Saturday, December 27, 2014

Riverside County still working on CID grant policies

Five months after agreeing to improve oversight of a Riverside County taxpayer-funded grant program, county supervisors have yet to adopt formal changes.

But supervisors have so far followed through on their stance that the money shouldn't be funneled through the county's Economic Development Agency, where it could be held indefinitely or distributed without public disclosure.

The county's Community Improvement Designation grant program came under fire starting in April when a civil grand jury released a report saying supervisors ignored state law and county policy by using their taxpayer-supported funds to promote themselves or support "pet projects."

Among the grand jury's 15 recommendations was the elimination of the special accounts supervisors held with the EDA.
Supervisors disputed many of the conclusions reached by the grand jurors, but they agreed to make some changes, including the disbanding of those EDA accounts.
An investigation by The Desert Sun found that supervisors used their EDA accounts to varying degrees and Bob Buster had moved nearly $1.2 million into his account while serving as supervisor from from 2006 to 2012.

In late 2012, then-Supervisor Buster, who lost re-election that year, awarded more than $1 million in grants during his final months in office, the investigation found. Much of the money came from his EDA account, which meant Buster didn't have to seek public approval from other board members.

Supervisors, in June of this year, handed out nearly $561,000 in grants during a single meeting and signaled future grant awards would come with more transparency. The funds came from supervisors' Community Improvement Designation programs and the separate, unpublicized accounts with the EDA.
Supervisors then voted in late July to change how the CID program was run and asked county staff to recommend policy changes, including a uniform application and follow-up process.
County spokesman Ray Smith recently told The Desert Sun that the county's executive office was still working to finalize a new CID policy.

"I think a proposed policy will probably come to the Board sometime in January," Smith said. "It follows the kinds of things that board members had talked about and staff had talked about — taking the process as it exists and trying to add more transparency and establish procedures more countywide."

Since the start of the county's fiscal year in July, slightly more than $1 million in grantshas been distributed through the Community Improvement Designation Program, according to information the county executive office provided The Desert Sun. Grants require a public vote of four of the five supervisors to be approved.

The single largest grant was $50,000 arranged through the office of Supervisor John Benoit for FIND Food Bank. The Indio-based nonprofit works to fight hunger in much of the county and was a major beneficiary of the grant program before it came under scrutiny.

FIND Food Bank CEO Lisa Houston said the agency has continued to use the county money to help pay for staff working to secure more funding.

She said she's already noticed the application and reporting process has become more involved.

"This is not just a quick throw it together and send it off," she said.
Houston said many government grants require extensive staff time, which can cut into their potential benefit. So far, that's not the case with the CID funding, she said.

Benoit's office has awarded $285,854 in grants since July 1, the most of the five county supervisors. Benoit lives in Bermuda Dunes, and his district covers the entire Coachella Valley and eastern Riverside County.
The only supervisor who hasn't handed out more than $200,000 was Kevin Jeffries. The west county supervisor has awarded just $45,800 since July. Most grants from his office were for $3,000 or less.
Jeff Greene, Jeffries' chief of staff, said the office has been intentionally stingy in the hopes that leftover money will go toward the district's infrastructure needs.

"We want to make sure that we're able to help the necessary nonprofits now, but whatever is left at the end of the year, we give to transportation and parks and possibly other nonprofits," Greene said.

Michelle DeArmond, Benoit's chief of staff, said the supervisor's office has become more diligent about ensuring reporting changes already made before the grand jury report are followed.
"We upped our checks and balances to ensure every grant — no matter how small — has an application on file and has that six-month follow-up on file," DeArmond said.

Benoit's office has $317,526 available for CID grants this fiscal year, a smaller amount than in past years, DeArmond said.

"The only change is we've had to curtail the sums of some of our regular recipients, and we've had to say no to virtually all new applications," DeArmond said.

In September, supervisors approved a $12,000 grant request from Benoit for the Colorado River Senior Center. The grant jury, in its report, said the senior center's use of past grants for a meal program used by seasonal residents "does not constitute targeting population in the use of county and federal dollars."

DeArmond described the grand jury's criticism as "misplaced," and said the county asked the center to be more clear in its recent application about the how the money is used.

"We have no concerns about them misusing money or there being a lack of need," she said.

December 26, 2014
The Desert Sun

By Barrett Newkirk
Reach Barrett Newkirk at (760)778-4767, or on Twitter @barrettnewkirk.

[Madera County] Grand Jury praises cemetery district

The Madera County grand jury has released its first report of 2014-15, generally praising the staff and operations of the Madera Cemetery District.

After reviewing documents, interviewing employees and board members, and visiting cemetery’s throughout the county, the report, released Dec. 18, praised the district for well maintained and attractive properties, and knowledgeable, professional, and personable employees who are helpful to the public.

Documents examined during the inquiry included prior year audits, annual financial report for 2013-14, 2014-15 budget, policies and procedures manual, employee handbook, and the schedule of fees charged for services.

The district operates on about a $2 million annual budget, which is derived from a combination of property taxes and fees for services. The report said the district is in good fiscal condition with adequate income and reserves.
The district operates five cemeteries in the county including Oakhill in Oakhurst, North Fork, Raymond, and Arbor Vitae and Calvary in Madera. The district performs 450 - 500 burials per year.

