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Conservation Budget Comes Under Scrutiny By Supervisors

By Staff | Feb 12, 2009

Saying the actions of the Palo Alto County Conservation Board were a “slap in the face to the taxpayers of the county,” the Palo Alto County Board of Supervisors expressed their displeasure with the Executive Director of the County Conservation Board during a session Tuesday, Feb. 10. Questions about the Conservation budget were also addressed during the session, held at the Supervisor’s weekly meeting in the Palo Alto County Courthouse.

Supervisor Chairman Ed Noonan presented Conservation Board Executive Director Steve Pitt with a letter listing his concerns to open the budget review, and asked Palo Alto County Auditor Gary Leonard to read the minutes of the Conservation Board’s Feb. 5 meeting into the Supervisors’ minutes.

In the Conservation Board’s minutes, it was moved by board member Don Hagen and seconded by board member Gary Hughes to award a salary increase of 1.5 percent to all full-time employees of the Conservation Board, except for the director (Steve Pitt) and grant a raise of 2.8 percent for all part-time employees. The minutes also reflected that the Director’s hours would be reduced to 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, with a half-hour break in the morning and a one-hour noon break each day, along with compensatory time for all overtime worked by the Director. A budgeted raise of 1.5 percent was also referred to in the minutes for the director.

“The Feb. 5 minutes have inspired the board to take a closer look at the size of the budget paid with county tax dollars and how such funds are being allocated,” Noonan said in his letter to Pitt, which he read to the board and Pitt. “In my opinion, these minutes are a slap in the face to the taxpayers of this county and all the county government workers who took a freeze or accepted this board’s judgment on wages. It is this board’s responsibility to ensure that all departments spend taxpayer money in a transparent and efficient manner. The answer that ‘it’s always been done that way’ is not acceptable.”

Noonan’s letter continued, “Conservation may well be the best-run department we have, but from where I sit the information to make that determination is not available. The complaints from taxpayers regarding the Conservation department and the way my representative was chosen makes this situation eerily reminiscent of Chicago-style politics.”

Noonan went on to offer suggestions to “clean and clear the air”, such as turning time sheets into the county Auditors’ office, log books on mileage and fuel used, standardized county policy regarding vacation and compensatory time, maintaining the same raise standards as the rest of the county without creative accounting and having information available to taxpayers.

“Conservation has their own board, so the Board of Supervisors cannot tell conservation how to run their department,” Noonan stated. “However, we can decide if the conservation department is using accepted county practices that are transparent and efficient enough to warrant spending $390,000 hard-earned taxpayers’ dollars. At this time, I recommend this board cut the conservation budget to an amount required by law until the conservation department understands who they work for, ‘the taxpayers.”

Supervisor Keith Wirtz pointed out the supervisors had to make a hard choice to freeze salaries, and that a lot of residents had told him they understood the move. “Our board asked people to take these freezes in good faith. But to me, I compare this to Citibank and Wells Fargo. Your board said ‘we’re going to abide by this but we’re still going to do this.”

Attention turned to the budget, and once again, Pitt and the supervisors disagreed over dollar amounts. Pitt contended his budget was just $45 above last year’s figure, but the supervisors begged to differ.

“This shows an increase of $124,424,” Noonan said. “That’s in grant funds,” Pitt responded. “Our budget is only $45 over last year from taxes.”

“So that’s OK?” Noonan asked. “Where do grants come from? They come from taxes paid by people.”

“Our grants come from the Marine fuel tax fund, REAP and gambling funds,” Pitt replied.

“Those aren’t taxes?” Noonan countered.

“No,” Pitt answered. “This isn’t Steve Pitt’s budget. If we weren’t successful with grants, we wouldn’t have that amount in there.”

The conversation continued, as Wirtz again commented that the supervisors tried to make a statement with the wage freeze, but the conservation board still went ahead and granted a raise. “That’s the slap in the face to us,” Wirtz emphasized.

“We’ve taken it in the shorts year after year,” Pitt replied. “I don’t think we did anything excessive.”

“It looks to me like somebody likes to mess with figures in the letter,” commented Hofstad.

“This did look like a slap in the face,” Wirtz said again.

“Why don’t you just led the Compensation Board do its job instead of changing things,” Pitt suggested.

“Well, if you can do all this salary and such out of your budget, it looks to me like you have too much money in your budget, a little too much padding,” observed Supervisor Ron Graettinger.

“None of this was meant as a slap in the face,” Pitt stated. “The conservation board feels they’re doing the best they can. Why don’t you just let them do that?”