The Public Eye

Reports from the Bee's investigative team

March 29, 2011
How California government can be more transparent

During the recent Sunshine Week activities, USPIRG issued a report card giving California a "D+" for its dismal record of government transparency. The Pacific Research Institute also weighed in with an in-depth study, Bringing More Sunshine to California: How to Expand Open Government in the Golden State.

To understand the relative strengths and weaknesses of this state's current transparency rules, PRI researchers compared California's open record and open meeting regulations with those in other states. After careful quantitative analysis, they found that California ranked 17th in open record laws (p. 49) and 45th in open meeting laws (p. 46).

Based on their detailed study, PRI developed a concrete set of recommendations (p. 57) for improving transparency. These include:

* Tightening the legal definition of a public meeting and tighten the rules regarding informal or chance gatherings of officials.

* Abolishing exemptions for certain types of meetings, such as those dealing with agency executive hiring, public employee salaries/benefits, collective-bargaining with unions and eminent domain.

* Requiring online notice of upcoming public meetings and online posting and archiving of meeting minutes.

* Making public police disciplinary proceedings/actions. Open police misconduct files after one year.

* Requiring all agencies to develop and make public guidelines and procedures (including fees) for citizen access to records.

* Expediting appeals for public access to meetings/records. Strengthen criminal penalties and establish civil penalties for violations of open meeting/record rules.

March 28, 2011
A federal tax receipt

As the calendar creeps toward the April 15 tax filing deadline, many Americans might wonder just how all their federal tax dollars are being spent. Proposed bipartisan legislation intends to make that information very easy to get. The Taxpayer Receipt Act (S. 437) would "require the Secretary of the Treasury to provide each individual taxpayer a receipt for an income tax payment which itemizes the portion of the payment which is allocable to various Government spending categories."

The idea has been discussed and promoted by David Kendall and Ethan Porter of the center-left Third Way think tank and the liberal Democracy journal. The authors hope that if Americans really understood where their money is going, there would be much less ideological conflict over government spending, taxation and deficit control.

Here's how it would work: every year after filing your taxes, the IRS would send you a short summary (no more than a page) showing what you paid in income taxes/FICA and how that money is allocated among major government programs. See a mockup receipt here.

The Third Way web site provides an online calculator where you can plug in your annual tax liability and see exactly how the federal government spends it. Let's say you paid $10,000 in income and FICA taxes. $2,044.94 goes to Social Security and $1,306.74 to Medicare (that's for current payments to those programs, not for future obligations). $2,017 of your $10,000 goes to defense. $928,48 and $789.22 go to low-income assistance and Medicaid, respectively. All the above constitute nearly 71 percent of the total. The rest is allocated to things like interest payments, unemployment, veterans, education, etc.

March 16, 2011
California gets a D+ for government transparency

When it comes to openness about government spending, California ranks low among the states according to a new study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. Despite the creation of a government transparency web site, California still has "serious deficiencies" in providing public online access to spending data.

"If Californians look hard enough at the budget voted on today they'll notice some serious holes in their ability to follow the money. Billions of dollars in tax breaks and economic development subsidies are spent every year with no disclosure to the public of who gets them or how much they get," said Pedro Morillas CALPIRG Consumer Advocate in a press release.

California earned 62 out of 100 points in the USPIRG's scorecard of state budgetary openness. You can see a detailed breakdown of the criteria used to rank all states in the interactive Follow the Money Map.

PIRG's report arrives in the middle of Sunshine Week, the annual national review of open government. Locally, SW will be celebrated with a panel discussion at McGeorge School of Law on March 23. See also The Bee's story advancing Sunshine Week and profiling area activists who have championed open meetings and records.

March 2, 2011
Tracking ex-lobbyists among top congressional staffers

At least 130 top congressional staffers serving currently are former lobbyists. That's according to new research by two government watchdog groups, Center for Responsive Politics and Remapping Debate.

