This article is part of a series on County Service Areas. Other articles in the series can be found here and here.
When the San Benito County Board of Supervisors announced a May 22 public hearing on raising the annual fee for County Service Areas (CSA) during the next fiscal year, Richard Ferreira said it was the latest in long series of mismanagement, neglect, and lies.
Ferreira, liaison to the county for CSA 35, said this latest move to raise fees only adds credence to a potential class-action lawsuit that numerous CSAs are contemplating against the county.
“Our attorney sent the county the letter notifying it of the suit three or four months ago and they still have not responded,” Ferreira told BenitoLink June 20.
The attorney letter was sent Feb. 23, 2018, asserting the county was in breach of services, in that it “failed to maintain and repair streets,” as well as “failed to consistently attend to the weed abatement on a regular basis.” The letter requested an answer within 90 days, and that if there was no answer, “…the Association is prepared to enforce its legal remedies and will not hesitate to do so.”
There are currently 31 active CSAs in the county. A CSA is an agreement between the county and a Homeowners’ Association (HOA) to provide certain county maintenance services that are paid for by adding a percentage to the HOA members’ property taxes.
Ferreira has been at odds with the county since 2009, trying to get the local government to live up to its agreement with the Union Heights HOA on the outskirts of Hollister. As the developer of the Union Heights subdivision, Ferreira was involved in drafting the agreement to form CSA 35 in the mid-1990s and knows what services are due to the CSA, and at what cost.
The agreement spells out that San Benito County pays PG&E utility bills for two street lights out of the CSA’s funds, and provides storm drain services and improvements, mows weeds seasonally, cleans inlets and outlets, removes trees, brush, trash, and litter, and road maintenance, including a slurry seal every five years.
Ferreira said everything ran smoothly while Claudette Frey was the CSA coordinator for the county. When Ferreira spoke with BenitoLink, he was under the impression Frey was a full-time coordinator. But Frey told BenitoLink June 25 she worked in accounting and filled in as a half-time coordinator. She said there never has been a full-time coordinator.
According to county records Ferreira provided BenitoLink, he and others from CSA 35 met on June 20, 2009 with Janelle Cox, then the acting public works administrator, to discuss the services and fees. The agreement stated that budgets would be reviewed and established annually and that the CSA would only be billed for actual expenses.
In a June 26, 2009 email to the Union Heights HOA, Cox stated that a CSA is a funding mechanism for services, and the county would provide an estimated cost of the services each year. She wrote that the county would be diligent in monitoring workers’ performance and expenditure tracking to ensure the work was completed within budget.
The problem is, according to Ferreira and the records, except for paying the PG&E bill and mowing weeds occasionally, the county has done little to no work in CSA 35 since 2009, while paying itself from the fund.
In one example, according to one of the county reports Ferreira provided covering March 31, 2009 to Oct. 1, 2009, the county public works department scheduled 86 hours of service. However, only 9.5 hours of work were actually completed. And the county charged 12.5 hours for “subdivision research.” Ferreira said there’s never been an explanation what that means or why there is a need to hire a consultant to figure out how to mow weeds or clean out storm drains.
Ferreira and Chuck Serafini, both former governing members of the Union Heights HOA, spoke with BenitoLink on June 20 about their concerns.
“As the developer, I set out what they were supposed to do,” Ferreira said. “They’re supposed to do weed abatement and they’re supposed to go dig up, or rip, the retention ponds for percolation. They’re supposed to do a slurry seal every five years. The last time they did a slurry seal was 2010.”
Ferreira said the HOA originally discussed handling the maintenance issues themselves. However, Serafini said the county enticed homeowners to form the CSA by promising their single road could be combined with other CSA roads to get an economy of scale for repairs.
The HOA met with Public Works in 2017 and asked for documents on the status of CSA 35, Serafini said, though the county continues to deduct charges every year and it is unclear how much work was actually done.
Ferreira said he and Serafini met with Resource Management Agency Director John Guertin, Supervisor Anthony Botelho, and management analyst Louie Valdez (who has since left the county payroll) on Sept. 15, 2017.
“First of all, they should fire Guertin because he can’t do his job and he lied,” Ferreira said. “When we talked about the road, he said, ‘We’re too close to winter and we aren’t going to be able to get the roads done, but I guarantee we’ll go out and do the crack fill.’ Nobody ever showed up.”
“To show you how ignorant these supervisors are, they have all these public roads to take care of and if you take all the work in the CSAs that’s a big project,” Ferreira said. “You could get a big crew, buy a lot of equipment to handle this project because you know 50 percent of the work is guaranteed. And not only is it guaranteed, it’s fully funded. The county has the money and they’re not utilizing it.”
Ferreira said the latest feedback from the county came from Supervisor Jerry Muenzer, who told him the county could not do the road maintenance because Union Heights is a gated community. This was the same rationale Muenzer used in telling the Ridgemark HOA it could not use some of its $500,000 reserves for road repairs.
The thing is, Ferreira and Serafini said, Union Heights has always been a gated community and they wonder why they are not receiving the same service they have been from the beginning of the agreement.
