Despite dealing with an $18.4 million budget deficit in the current fiscal year, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday granted an exception to an ongoing countywide hiring freeze to allow the Sheriff’s Office to attempt to recruit up to 25 new hires for the woefully understaffed department.
Sheriff Billy Honsal personally pleaded with the board to grant the exception, telling them that the requested deputies, officers and dispatchers are “vital to our public safety.”
The request had been placed on the consent portion of Tuesday meeting’s agenda, meaning it was set to be approved among a list of various other matters without specific deliberation, but Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone pulled it for discussion.
“All the departments have really pulled together to try and cut costs wherever they can, and we – I – would appreciate the sheriff’s department doing the same,” Madrone said. “I know it’s difficult, but given our current budget crisis, I think we need to hold our ground on the hiring freeze.”
Fourth District Supervisor Natalie Arroyo also expressed concern about the sheriff’s request, which was to unfreeze 35 vacant positions that had been unfunded as part of the county’s effort to close its budget gap.
Arroyo said it would be difficult to consider approving 35 new hires all at once.
“I’m definitely open to discussing the positions and hearing more about it,” she said. “It just, it’s definitely not something I was comfortable with seeing just on consent without some discussion.”
A staff report said the sheriff’s office “has done all it can to absorb the workload of 35 unfunded positions. Any further reductions to staffing will result in closing outstations and programs.”
Seated before the board, Honsal reiterated that argument and said it would be difficult to recruit potential employees if he had to go to the board for approval each time. The recruitment process takes four to five months to complete, he said, adding that the sheriff’s department has “continuously been the team players in the room when it comes to taking cuts” and now the office has “zero fat.”
“We’ve already done our part,” Honsal said. “We’re trying to be very transparent with you all and the public, saying we can’t cut any more without cutting services.”
Honsal also said turnover is high, particularly among correctional officers working in the county jail, where there are currently 29 vacancies, according to Capt. Duane Christian.
“We are experiencing burnout at an astronomical rate that people are quitting,” Honsal said. “We had someone last week say, ‘I’m gonna go drive a logging truck because it’s more stable.’”
Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson suggested “bifurcating” the Sheriff’s Office’s request and only unfreezing positions that are “already in the hopper,” referring to active recruits.
First District Supervisor Rex Bohn and Fifth District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell voiced support for Honsal’s request, and Bushnell made a motion to approve it.
Wilson pushed back against the motion on process grounds, arguing that considering a hiring request for one department in isolation “plays havoc between our departments and within our budgeting process.” The county’s budgeting process for the next fiscal year will be before the board in a matter of months.
The board negotiated with Honsal toward finding a middle ground, with Arroyo asking Bushnell if she’d consider lowering the number of positions to unfreeze to 25. Bushnell was reluctant but said she’d make that compromise if that’s what it took to get her motion passed.
Bohn said he wanted to hold firm at 35, in part because of the unlikelihood that the Sheriff’s Office would be able to fill all those positions with departments in other areas offering higher salaries and signing bonuses of $50,000 or more.
Bushnell wound up dropping her request to 25, and the motion passed by a vote of 4-1, with Madrone dissenting.
State and federal legislative platforms
Once a year, the Board of Supervisors updates its legislative platforms, which amount to a list of priorities and requests of state and federal lawmakers.
Appearing via Zoom, Karen Lange, a lobbyist and partner in the Sacramento-based public affairs and advocacy firm of Shaw Yoder Antwih Schmelzer & Lange, offered an overview of the state budget landscape, emphasizing the importance of defending against potential state budget cuts, particularly with the new leadership’s sensitivity to challenges facing rural counties, such as road maintenance.
“Senator [Mike] McGuire is about to become the pro tem of the Senate,” Lange noted. “He will be sworn in on Monday, and so you will have the Senate leader as one of your legislators. And then on the Assembly side, Dr. [Jim] Wood, while he is not running for re-election in his final year, he’s serving as the assistant majority leader, which is the third highest post in the Assembly.”
Those leadership positions could help Humboldt County have a louder voice at the state level, Lange said.
The county’s priorities include funding requests for offshore wind development, housing and roads, and there is also concern about AT&T’s recent request to discontinue landline service.
At the federal level, partners with the lobbying firm Paragon Government Relations addressed a number of issues, including the fact that the 2022 earthquake that caused extensive damage to Rio Dell nonetheless failed to reach FEMA’s threshold for a disaster declaration.
Joe Krahn, a lobbyist with Paragon, said FEMA needs to reevaluate the way it determines that threshold because the current system disadvantages small and rural communities.
The federal lobbyists also noted that the Drug Enforcement Agency may soon decide whether to reschedule cannabis as a Schedule III substance, saying it’s still important for the county to push for reforms, including passage of the Safe Banking Act, which would provides protections for federally regulated financial institutions that serve cannabis businesses.