Investigators have tracked the prior employment of the 990 Chief-of-Staffs and Legislative Directors and found 130 who held lobbyist jobs before taking their current positions. Most of their lobby group employers represent corporations or trade associations.

The information on these staffers is complied in an online interactive table which you can browse by name, congress member, district, lobbying firm and other data. Ten staffers work for California lawmakers. Closest to home are these three:

* Anne Steckel, Chief of Staff for Rep. Mike Thompson. Previously employed by American Farm Bureau and Growth Energy.

* Julie Eddy, Chief of Staff for Doris Matsui. Previously employed by Mortgage Bankers Association of America.

* Robert Mosher, Legislative Director for Doris Matsui. Previously employed by Armenian Assembly of America.

January 19, 2011
New site allows citizens to monitor state legislators

Though we take it for granted, the Internet has greatly increased government transparency -- especially at the federal level. Now a new web site expands the potential of citizen scrutiny of government at the state level.

OpenGovernment.org, a joint project of the Sunlight Foundation and Participatory Politics Foundation, aggregates many types of information on state lawmakers: brief biography; contact info; sponsored bills; key votes; committee memberships; campaign contributions; interest group ratings; news, blog and social media mentions; and videos.

OpenGovernment.org hopes to eventually cover all state and municipal governments, but initially the site is limited to five state legislatures: Louisiana, Maryland, Texas, Wisconsin and California.

January 17, 2011
Job discrimination claims reach a record high

seal.pngDiscrimination claims filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission hit a new high in fiscal 2010 (ending Sept. 30). According to the EEOC, private-sector charges rose to nearly 100,000, a seven percent increase over the prior year.

Agency statistics show a rise in all types of employment discrimination claims: race, gender, religion, national origin, etc. It's interesting to see the shifting proportion of cases between FY 1997 and FY 2010. In general, race has held steady at around 35 percent of total claims. Gender at 30 percent. But charges of age discrimination has jumped from around 19 to 23 percent, reflecting perhaps the aging workforce.

Despite the growth in filings, the EEOC says it's been keeping up with enforcement. Pending charges increased less than one percent between FY 2009 and 2010, compared to a 16 percent jump between 2008 and 2009.

January 11, 2011
Feds to launch consumer product database

Wouldn't it be nice if the average consumer could know about a harmful or potentially harmful product before it's eventually recalled?

That's the goal of a new government database set to debut on March 11. In November the Consumer Product Safety Commission voted to establish an online system to house reports of unsafe or potentially hazardous merchandise. The database won't include mere complaints about product reliability or quality -- only information about serious defects that can lead to death or injury. It's also limited to CPSC-regulated goods, so excludes cosmetics, food, tobacco, and other items handled by other federal agencies.

Advocates of the system say it will provide consumers, government regulators, health professionals and others with an easy way to file incident reports. It will also allow consumers to quickly and easily research products they are considering for purchase.

Manufacturers have expressed concerns about the project, saying it invites false and possibly fraudulent product reports. In response, CPSC rules allow companies to challenge complaints and to post rebuttals alongside complaints in the database.

Once launched, consumers can go to the SaferProducts.gov to use the database.  

Hat tip: Washington Post.

January 10, 2011
How much will you make in lifetime Social Security, Medicare benefits?

The President's fiscal commission has issued its recommendations for controlling federal spending and deficits. Its report includes suggestions for reining in future costs of Social Security and Medicare, and it's likely we'll see cutbacks in future benefits. But that prompts the question, what would you receive in total Social Security and Medicare benefits if nothing changes?

The non-partisan Urban Institute tries to answer that question in a new study, Social Security and Medicare Taxes and Benefits Over a Lifetime. It estimates the total taxes paid and the total benefits received for a hypothetical worker who began working at age 22, earned an average wage ($43,100 in 2010 dollars) and stopped working at the normal retirement age.

