Tuesday, June 28, 2016

[Butte County] Editorial: Grand Jury report has no stunning revelations

The Butte County Grand Jury report released Friday is not exactly required summer reading — and that’s a shame.
A grand jury can be the second-most effective local government watchdog there is. The most effective, of course, is a politician, who can work from the inside to practice transparency and keep the public enlightened, but nearly all candidates forget the importance of their watchdog role the moment they get into office.
That leaves the grand jury, reporters and inquisitive citizens as watchdogs. Grand jurors are a panel of 19 volunteer citizens who spend a year investigating local governments. They have something reporters and other watchdog citizens lack, and that’s subpoena power.
We’ve seen many grand juries over the years conduct important and meaningful investigations that bring needed change.
This year’s Butte County Grand Jury report, though, is thin and fairly tame.
While other county grand juries were making big news this week with interesting investigations — like the Vallejo Times-Herald headline that said “Grand jury unleashes scathing report on safety of Vallejo’s high schools” — Butte County had a mere seven reports. There were no blockbusters. The Grand Jury studied animal shelters, the jail, trash facilities and homelessness.
Meanwhile, the Grand Jury left cities, schools and special districts largely untouched, even though in our estimation there’s much to investigate.
Maybe the Grand Jury didn’t receive good requests from citizens about what should be investigated. If that’s the case, we remind citizens they can file a confidential complaint form with the Grand Jury online through the www.buttecounty.net website.
One investigation stemmed from a citizen complaint. That was about the Butte Water District in the south county. The complaint questioned why the district was updating its office, which was built more than 100 years ago, and maintained that some landowners in the 555-customer district were receiving more water than they were allowed. The Grand Jury found no wrongdoing.
The most important investigation, in our view, was about unfunded pension liabilities in the county and five cities. The Grand Jury said those local governments have about $275 million in unfunded liabilities. We think it’s a ticking time bomb. Others, usually those in the government realm, say the threat is overblown.
“The Grand Jury does not take a position on these issues,” the report says. “Reconciling those opinions is beyond the scope of the report.”
The Grand Jury says its goal was just to inform citizens of the numbers, which it dutifully does. But recommendations for government to increase payments to pay off those liabilities would be helpful.
The Grand Jury’s meatiest investigation was about the complex problem of homelessness. If citizens read only one part of the Grand Jury report, we recommend that one. It’s enlightening — for example, this paragraph:
“Given best estimates, Butte County spent approximately $11,804,000 last year addressing the homeless population. Of this, about $11 million is from federal and state sources ... Law enforcement spends a minimum of about $750,000 responding to calls concerning the homeless/transient population. Despite this, the county still has over 1,000 homeless people in its midst.”
Unfortunately, it’s an issue with no simple answers. The Grand Jury says “local efforts ... could be enhanced and better coordinated.” In particular, the Grand Jury says there should be a countywide plan and a day center for the homeless to augment nighttime shelters.
Lastly, the Grand Jury studied the compensation of county employees. It urged supervisors to find ways to increase salaries and decrease health care costs for employees. In that report, the Grand Jury made probably its most controversial recommendation in all the 57 pages — to “continue to explore less expensive alternatives” than contracting with Cal Fire for firefighting.
In all, though, the Grand Jury report was devoid of controversy. There’s always next year.
June 25, 2016
Oroville Mercury Register

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