Short-term rental ordinance
Later in the meeting, the board considered approving the short-term rental ordinance draft that the Planning Commission passed unanimously at the end of November following months of deliberations. However, despite discussing the particulars for two and a half hours, the board wound up punting a decision on the matter to its March 5 meeting.
The ordinance, once passed, would establish a set of rules for local residents who operate vacation rental properties through companies such as Airbnb and Vacasa. With the ordinance, the county is hoping to address concerns about neighborhood disruption and the loss of housing stock from conversion of homes to rental properties.
Humboldt County currently has somewhere between 600 and 800 short-term rentals (STRs), which is equivalent to three to five years’ worth of housing production in the county’s unincorporated areas, according to county staff.
The proposed ordinance would allow STRs with a $135 administrative permit, so long as the owners follow the rules and comply with operations standards. It would also establish a cap on the total number of STRs at no more than two percent of the total units in the Greater Humboldt Area Plan and no more than five percent of the housing stock in any specific community plan area. The permits would be good for two years.
“There are operations standards relative to the occupancy, noise, lighting and parking as well as the inclusion of a good neighbor guide” that highlights emergency evacuation routes, public safety information and traffic etiquette, County Planner Cade McNamara explained.
During the Planning Commission’s deliberations, transferability was “a very hot topic,” as McNamara put it, with the question being whether or not one property owner could bequeath their rental to a subsequent owner. The current draft of the ordinance prohibits this.
Some residents of the Big Lagoon community have urged the board to apply a cap to their neighborhood so that the Big Lagoon Estates, a housing development slated for construction, can’t be entirely converted to STRs.
Less than a dozen members of the public offered comments on the proposed regulations, with some advocating for more stringent rules while others warned against over-regulating a popular option for tourists. During the ensuing conversation among the board, Bohn said the relatively low number of public speakers suggests that people must feel satisfied by the work of the Planning Commission.
During board deliberations, Bohn asked Planning and Building Director John Ford why the draft ordinance doesn’t allow an STR to be transferred to an heir upon the owner’s death. Ford said it’s a “policy decision” within the board’s purview, but the Planning Commission didn’t feel comfortable wading into those waters.
Madrone said STRs are “absolutely a piece of our tourism economy” as more and more people choose them over hotels. But he said restrictions are needed, and he advocated for both Big Lagoon and Willow Creek to be included in the regions that have a cap on STRs.
Wilson questioned some of the rules relating to STRs in “resource zones” such as lands zoned for agricultural exclusive or timber production zones, asking whether STRs should be allowed in structures that are ancillary to the resource value — an apartment separate from a farm house, for example. He voiced concern about “the domino effect” of principally permitting residential uses on resource lands.
The board’s conversation ping-ponged from one section of the draft ordinance to another, and as the afternoon wore on, things got a bit testy. Wilson said there were just a few outstanding matters he’d like to address, but he wanted to take a break.
“I’m just, so … we’ve been doing this meeting since 9 a.m.,” he said. “We’ve had two 10-minute breaks, so I’m just – I can’t even remember what I’ve talked about now, at this moment.”
Bohn lightly mocked Wilson for complaining about seven hours of deliberation, and Wilson got defensive, saying, “I know Supervisor Bohn doesn’t think there’s any intellectual energy expended [in] doing this, but there is.”
“Maybe I don’t have any to expend,” Bohn quipped. Later he remarked that maybe he doesn’t have enough education to get tired, adding, “No, I’m just used to working long hours.”
The board discussed postponing the hearing until February, but Wilson had a potential conflict with an upcoming meeting of the California Coastal Commission, so they wound up picking March 5. The vote to postpone the matter until then was unanimous.
Potter Valley Project
Before calling it a day (shortly after 5 p.m.), the board received an update on the Potter Valley Hydroelectric Project and the inactive Eel-Russian River Commission.
PG&E last year announced that it plans to decommission and remove two dams on the Eel River and negotiate a new diversion from the Eel to the Russian River.
Staff recommended that the board form a two-member “Eel-Russian River ad hoc committee.” Hank Seemann, deputy director of public works, noted that water users in Sonoma and Mendocino counties hope to continue water diversions from the Eel to the Russian during winter months, but Humboldt County isn’t onboard.
“Our preferred position is that Eel River water should stay in the Eel River watershed,” Seemann said.
Wilson made a motion to appoint himself and Bushnell to the proposed ad hoc committee, citing his experience on the California Coastal Commission.
Bohn took another swipe at Wilson saying, “Well, golly shucks, I’ve got a lot [of the Eel] running through my district but I’m not that smart. So, OK.”
Arroyo said each and every county supervisor probably has a compelling reason to be on the committee. Wilson thanked Bohn for helping to negotiate a position statement and said he thinks all five members of the board are on the same page.
The motion to appoint Wilson and Bushnell to the committee passed 4-1, with Madrone again casting the lone dissenting vote.