The district has 19 full and part-time employees, under the direction of District Manager Belva Bare. Bare has been with the district for nearly 20 years, serving as district manager the past two years.

The grand just report listed the following additional findings:
  • Each cemetery has equipment and tools necessary to provide interments and to maintain the facilities. Shop facilities are neat, and the equipment is well maintained.
  • With one exception at the North Fork Cemetery, appropriate safety equipment and personal protective gear is available at each cemetery.
  • The district is in compliance with the basic requirements of the Brown Act.
  • The capacity of the Hillview Water Company system in Oakhurst impacts the ability of the cemetery to water the cemetery property and to stay within watering restrictions.

Oakhill expansion
The district has planned for future expansion of Oakhill Cemetery acquiring 11 acres adjacent to the cemetery. The district purchased the property for $720,000 from Steve Kuljis, a principal with Sacks, Inc., of Southern California.

In 2006, Bare and the board of trustees began actively looking for additional property in Oakhurst, since it was apparent that it would soon be at capacity. In the 2008-09, the grand jury recommended that the trustees and LAFCO work together with Madera County to expand the Oakhill Cemetery due to inadequate size of the cemetery and the population growth in Oakhurst.

In April of 2010, the Madera Cemetery District purchased 18.96 acres on West Lake Drive, a few miles away from the Oakhill Cemetery, but in 2014, the property adjacent to the cemetery became available. The trustees and Bare began realizing the cost savings to the cemetery district with the adjoing property. The Westlake property would require complete development with all infrastructures. The property adjacent to Oakhill Cemetery would only require development of burial areas.

“The additional 11 acres acquired in Oakhurst has many benefits to the community including adding more than 100 years of additional use to the exiting cemetery,” Bare said. “We are very excited about this purchase and will be setting a master plan for development. It will be additional green space in the middle of town and will reduce the fire hazard in this area.”

Bare said with the purchase of the 11 acres, the cost of operation will be greatly reduced comparing it to developing property in a separate location.

“The development of this property will be developed over time and Oakhurst will be even more proud of its Cemetery on the Hill,” Bare said.

The Oakhill Cemetery was established in 1875. On May 3, 1955, Madera County turned over the cemetery to Madera Cemetery District. Oakhill Cemetery is comprised of seven acres. Oakhill Cemetery is filled with historical information along with special burial locations and is a California Historical Point of Interest, with visitors from all over the world that stop on their way to Yosemite.

The grand jury report concludes with the following recommendations:
  • Install an emergency eyewash and shower at the North Fork Cemetery.
  • When a trustee vacancy occurs, publicly advertise the vacancy and collect applications for the board of supervisors consideration.
  • Scan all paper records so they can be stored electronically.
  • Install computers at each cemetery (except Raymond) so that all burial records can be stored electronically and searched from any cemetery.
  • Investigate the feasibility of constructing a well at the Oakhill Cemetery in conjunction with developing the newly acquired land adjacent to the cemetery.
  • Continue the practices that have made the Madera Cemetery District an efficient provider of interment services for residents of the district.

The district is governed by a five member Board of Trustees appointed by the Madera County Board of Supervisors for four year terms. Current members are retired school administrator Chairperson Candy Talley of Madera, Oakhurst financial advisor David Nemeth of Oakhurst, North Fork retired business owner Lois Betty, retired Madera businessman Maurice Cappelluti, and retired Madera school administrator Jim Harper.

The district’s mission statement is: To manage the Madera Cemetery District, by providing a wide range of burial options, to handle services in a caring, compassionate manner with the intent to maintain, improve and historically preserve the grounds for the benefit of Madera County residents and their families.

The grand jury acknowledged the time and courtesy of district employees in assisting with the inquiry.

December 24, 2014
Sierra Star

By Brian Wilkinson

Applications Now Being Accepted for the 2015-2016 San Bernardino County Civil Grand Jury

December 23, 2014
Highland Community News

Volunteers for the 2015-2016 San Bernardino County Civil Grand Jury are now being requested, announced Marsha G. Slough, Presiding Judge of the Superior Court. The recruiting period is open for those citizens interested in serving. Successful applicants will serve as civil Grand Jurors for the period beginning July 1, 2015 and ending June 30, 2016.
To be eligible for selection a person must be at least 18 years of age, a citizen of the United States, and a resident of California and the County of San Bernardino for at least one year prior to appointment. Potential civil Grand Jurors are also required to possess sufficient knowledge of the English language, be in possession of their natural faculties, of ordinary intelligence, of sound judgment and of good character. By law, elected public officials are not eligible.
Service as a civil Grand Juror involves an average of three to five full working days per week. Compensation is $25 per day plus meals and appropriate mileage. The regular civil Grand Jury meeting place is located downtown San Bernardino.
The civil Grand Jury is charged by the California Penal Code to investigate all aspects of county, city and special district government, and possibly hear information on certain criminal investigations. All communications to the civil Grand Jury are confidential and the civil Grand Jury responds to all signed citizen complaints.
Interested applicants can complete the application on-line at the Civil Grand Jury’s website at Applications can also be obtained by calling (909) 387-3820, or can be picked up in person at the San Bernardino Historic Courthouse, 351 North Arrowhead Avenue, Room 200, San Bernardino, CA 92415, or request an application in writing at the same address. Applications may also be available at the various district court offices throughout the County.
Applications will be accepted through March 2, 2015.