Ferreira said every time he calls the county Resource Management Agency about services, he’s told they don’t have anyone to coordinate with the county service areas. He said he has little sympathy for the county because he maintains the CSAs are fully funded and there should be no issue in providing services.
The two men’s frustration in trying to work with a seemingly endless number of part-time coordinators, department heads, and supervisors was palpable. Serafini said this is why they had an attorney send the letter to the county.
Meanwhile, Ferreira and Serafini are waiting for someone at the county to respond to them.
“The problem is no one has any common sense,” Ferreira said. “They’re going to get into big trouble. Unfortunately, if we get in a big lawsuit with the county and they lose, who pays for it? Theoretically, we’re suing ourselves. But we might have to do it because we’re trying to show these people they’re wrong so we can get it right before it comes to a lawsuit.”
Ferreira and Serafini might have a champion for their cause on the Board of Supervisors in the form of Supervisor Mark Medina. During the June 25 special budget hearing at which each line item of the proposed budget was brought up for discussion, Medina quizzed RMA Director Guertin over fee increases for CSAs.
In particular, Medina wanted to know why the Dunneville-related CSA 50 showed a large increase in fees. He said he was told a new CSA coordinator would be hired in a matter of months and each CSA would have to pay a portion of that person’s salary and benefits, plus there was an estimated budget for future road maintenance. Medina said the numbers made no sense and asked if there is a percentage that each CSA pays.
“What you’re seeing is there wasn’t a CSA coordinator and we weren’t providing adequate services in the CSAs, so the actual amount is lower than we were charging for work,” Guertin responded. “Now we’re budgeting for work that’s actually going to be done because we have somebody to do it.”
Medina asked Guertin what the percentage was that determines how much each CSA pays. Guertin said he did not know, to which Medina responded, “We need to know.”
Medina then pointed out the Dunneville CSA 50 will pay $4,200 for its share of the future coordinator’s salary and benefits. Since there are 31 active CSAs, he extrapolated the $4,200 by 31 for a total of $130,200 that would be raised to pay a coordinator.
“You did not go to the CSAs and talk about this,” Medina said. “I have people calling me and asking where are these numbers coming from.”
Medina then asked Guertin why the line item concerning water treatment for the Dunneville-related CSA 50 jumped to $39,903 from the historical amount of $21,000, an increase of $18,000. The supervisor asked for justification for the increase, and Guertin said he assumed it was for future work to be done.
“The problem you have is there’s no communication to CSA 50,” Medina said. “We can’t just charge these CSAs any amount we want to. That’s what we’re doing.”
County Administrative Officer Ray Espinosa jumped in to explain.
“Just for clarity, this is a budget to perform work,” Espinosa said. “We haven’t charged anybody yet. We’re budgeting so we can do the work.”
Medina said he wasn’t talking about road work, but salary and benefits of $4,200, as well as supplies and labor for another $6,300. He still wanted to know where the numbers came from. Guertin maintained the numbers were just an estimate of how much work will be done. Medina asked how the salary and benefits were determined. Guertin said he did not know and that he was not familiar with that particular line item of CSA 50.
“We’re taking dollars from their CSA property taxes and we’re not providing the service,” Medina said. “We’re not even explaining to them where these [expenses] are coming from.”
“Just to correct you,” Guertin interjected, “anything that’s charged to a CSA is for a service that was rendered to that CSA.”
Medina returned to questioning how the $4,200 was being tracked. Guertin didn’t know, so Melinda Casillas, county management analyst, took over.
“The CSA coordinator should be in place in the next couple of months and they keep track of the work done in each CSA,” Casillas said. “That gets allocated to each CSA just like on the road crew.”
Supervisor Jerry Muenzer said he wanted to make clear that it was not true that San Benito County never had a CSA coordinator. He said there has been an allocation for a half-time coordinator all along.
“That’s part of the reason, Supervisor Medina, you’re feeling the frustration, because that person did not have the time to communicate what was going on with the individual CSAs and their budgets,” Muenzer said. “I’ve tried to do that in the last year or so to relay that information to some of my CSAs. This is why I lobbied for over a year to have a full-time CSA coordinator that the CSAs are going to have to pay for so we can alleviate this problem.”
Guertin seemingly swept Muenzer’s rationale aside and said, “Communication was even worse due to the fact that that half-time CSA coordinator position was not filled. So, the functions of that half-time coordinator were being done by different staff at different times and it was disjointed.”
The RMA director reasoned that when the county administrative officer or Supervisor Muenzer lent their support, their times were not charged against the CSAs.
“Did anyone communicate this to the CSAs?” Medina asked.
“Not yet,” Guertin responded. “Communication with CSAs is difficult.”
“It’s not difficult,” Medina shot back. “If you’re going to take money from these people, you need to provide a service and you’re not doing that. Now that we’re going to have [a CSA coordinator], we have to see results.”
“That’s the plan,” Guertin said.
Calls to Guertin and county counsel Barbara Thompson after the June 25 meeting concerning Ferreira’s claims regarding the lawsuit were not returned before publication.