The results vary widely depending on marital status and when you reach age 65. A single man, for example, who turned 65 in 1960, paid in $17,000 for a total of $125,000 in lifetime benefits. That same man hitting 65 in 2030 would pay $476,000 in taxes for $569,000 in benefits. (All these figures are in 2010 dollars.)

January 6, 2011
States' revenue dropped nearly 31 percent in 2009

A stark indication of the impact of the recession on state budgets: state government revenue in the country plummeted 30.8 percent between 2008 and 2009. The U.S. Census Bureau, which annually tracks state finances, reported yesterday that total revenues fell to $1.1 trillion from $1.6 trillion. 

Much of this decrease was caused by declining "social insurance trust revenue," defined as "public employee retirement, unemployment compensation, workers compensation and other insurance trusts (i.e., Social Security, Medicare, veteran's life insurance)."

Total state taxes collected in the U.S. fell 8.5 percent from $781.6 billion in 2008 to $715.1 billion in 2009.

In California, total revenue dropped 43.6 percent from $201.1 billion to $113.3 billion over the same period. State taxes collected declined 14.0 percent from 117.4 billion to 101.0 billion. See this Census table for a full breakdown of California's revenues and expenditures in 2009.

November 26, 2010
City salaries out in the open

By Ryan Lillis
rlillis@sacbee.com

Sacramento City Hall wants you to know that it's not Bell.

As you probably remember, Bell is the Los Angeles-area city where it was discovered that the city manager and other top executives were making hefty salaries. Eight officials, including the city manager, were arrested.

When the news out of Bell broke this summer, cities and counties across California scrambled to show that their public official salaries were in check. On Tuesday, at the request of Mayor Kevin Johnson, the Sacramento City Council was told what City Hall was doing.

The most notable steps include:

• Posting the salaries of the mayor, council members and top officials on the city's website, www.cityofsacramento.org. For the record, the highest paid city employee is interim City Manager Gus Vina, who makes $215,000. Johnson makes $116,646, and the part-time council members make $60,800.

• Providing a link on the city's website to the state controller database of city worker salaries around the state.

• Giving information on how salaries are set for every city position.

At Tuesday's council meeting, the mayor said the city "wanted to set an example."

"We don't want to just do what other cities are doing," he said. "We want to push the bar a little further when it comes to accessibility and transparency."

Councilman Kevin McCarty added that he'd like individual city worker salaries to be searchable by those employees' names.

November 11, 2010
Industry winners/losers in November election

As the postmorten on the November voting winds down, the campaign finance watchdog Center for Responsive Politics wonders which special interests emerged as winners (and losers) this cycle. But how do you measure success (or failure) in this arena? Well, if every member of Congress represents the industry or special interest that contributed the most to his or her campaign, as CRP suggests, then one can count the net number congressional seats each group gained (or lost) this time. 

The biggest winner in 2010 -- as a group -- were people who identify themselves as "retired" in campaign finance disclosure. They tend to favor Republicans, giving $60 million of their $109 million donations to GOP candidates this year. Retired donors gained two seats in the U.S. Senate and a whopping 20 seats in the U.S. House. Coming in second were leadership PACs (political action groups founded by prominent political figures) which gained a net 12 House seats.

The big losers in 2010 were lawyers and law firms. They suffered net losses of 15 seats in the House and four in the Senate.

November 8, 2010
Authorities not tracking hospitals with potential quake risk

More than a dozen hospitals in the state run the highest risk of collapse during a severe earthquake, according to the investigative reporting group California Watch. And further, state authorities and hopital officials have done little to alert the public to these hazards. Nor have they determined the quake risk for many of the of the 700 hospital buildings identified in the 1990s as being potentially dangerous.

Under law the state can shut down hospitals that don't address serious seismic issue by a certain deadline. But knowing which face the biggest risks is problematic. Only 90 structures have been evaluated for "collapse risk" (i.e., the probability of collapse -- based on the building's condition, distance from a fault and likely ground motion -- during the biggest potential quake for that region).

