Monday, August 1, 2016

[Merced County] Grand jury report criticizes transparency of discretionary funds

The Merced County civil grand jury has recommended major reforms for the process the Board of Supervisors uses to allocate discretionary funds.
The grand jury noted in its report, issued last week, that its investigation focused on transparency and accountability of the funding process, not how the money is allocated.
Supervisors receive $40,000 of public money every year to spend on community projects or programs, or to help nonprofits. If the money is not used up in one year, the balance rolls over to the next year. The board must approve spending of discretionary funding, but individual supervisors choose what projects to put up to a vote, authorities have said.
The report said many citizens believed that supervisors use discretionary funding to beef up their political profile.
“These funds are from taxpayer dollars,” the report says. “Yet when disbursed, it appears to some that Merced County taxpayers are not acknowledged. The perception is that the supervisor is the one credited with having bestowed the funds on the group.”
The report questioned why a form to request the funding, or any information on the funding, was not readily available on the county website. It also noted there’s no follow-up process after funds are allocated or a policy to verify a nonprofit’s status.
“In the 2014-15 term, many requests approved by the Board of Supervisors for funding lacked any kind of documentation, not even a note how the request was received by the supervisor,” the report said.
The grand jury made seven recommendations to remedy seven findings.
The recommendations: written policies and procedures be established; the request form for special board project funds be used for all requests; a follow-up process be established to ensure funds are used for the purpose requested; all requests on the board’s agenda should have attached supporting documents regarding bids and cost estimates; information on discretionary funds and how to request them be available on the county’s website; have signatures from county departments on agenda items requesting the funds; and the process to grant funds should verify an organization’s nonprofit status.
Hub Walsh, chairman of the board, said he’s generally supportive of processes such as the ones recommended. Though he wasn’t aware of any formal discussion scheduled for the board to discuss the recommendations, he said it could easily be done during the county’s final budget hearings in September.
Before the June election in which three supervisor seats were put to a vote, discretionary funding was a topic of debate for candidates. While incumbents stood behind their use of discretionary funds saying the money helped improve the community, challengers called the money “slush funds” and vowed to do away with the practice.
Rodrigo Espinoza, Livingston’s mayor, who beat incumbent supervisor John Pedrozo in District 1 in the June election, said despite the grand jury’s recommendations, he’d still vote to do away with the funds. Plus, he said he plans to give his $40,000 to public safety since the Sheriff’s Office remains understaffed.
“It’s still a bad idea as long as there’s a need in public safety,” Espinoza said. “That’s still a priority.”
Daron McDaniel, District 3 supervisor, said he smiled and shook his head when he saw the grand jury’s recommendations. The recommendations align with a proposal he made to the board last summer.
McDaniel, in July 2015, proposed supervisors use a form before granting discretionary dollars. The form would have fulfilled many of the grand jury’s recommendations. But supervisors had mixed feelings about the form and ultimately didn’t vote to make it mandatory.
“A lot of the points made were ones I made on the dais,” McDaniel said. “I wanted accountability. That’s the whole issue.”
McDaniel said he was disappointed the board didn’t vote to make his contract mandatory, but it was a step in the right direction.
“I’m excited to see I’m not the only one out there who thinks this,” he said.
McDaniel typically abstains from voting on most discretionary funding projects. He’s used his own discretionary funds three times: to fix a leaky building used by veterans, to replace an aging wall at a county fire station and for graffiti abatement, for a total spending of $18,450.
July 24, 2016
Merced Sun-Star
By Brianna Calix

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