County aims for higher standards in awarding discretionary funds

RIVERSIDE – In response to a grand jury report that cited lax standards in the awarding of funds from each supervisor’s discretionary budget, the board today directed Riverside County Executive Office staff to strengthen accountability measures tied to the process.

”The program was inappropriately criticized,” said Supervisor John Benoit. ”But there are things that can be improved upon. There needs to be absolute clarity in how money is spent, as well as follow-up to ensure that it has been spent for the reasons it was provided in the first place.”

Executive Office staff, with the help of former Riverside County District Attorney Grover Trask, authored a 31-page analysis in response to grand jury findings regarding the Board of Supervisors’ use of community improvement designation — or CID — funds.

Each supervisor has a CID account, with available funding varying in past fiscal years from a few hundred thousand dollars to more than $3 million.

Money can be distributed to nonprofits, county agencies, community groups and other organizations for a variety of purposes — as long as they have a discernable public benefit.

”We found no evidence of violations (in the use of CID money) whatsoever,” Trask told the board. ”Having said that, the investigation did uncover … operational issues that clearly needed to be addressed.”

The Executive Office report underscored how CID funding had served as an essential stopgap during the ”Great Recession,” helping sustain nonprofits, including food banks and community centers, that might otherwise have folded.

”Nonprofits fumble and make mistakes that can cause embarrassment,” said Supervisor Kevin Jeffries. ”But more often than not, they deliver service to the community far more effectively and cheaper than government can ever hope to do. We need to embrace the CID program. However, there needs to be more accountability. Can we do better? Yes we can, and we will.”

The county’s 19-member civil grand jury earlier this year investigated allegations that supervisors had appropriated funds ”to enhance their visibility and name identification with potential voters” and in some instances had provided money without any thorough vetting of the recipients’ backgrounds or missions.

Jurors alleged in a May report that supervisors had violated the California Political Reform Act and the county’s own guidelines regarding when and in what amount monies can be dispersed, particularly in an election year. Trask said his inquiry turned up nothing in the way of unfair or facially corrupt political practices.

The grand jury identified instances in which supervisors committed sometimes up to $10,000 to be named, individually, as a ”sponsor” of a fundraiser.

Other times, according to the report, CID monies were disbursed to entities that claimed nonprofit status when, in fact, the California Attorney’s General’s Office had suspended the recipients’ nonprofit exemption for irregularities. The grand jury pointed specifically to the 300-acre Dorland Mountain Arts Colony near Temecula as an example. It is located in board Chairman Jeff Stone’s district.

According to the report, $100,000 in CID funds was provided to the private retreat to build a half-mile driveway in 2009.

Stone did not address the issue, but said he found the grand jury’ findings ”disappointing.”

”They did not include one positive aspect of CID funding,” he said.

Jurors scrutinized CID commitments that occurred as the county struggled through a recession, with mandatory furlough days for employees and many county offices closed Fridays to cut expenses.

In one case in 2010, a supervisor allocated $25,000 to pay for the Riverside Community College Norco Choir to travel to South Africa to perform.

The grand jury questioned whether commitments were serving to keep the doors open at facilities where assistance was being provided as intended.

Allocations to the Colorado River Senior Center 30 miles north of Blythe were vetted, and jurors noted that $15,000 in CID funds had been spent since 2005 on a ”low-cost meal program” open to the general public — not seniors in need.

In addition to calling out supervisors for questionable use of taxpayer funds, jurors criticized the Executive Office for not applying greater scrutiny over how and for what CID funds had been committed.

In its response, the county defended the CID program generally, suggesting the $26.2 million in total allocations between July 2006 and this past May were justifiable.

However, the Executive Office acknowledged the need for increased scrutiny and more uniform standards to keep board members on the same page when it comes to allocating discretionary money.

As for the Dorland Arts Colony allocation, there was nothing to indicate it was motivated by ”close personal or social relationships” with operators of the retreat, according to the Executive Office.

Similarly, the grand jury’s criticism of funding for the Colorado River Senior Center stemmed from a misinterpretation of the facility’s ”overall purpose,” county staff wrote.

”The center provides a wide array of … vital services in a remote area to a fragile senior population that likely cannot travel … for comparable services (in the nearest city),” according to the Executive Office report.

The county saw no rationale for the grand jury’s recommendation that ”CID funds be processed through the Executive Office” instead of having individual supervisors stamping their names on the disbursals, thus gaining public ”credit or recognition.”

County CEO Jay Orr said a new policy outlining parameters for CID expenditures will be submitted to the board for review in six months.

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