The facility on the list with the greatest risk is Kindred Hospital in Ontario (31.75 percent), followed behind by Citrus Valley Medical Center in West Covina (30.36 percent). Closest to Sacramento is Rideout Memorial Hospital in Marysville. Its West Wing and Nouth Wing buildings have modest risk indices of 2.56 and 1.81 percent, respectively. 

November 3, 2010
November election not so good for self-funding candidates

In June this blog highlighted a study by the National Institute on Money in State Politics concluding that candidates who bankrolled their own campaigns fared poorer than those who didn't. The 2010 election cycle attracted a good many self-funders -- including Meg Whitman who poured $142 million of her own money into a failed gubernatorial bid. So how well did others do this time? Early indications suggest not so good.

At the federal level, only one in five self-funding candidates managed to win U.S. House and Senate seats. That's according to the watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics who compiled recent data on 58 congressional candidates including top spender Linda McMahon (R-Conn), who furnished virtually all the $46 million raised by her campaign. She lost the general election to Democrat Richard Blumenthal. Number two spender Jeff Greene (D-Fla), who provided almost all of his $23.8 million war chest, lost in the primary.

Also unsuccessful was California's Carly Fiorina, who gave $5.5 million to her $17.9 million race.

October 26, 2010
Early voting option depresses turnout?

A study of voting patterns in the 2008 presidential election has a counterintuitive finding. The early voting option -- intended to increase turnout by reformers -- actually decreases it. University of Wisconsin researchers who looked at the data and who factored in things like education, race, geography and political leanings, discovered "the availability of early voting reduced turnout in the typical county by three percentage points."

The paper's authors speculate that early voting doesn't address the larger problem of election laws which require citizens to register well in advance of the election. Many people simply miss the registration deadline. In addition, absentee voters aren't susceptible to the enthusiam, social pressure -- and party get-out-the vote efforts -- that stimulate voting on Election Day. So they tend to procrastinate until it's too late.

The Bee's Rob Lewis today reported that more and more Sacramento County voters are choosing to vote by mail. Half of the county's 680,000 registered voters have requested absentee ballots for the November election. About 79,000 of these have returned ballots so far. In California 44 percent of the state's 17.1 million voters have requested absentee ballots. So far, 1.4 million of these have been returned.

October 15, 2010
Election polls skewed by landline bias?

Political polling is ubiquitous this election season, but such polls may be skewed because of how respondents are contacted. With 25 percent of American households only using using cell phones for telephone service (according to the CDC), surveys directed only at Americans using wired service may be subject to what experts call "landline bias".

Just how big is landline bias and how does it affect current election polling? The Pew Research Center attempted to find out. In a recent report, Pew estimated the bias this year is as large, or larger, than in 2008. The researchers compared 2010 Congressional polls aimed at both landline and cell phone users versus those targeting only landline users. The difference is striking. For polls conducted between Aug. 25-Sept. 6 among likely voters, the spread is: Republican preference 50 percent, Democrat preference 43 percent (landline and cell sample) and Republican 53, Democrat 41 percent (landline-only sample).

You can get a sense of the demographics of the cell-only crowd in this CDC report on the "wireless substitution," published in May. In general, younger adults are more likely to live in homes with no landline service. In addition, those more likely to go wireless are renters, the poor, and those living alone or in households comprised of unrelated people.

UPDATE: Field Research -- whose California Polls are often cited in The Bee -- samples both landline and cell populations in its surveys. That's because it takes random names from voter registration records where people are increasingly listing their cell phone numbers. Mark DiCamillo of Field Research says the percentage of cell numbers his group finds in voter records has risen from eight percent in 2005 to 17 percent in 2010.

October 14, 2010
VoteEasy matches your political outlook to November candidates

The good folks at Project Vote Smart have developed an interactive feature that quickly matches your opinions on critical issues to congressional candidates you'll be choosing in the November election. Think of VoteEasy as the eHarmony of political web sites.

