RIVERSIDE – Riverside County supervisors and the county’s executive officer today defended a budgetary mechanism that allows supervisors to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars annually on projects supposed to be publicly beneficial, in the face of a grand jury report casting doubt on the legitimacy of many of the expenditures.
“In my district, virtually every dollar goes to the most effective nonprofits we have,” said Supervisor John Benoit. “This is entirely well- justified, transparent county support for great projects. That point needs to be considered. This a justified program.”
Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff Stone said he could justify the discretionary allocations made by his office, insisting that “we don’t approve funding for each and every organization, only the ones that truly need it.”
“We’re not making contributions to political action committees for re- election to the board,” Stone said. “We keep the contributions going because they help constituents … We have bolstered, maintained nonprofits that would have perished without this help. And who would’ve picked up the slack? It would have fallen on county taxpayers.”
The board directed Executive Office staff to respond to the grand jury report within 90 days, during which time former county District Attorney Grover Trask, now a public integrity specialist with Riverside-based Best, Best & Krieger, will be conducting a top-to-bottom review of the county’s community improvement designation funding program.
The 19-member civil grand jury last week issued a 26-page assessment of the program that cited ”numerous examples” of questionable, seemingly politically motivated expenditures from CID accounts, which jurors said appeared to suffer from lax supervision and slipshod application.
“I believe (Mr. Trask’s) findings will support the program,” said county CEO Jay Orr. “The county is committed to transparency and best practices.”
Under the CID program, each supervisor receives an allotment of funds at the outset of each fiscal year to distribute to nonprofits, county agencies, community groups and other organizations for a variety of purposes, as long as they have a discernable public benefit.
Allotments have varied since the program was instituted in 2005. In the current fiscal year, the supervisors’ CID accounts collectively totaled $2.3 million, according to the grand jury.
Jurors researched some of the $32.4 million in CID disbursals made over the last nine years and came across expenditures that allegedly conflicted with the California Political Reform Act and the county’s own guidelines.
“Supervisors used public resources to enhance their visibility and name identification with potential voters,” according to the report.
“The supervisors awarded CID funds to hundreds of nonprofit organizations, often in connection with high-profile events such as galas, parades, chambers of commerce meetings, veterans service organization meetings, senior center activities and other events that attracted large groups.”
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 the California Attorney’s General’s Office had suspended the recipients’ nonprofit exemption for irregularities. The grand jury pointed specifically to the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony in Temecula as an example.
According to the report, $100,000 in CID funds was provided to the private retreat to build a half-mile driveway in 2009.
Jurors highlighted occasions when CID appropriations were authorized by a four-fifths vote of the board with only scant descriptions of how the funds would be used.
A $10,000 allocation for the Hemet Heritage Museum Foundation in January 2012 was listed as necessary for a “moderation project,” leaving jurors to wonder “if the request meant modernization” project, though the board passed the item without comment, according to the report.
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 down on 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 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 profligate use of taxpayer funds, the grand jury criticized the Executive Office for not applying greater scrutiny of how and for what CID funds have been appropriated.
The report cited the need for tighter controls and for robust enforcement of board policy A-70, approved last June to prevent the appearance of using discretionary funds to achieve political goals.