Early on in Mono County Finance Director Janet Dutcher’s FY2020-2021 budget presentation during Tuesday’s Mono County Board of Supervisors meeting, she put an ominous slide on the screen. In large bold letters at the top, it stated: “It is imperative that Mono County adopt a structurally balanced General Fund Budget,” and below in red: “The fiscal modeling we present today predicts the General Fund carryover is ZERO by June 30, 2021. Future budget deficits, if they continue, must be financed from economic stabilization and general reserve balances, and other sources.”
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the county had planned to cut deficits by approximately half in the FY 2020-2021 budget, from $3 million to around $1.2 million. The economic downturn resulting from the pandemic created resource losses for the county to the tune of $1.23 million.
At the beginning of FY 2019-2020, the county’s general fund contained $6.48 million. Approximately $2.14 million of those funds are not available for spending by the county, as that amount has been previously earmarked for line items such as advances to the Solid Waste Fund, Community Development Block Grants and the new Jail Project. The combined deficit from the FY 2019-2020 budget, $1,919,000, and the projected $2,424,000 deficit for FY 2021-2021 will leave the General Fund carryover at a fat zero if changes aren’t made.
That doesn’t mean the county is entirely out of money. By June 30, 2021, Dutcher estimated that, between funds in the General Reserve (restricted to certain emergencies) and Economic Stabilization Fund (no-strings-attached funding), the county will have $5,375,000 in reserves remaining.
But the era of deficit budgeting in the hopes the revenue numbers will come in above estimate appaers to be over.
The number of moving parts that comprise the county’s budget are too numerous to name but Dutcher highlighted a few to underscore changes in spending down the line as well as large expenditures that are creating issues.
For one, the completion and opening of the new Civic Center allows for gradually reduced spending as the county pays off the charges and costs related to the project. That money had previously been spent on rent and an x-factor known as “Common Area Maintenance” or CAM. CAM charges are unaccounted for in the budget because the county simply didn’t know how much they would amount to. Dutcher related the story of the county attempting to negotiate the cost of an elevator replacement to underscore how tricky CAM costs, and landlord negotiations, can be.
The county’s payment to the California Public Employee Retirement System (CALPERS) increased by $438,730 for FY 2020-2021, an 11.2% increase from the previous fiscal year. Some of that will be offset by savings of around $300,000 from incentivizing lower cost healthcare plans for employees
Not to mention shuttering the local economy in response to Covid-19. “How many of us could have seen the economic fallout that we’re now seeing?” Dutcher asked the supervisors.
The afternoon session consisted of the familiar Covid-19 update and discussion, opening with CAO Bob Lawton announcing a new plan to begin the process of reopening lodging throughout the county and in the Town of Mammoth Lakes. This came after direction from the state that counties that had been granted a variance would be eligible to proceed with reopening at a different pace from the rest of the state so long as the state has issued guidance on the sectors being reopened.
Prior to Lawton’s presentation and board deliberation, Supervisor John Peters read a statement announcing that he would be recusing himself from any decisions related to lodging in the Mono County; Peters’ family has owned and operated the Bridgeport Inn for the last 21 years. Peters had been a staunch advocate for reopening the county as soon as possible and his recusal creates the very real possibility of split decisions on lodging votes.
After Peters bowed out, Lawton outlined three options for the remaining supervisors to consider: A. stay with the state’s reopening plan, B. submit a locally determined plan for reopening short term lodging, or C. Relinquish any effort or control to regulate reopening.
Option B allows for unincorporated Mono County to begin opening lodging to guests on June 12, with a mandatory 24-hour gap between guests in rooms and no outbound marketing on the part of the lodging operator. Mammoth Lakes would begin the same process of reopening on June 19th.
Lawton noted that 20% of lodging rooms in the county are in unincorporated Mono County, allowing officials and the EOC to see the impacts of reopening on a smaller scale before reopening Mammoth.
Both the county and Mammoth Hospital have released trigger points for scaling back the expanded reopenings, which include the number of cases exceeding local capacity to handle the spread and a sustained increase in cases over a two week period.
Public comment consisted of many local lodging operators expressing their concerns that the June 12/19th opening dates, coupled with the mandatory 24-hour period between guest stays, would severely handicap the businesses’ ability to turn any sort of profit.
Ralph Lockhart at the Double Eagle Lodge in June Lake told the Supervisors, that “every day we [Mono County] remain closed costs us at least 1 million dollars [in economic activity].” Lockhart also inquired about the “no outward marketing” aspect of the plan, asking whether he would have to take down websites and social media posts in order to comply.
The matter of opening campgrounds on public lands came up towards the end of the meeting, once Supervisor Peters was readmitted. Peters explained that an endorsement from the health officer and EOC would be sufficient to reopen public campgrounds, referencing a statement from Jan Cutts, Bridgeport district ranger for the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, that they are ready to go as soon as they get the word.
Not so fast, according to Lawton, explaining that the Public Health Officer’s authorization has to be approved by the state and that approval is contingent upon the state’s guidelines.