First you enter the ZIP where you live. (You may have to enter your address to determine your U.S. House district.) Then you answer a set of 12 yes/no questions covering the important national issues of the day -- abortion, Afghanistan, immigration, gun control, etc. -- as well as how important each issue is to you. At each step the system updates the results, assigning each House and Senate candidate a matching score, (i.e. some percentage similar to you). When finished the system flags the politician that best matches your outlook. Click on the candidate's picture to see a profile comprised of biographical details, interest group ratings, campaign donations and voting record (if available).

Cool as VoteEasy is, you'll also want to consult The Bee's online Voter Guide. It contains biographical profiles of federal, state and local candidates running this November, plus their answers to specific issue questions posed by Bee reporters and editors.

September 17, 2010
Lobbyists not as powerful as you think?

Miller-McCune magazine held a conference yesterday on the influence of lobbying on federal policy-making. Panelists discussed the non-intuitive findings of a 2009 book that found that lobbyists who spent the most money on a given issue prevailed only half the time. The authors of Lobbying and Policy Change: Who Wins, Who loses, and Why examined 100 randomly-selected issues in recent history that provoked interest group involvement. In most cases, the opposing sides cancelled each other out.

"Sixty percent of the time, nothing happens," said Frank Baumgartner, co-author of the study. "What we see is gridlock and successful stalemating of proposals, with occasional breakthroughs." So the result of lobbying is usually maintenance of the status quo.

That's not to say that money doesn't sway policy over the long run, Baumgartner observed. Power in Washington is tilted toward the wealthy, who through the years have accumulated many advantages written into law. The status quo reflects that reality.

August 11, 2010
Drug traffickers used illicit animal fights to recruit dealers

cockfight pic.JPGA key player in a major cocaine and marijuana trafficking organization recently was sentenced to 12 and one-half years in prison following an extraordinary combination of reprehensible crimes. Pedro Mendez Ramos, 41, of Church Point, La., was sentenced in federal court after revelations that his drug operations were built, in part, by his use of illegal cock fights and pit-bull fights to recruit dealers and drivers to move the drugs.

Pit-bull fights are illegal in all states, and cockfights (AP photo by Paul Fraughton) are illegal in nearly all states, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

The Drug Enforcement Administration investigation, dubbed "Operation Fowl Play" and "Rio Gallo," rolled up a network that spanned several southern states. Along with other law enforcement agencies, it seized 118 kilograms of cocaine.

"The organization utilized various methods to conceal their cocaine, to include tractor trailers and trucks with hidden compartments and gamecock cages with false bottoms," according to a DEA statement. "At one point, the Ramos organization had amassed so much cash from the sale of cocaine that Pedro Ramos attempted to purchase Canal Oil Refinery, an oil refinery located in Church Point, La. in order to launder the organization's drug trafficking proceeds."

-Charles Piller

August 5, 2010
Some for-profit colleges encourage fraud

Recent undercover testing by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, a research arm of Congress, found that some for-profit colleges encourage fraudulent practices. And all the tested colleges made "deceptive or otherwise questionable" statements to applicants, such as misrepresenting the benefits of their degree or certificate programs, according to the agency's report.
gao graphic.JPGNearly 1.8 million students attend for-profit institutions of higher learning, according to the report, and they received more than $24 billion in Pell grants or federal loans. The agency's investigators posed as prospective students to 15 such colleges, and in four cases were encouraged by officials to "to falsify their financial aid forms to qualify for federal aid." In some cases, college admissions staff also pressured applicants to enroll before they received advice about costs and financial aid.

In one case, an undercover tester was falsely told that unlike consumer loans, if students loans are not repaid, "no one would 'come after' the applicant."

