Grand jury report
No shortage of shortfalls
Butte County public employees may buckle soon under the weight of heavy workloads and underfunding. That was the prevailing theme of the county grand jury report released Tuesday (June 26), when the 2006-07 panel gave way to a new group of citizen investigators.
County libraries and the Oroville Police Department drew particular attention, but the grand jury also mentioned the Feather River Recreation and Park District as an agency that’s spread too thin. The county Assessor’s Office will lose a significant number of employees over the next few years, and Human Resources is understaffed yet crowded.
Grand jurors criticized the planning process in Chico, lamented the continued poor condition of the county women’s jail and dinged the district attorney over a domestic-violence diversion program. They also revisited Chico’s City Plaza project and the Humboldt Wagon Road.
Here are some of the major findings in the 206-page report:
The panel clearly sympathized with law enforcement officers in the county seat. Every Oroville Police Department employee interviewed by the grand jury was working more than 50 hours a week—a disconcerting fact for the city that has the highest crime rate in the county.
The 26 officers handled 4,300 reports last year, and the jurors concluded understaffing “limits OPD’s ability to thoroughly investigate every case. The DA often rejects reports for insufficient information, resulting in a low prosecution rate.”
Shorthandedness also produces frequent stress-related burnout, the report states, causing officers to take medical leaves or early retirements. This in turn creates more of a financial burden on the city, as well as leaving Oroville without experienced officers.
The grand jury also decried the state of police headquarters, calling the building “cramped,” “outdated” and in need of “an overall remodel.” The report-writing room has holes in the floor, an exterior sign is dilapidated, and lobby staff members are protected only by a sheet of Plexiglas. The report says money was appropriated for the project, yet no action has been taken to remedy the conditions.
“OPD needs an in-depth overhaul,” Police Chief Mitchel J. Brown is quoted as saying in the report.
Just as serious is the assessment for the county library system, which the grand jury says is operating “in survival mode.” Butte County ranks in the 16th percentile of California library systems, based on population and per-capita spending.
While community patronage is on the rise, all six facilities are too small, some have outdated technology, and some are in poor condition. At the Biggs library, for instance, grand jurors found no functioning restroom. The library system has just 32 employees and a total budget of $2.6 million, reliant on county tax money.
Fundraising efforts by staff and groups such as Friends of the Library help keep the doors open for longer hours, but the report states that the lack of a stable funding source poses a serious threat to the already suffering system.
The condition of the county women’s jail, cited in previous reports, remains unresolved. Contributing to an environment “similar to a 1940’s caged zoo construction,” the cinderblock walls are chipped and the overhead lights flicker.
Because the jail’s maximum capacity is 91, the sheriff finds himself forced to release inmates in order to accommodate incoming offenders.
The grand jury took special interest in how development gets reviewed in Chico. It investigated the Planning Services Department, the Planning Commission and the City Council from August through May. Key finding: The planning process is inefficient, due to “poor communication” among the three entities. “The high number of appeals indicates a disconnect,” the report quoted Assistant City Manager Dave Burkland as saying.
In Planning Services, the report said, employees had expressed optimism with the hiring of Planning Director Steve Peterson, but seven months later, morale remained a concern. Grand jurors wrote that Peterson’s staff described him as “condescending and disrespectful” as well as “lack[ing] a sense of teamwork.” Employees also said they suffered from heavy workloads, long work hours and “a lack of leadership within the department.”
As for the Planning Commission, the grand jury found the appointment process for commissioners “is structured in such a way as to produce a body that is not necessarily versed in planning issues and/or representative of the electorate.” In particular, the report elaborated, no previous experience in city planning is required.
Grand jurors took note of cost overruns for Chico’s new City Plaza and, not surprisingly, looked into the project. They took issue with no-bid contracts as well as oversight and public-outreach efforts.
Among the recommendations: The City Council should discuss the scope of the park commission’s authority, and the city should audit no-bid contractors to make sure it’s getting its money’s worth.
The grand jury noted improving conditions in the Auditor-Controller’s Office, described in last year’s report as “a work environment where employees [were] fearful for their safety/well being.” Grand jurors found morale has improved, in part because supervisors have undergone training and hold weekly meetings.
David Houser, re-elected as Auditor-Controller just weeks before the 2005-06 final report came out, spends more time in the office and “appears to be making some effort to improve his interaction style. However, he is still viewed as intimidating as a result of his condescending and critical style.” His term runs until 2010.
Agencies scrutinized by the grand jury have 90 days to comment on the findings, while county officers or agency heads have 60 days. To read the full report, check www.buttecounty.net and click on the grand jury link.