Mount Washington, more than $1 million to reimburse the developers of the Solage resort for various water and sewer improvements, and about $700,000 to pay lawyers to fight a series of lawsuits related to the water tank and the management of water contained behind the Kimball Dam.

The money was collected under a 1998 Napa County ballot initiative, known as Measure A, which imposed a half-cent sales tax through 2018 primarily to fund the extensive flood control work on the Napa River through the city of Napa. As an inducement to other parts of the county to support the measure, some of the money was to be shared with Calistoga, St. Helena, and other parts of the county.

More than $100 million has been collected by the tax so far. That money is parceled out by the Napa County Flood Protection and Water Improvement Authority, which is headed by the members of the Napa County Board of Supervisors.

“The Grand Jury does not find that these projects (in Calistoga) were unnecessary,” the report says. “What the Grand Jury does find is that however meritorious the projects are, they do not meet the Measure A criteria and it is clearly improper to employ funds that the voters specifically designated for other purposes.”

City and county officials were quick to dismiss the report, saying they would be offering detailed rebuttals after studying the report more closely.

“Certain areas of it the Board of Supervisors disagrees with, or at least I disagree with,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Keith Caldwell, “or we would never have approved the expenditures in the first place.”

Calistoga Public Works Director Dan Takasugi said the report was based on “a lot of errant assumptions.” He said the grand jurors disregarded many of the arguments the city presented in its testimony over nearly a year that the panel was investigating the expenditures.

“I think they could have done a little more homework before reporting some of their findings,” he said.

The grand jury investigation stems from a series of lawsuits against Calistoga by San Diego resident Grant Reynolds, who originally sued the city on behalf of family friends Matt Hickerson and Debbie O'Gorman. They claimed that the city owed them discounted water under a 1939 agreement with O'Gorman's family that allowed for the construction of the Kimball Dam, Calistoga’s main source of water.

A judge later dismissed that complaint, saying the agreement has expired, but not before Reynolds had expanded the lawsuit to say that the city had been drawing more water from the reservoir than permitted by the state and demanding that it release more water downstream to restore breeding habitat for steelhead trout and salmon in the Napa River.

The City Council did eventually agree to release more water from behind the dam, leading the court to dismiss Reynolds' lawsuit.

Reynolds came back with a new lawsuit saying that the city had misused Measure A funds in building the new water tank, a fact he said he discovered during his research for his earlier suits.

That lawsuit was dismissed earlier this year, but Reynolds is appealing all the cases. The city says it has spent more than $1 million in defending against Reynolds' claims, which it partly defrayed with Measure A money.

Reynolds said Thursday that he had not seen the grand jury report, but he said the city's efforts to use Measure A money were “illegal” and he repeated his frequent call for city officials to face criminal prosecution.

Despite criticizing the use of Measure A money for the Calistoga projects, however, the grand jury report does not place the blame on Calistoga officials, saying that members were “not without sympathy for the efforts of Calistoga authorities to seek funding from whatever source they deem potentially available.”

The report does not call for the city to repay all of the money, nor does it call for sanctions against any city officials. Instead, it simply calls for any money remaining unspent to be returned to the county.

Takasugi said there is only around $500,000 remaining unspent.

Mayor Jack Gingles said the city has no intention of returning even that small amount.

“We're not going to return anything … we cleared this through the city attorney; we cleared this through the county,” he said. “We jumped through the hoops; we've done what we were requested to do.”

Indeed, the harshest criticism in the report was reserved for the process of reviewing Measure A funding requests at the county level. Grand jurors said that the process, which was not clearly spelled out in the language of the original ordinance, is convoluted and lacks a central authority which could assess the legality of any given project.

Both the county counsel and public works director have a role in the process, but neither is given unequivocal authority to certify that a project is legally entitled to use Measure A money.

County Counsel Robert Westmeyer did not return a phone call, and interim Public Works Director Steve Lederer declined to comment, saying the county's comprehensive rebuttal would represent his position.

The report also says that the one body that might reasonably fill the supervisory role, a financial oversight committee created by the ordinance, has show little initiative in scrutinizing the applications. Moreover, the 17-seat body is chronically short of members. It currently has only nine, just enough to constitute a quorum, though the county is advertising for additional members.

The report recommends an overhaul of the supervisory system, giving the financial oversight committee clear direction to review projects and requiring that the county counsel certify that every project meets the requirements of the ordinance.

The grand jury report is not legally binding, and neither the city nor county has released a detailed response, so it is not clear whether any of the report's recommendations might be implemented.

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