-Charles Piller

August 4, 2010
State agencies paid overtime to managers during furloughs

California Watch (the state offshoot of the The Center for Investigative Reporting) reviewed Controller's Office records and found that "rather than receiving a 15-percent pay cut as intended, hundreds of state managers and other high-level workers brought home more money than usual during some furlough weeks thanks to an obscure federal labor law." CW estimates that up to $1.6 million in overtime payments went to salaried state employees who typically aren't eligible for them. At least 14 people received more than $10,000 each.

The reason this happened is that federal rules require most salaried workers to be reclassified as hourly workers during the furlough period. Such a change allows these exempt workers to receive overtime pay. Thirty-six state agencies and departments paid out the extra cash between Feb. 2009 and April 2010. They were lead by the Employment Development Department, which coughed up $488,007. It's followed by the Office of the State Chief Information Officer ($327,686) and the Public Employees Retirement System ($186,895).

August 4, 2010
Covert tests: fraudulent passports easy to obtain

Recent covert testing by the Government Accountability Office, a research arm of Congress, showed that the State Department's procedures for issuing passports are open to fraud. The agency tried to obtain seven passports, in each case using applications riddled with stolen identities and other fraudulent information. In five cases, the State Department sent the new passports out -- although in two of those five cases, the department belatedly recognized the error and retrieved the passports from the mail before they reached the recipient.passport photo.jpg

Among the glaring errors that the passport authorities failed to catch, according to the report:

Passport photos of the same investigator on multiple applications; a 62 year-old applicant using a Social Security number issued in 2009; passport and driver's license photos showing about a 10-year age difference; and the use of a California mailing address, a West Virginia permanent address and driver's license address, and a Washington, D.C., phone number in the same application." (AP photo by Damien Dovarganes.)

-Charles Piller

July 28, 2010
Most city, county leaders earn $200,000+ each year

Recent reports showing the city manager for the tiny southern California town of Bell earning almost $800,000 a year caused a public uproar. Local leaders in Sacramento don't make anywhere near that, but aren't exactly hurting either.

This chart shows the base salaries of nearly every city manager and county executive in the Sacramento region, based on a Bee survey.




City manager/county executive base salaries, June 2010









There's a little more to the story, though. Some managers at the region's smaller cities are making almost as much -- or more -- than managers responsible for thousands of public employees.

This chart, ordered the same as the one above for comparison purposes, shows dollars earned by city managers/county executives per 10,000 residents in their jurisdiction.




City manager/county executive base salaries per 10,000 residents, June 2010










July 28, 2010
Five horses dead in San Joaquin County. Did heat kill them?

Sweltering heat in the Central Valley has become a potential criminal matter in San Joaquin County. The district attorney's office in Stockton is weighing whether to bring criminal charges against the owner of five horses suspected of dying of thirst in a pasture near Tracy.

Deputy Les Garcia of the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Department would not disclose the name of the owner, whose horses were reported down July 15 by a passing motorist.

Temperatures were into the 90s when the animals died, and investigators were examining the possibility they had been without water for several days. Another two horses suffering from possible dehydration are being treated, Garcia said.

Animal cruelty laws differ widely from state to state, according to a 2006 study by the American Prosecutors Research Institute. The study, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, found that most reported cases of animal cruelty involve failure to provide adequate food, water, shelter or veterinary care - and that offenders generally are given education instead of prison terms.

"However, cases involving large numbers of animals or which cause death or serious debilitation
of animals may be charged as serious misdemeanor or even felony offenses," the researchers found.

In California, a person accused of depriving animals of water or food can be charged with a misdemeanor or felony, and faces possible prison time and a fine of up to $20,000. San Joaquin County Deputy DA Robert Himelblau said the office is assembling reports and will decide in the next few weeks whether to file charges.

-- Marjie Lundstrom

July 23, 2010
Low-cost genetic testing kits offer dubious results

Looking for answers about your risk for ailments commonly linked to heredity? Don't bother with direct-to-consumer test kits, advises a report from United States Government Accountability Office, a research arm of Congress. (Illustration by John Alvin, The Fresno Bee.)20070829_Biomed_research.jpg

The agency recently tested kits from four companies, priced at $299 to $999 per test. The agency received "test results that are misleading and of little or no practical use." For one set of identical samples, different test kits showed "below-average, average, and above-average risk for prostate cancer and hypertension."

The agency also cited "egregious" deception in how the kits were marketed, such as touting the ability to "repair damaged DNA" or cure disease -- capabilities that no such testing kids can provide. The agency did not name the products tested.

-Charles Piller


July 22, 2010
ACLU: authorities continue spying on political groups

Local, state and national law enforcement agencies continue to spy on, harrass and infiltrate law-abiding citizen groups who organize, advocate and protest. That's the assertion of the American Civil Liberties Union in a recent report, Policing Free Speech: Police Surveillance and Obstruction of First Amendment-Protected Activity. The ACLU based its claim on a study of FOIA requests and news accounts of purported surveillance and harassment by police and other authorities in 33 states and the District of Columbia.

The report includes a state-by-state compilation of such incidents. There are 22 references for California. These include: infiltration of an Islamic Center in Irvine by the FBI; monitoring of a Mother's Day peace protest by the California National Guard; infiltration of a labor union demonstration by the Contra Costa Sheriff's Department; and videotaping of protesters at a 2003 peace rally by Sacramento Police.

July 20, 2010
Overworked, understaffed Assessors slow to finish tax rolls

If it seems like you're finding out the new assessed value of your home later than usual, you're not alone.

Statewide 29 county assessors have asked the state Board of Equalization for an extension on closing the property tax rolls for 2010-11. That's the second most extensions in the past decade.

The most?

Last year 31 assessors needed more time.

The number of counties seeking extensions varies from year to year. Here are extensions by year:

2000: 28

2001: 20

2002: 20

2003: 18

2004: 24

2005: 18

2006: 16

2007: 22

2008:25

2009: 31

2010: 29

Some counties always seem to need a bit more time after the July 1 deadline. Butte, Madera, Orange and Tehama counties have needed extensions every year in this millennium, according to information from the BOE.

The high number of delays the past two years is largely the result of increased workloads combined budget cuts most counties have made, said Ron Thomsen, president of the California Assessors' Association and Alameda County's assessor.

Assessors are overworked trying to lower assessed values for homeowners who qualify in the down economy, Thomsen said. And they often have fewer staff to handle the work, he added.

Tax rolls statewide are falling for most counties. The Bee reported today that most homeowners will see their assessed value dip a bit this year. Bills come out in October.

July 15, 2010
Stimulus watchdog dings Monterey Agency's use of funds

A workforce investment board charged with providing job training to laid-off workers used stimulus funding to subsidize the placement of workers at the companies that had just fired them, the state's stimulus watchdog wrote Thursday.

The Monterey County Workforce Investment Board created "the appearance of revolving-door employment" by using money meant to train workers to place them back in their old jobs or jobs so similar they needed no additional training to perform them.recovery.bmp

The actions made it "seem that (the board) was back-filling vacant jobs with the same employees who originally occupied the vacancies," wrote Laura Chick, inspector general for California stimulus spending.

Also, the board placed two well-qualified electricians in jobs where they were meant to learn how to be electricians, Chick found The manager of the company that got them said they needed no training, and was happy for the cheap help.

The Workforce Investment Board received a total of $4.7 million in stimulus funds under the federal Workforce Investment Act.

The board, in its official response to Chick, said her office failed to acknowledge the urgency -- and pressure -- created by massive layoffs during the recession. They also noted that, since newer workers are laid off most often, some of the workers who went back to their old jobs -- or ones like them -- were so inexperienced they needed more training.



About The Public Eye

Welcome to The Bee's newest blog: Public Eye. In the coming months, you will see us breaking news here as well as following up on investigations we have published with tidbits, news breaks and behind-the-scenes descriptions of our news-gathering process. Know of a wrong we could right? Send our fraud squad your tips at: fraudsquad@sacbee.com.

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