The 2021-2022 Nevada County Grand Jury released six reports ranging from Schools to Public Works via NID, Sheriff’s Office, Joint Powers Authorities and Fire Safe Council. Here are the summaries, prepared by the Grand Jury, and links to the full reports. They are listed in the order released to the public.

Nevada County Department of Public Works County Roads: Take Me Home

Roads are a crucial contribution to economic development and growth and bring important social benefits. Maintenance of our Nevada County roads is an essential part of these contributions. Traveling Nevada County roads, first and foremost, must be safe for the traveler. Roads maintained in good condition are safe to travel, increase property values, improve the overall quality of life, and provide evacuation paths in times of emergency. Nevada County maintains approximately 560 miles of roads, roughly 61% are paved (317 miles).

The Nevada County Grand Jury received a complaint requesting it investigate a claim of substandard roadwork by Nevada County Public Works Division. The Nevada County Grand Jury found the complainants’ concerns were brought to the attention of the district supervisor. Eventually, several Nevada County employees, including the Nevada County Counsel, were involved in responding to the complainant. The complainant was not satisfied with Nevada County’s response.

The Nevada County Grand Jury initially focused on quality standards, inspection records, road crew training, equipment usage, etc. of the Road Maintenance Division. The Nevada County Grand Jury found insufficient inspections records, aging equipment in need of costly repairs and training to be “on the job.”

The Nevada County Grand Jury expanded the scope of the investigation to include the condition of all equipment maintained by the Fleet Services Division but owned by the Road Maintenance Division.

The Nevada County Grand Jury recommends Nevada County Public Works Department develop robust processes for capturing all related costs associated with road repairs, and equipment. The Jury recommends the use of industry best practices when deciding between preservation or replacement.

The full report is here.

Joint Powers Authorities In Nevada County – Who Are They and Who’s Watching?

A Joint Powers Authority is a stand-alone organization formed by governmental entities for a specific purpose or project, such as water, sanitation, and fire districts. At their best, well-run Joint Powers Authority can save taxpayer money through combining efficiencies, expertise, and effort. At their worst, they can be sinkholes for cost overruns and cronyism, lack transparency, and evade oversight by citizens and officials.

The Nevada County Jury created a list of Nevada County-based agencies, municipalities, and organizations that were potential members of Joint Powers Authorities. A document request letter was sent to each identified source asking for Joint Powers Authority information. The responses were used to compile an initial list of Nevada County Joint Powers Authorities. Additional research continued into the Joint Powers Authority reporting procedures of the State of California, Nevada County, the Nevada County Local Agency Formation Commission, and other entities.

As a separate legal entity, each Joint Powers Authority self-monitors its actions and activities for its members since no county agency directly oversees it. A county grand jury is the only entity with civil authority to investigate Joint Powers Authorities. The Jury was not able to identify a government agency that is responsible for analyzing Joint Powers Authority risk. Nevada County does not have a central authority responsible for oversight, minimal reporting requirements, tracking, monitoring, and compliance for all Nevada County Joint Powers Authorities.

The Jury recommends the Nevada County Board of Supervisors identify a county resource/department to be responsible for obtaining, maintaining, and tracking an active list of all Joint Powers Authorities associated within Nevada County. The Jury also recommends the Nevada County Board of Supervisors identify a county resource/department to audit Joint Powers Authority compliance against Government Code 6500.

The full report is here.

Fire Safe Council of Nevada County Growing Pains and Best Practices

Nevada County selected the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County as one of the agencies to provide critical wildfire mitigation support. The County and citizen concerns about alleged financial issues and mismanagement by the Fire Safe Council were made public in The Grass Valley Union in 2021. Due to the critical support the Fire Safe Council provides to the County’s wildfire programs the 2021-2022 Nevada County Grand Jury launched an investigation into the allegations.

The non-profit Fire Safe Council of Nevada County provides critical wildfire mitigation support to Nevada County and provides wildfire hardening services. In recent years fire danger in the community has exploded, and so has the need for organizations such as the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County. As a result, there has been an influx of tax dollars to fund fire protection programs. The non-profit has expanded rapidly, requiring additional staff to implement and complete expanding programs, and has experienced significant organizational growing pains.

Nevada County was made aware of issues with the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County through a letter from an attorney representing a former contract employee. The Fire Safe Council of Nevada County Board of Directors ordered an internal control report from a third-party accounting firm for Fiscal Years 2019 – 2021 which identified material weaknesses and significant deficiencies in internal controls. Nevada County followed up with two letters to the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County expressing concern with the organization’s operations.

Concerns raised include insufficient internal controls, material weaknesses, and other deficiencies. The Fire Safe Council of Nevada County lacks the segregation of duties which would provide required checks and balances of financial processes, as well as protect the organization and its employees. Segregation of duties is an important set of controls that ensures no one individual is responsible for writing and signing bank checks, payroll, invoices, purchasing, and financial reporting.

The Fire Safe Council of Nevada County responded that many of the allegations were inaccurate and based on incomplete information—nonetheless the nonprofit had initiated the first steps of a planned improvement program.

The Nevada County Grand Jury found that issues identified by Nevada County, auditors, and the public are far from resolved, and the continued turnover of financial employees may put the organization at serious financial risk.

The Fire Safe Council of Nevada County is a significant part of Nevada County’s safety net. The Nevada County Grand Jury recommends that continued and sustained development as outlined by Nevada County will allow the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County to achieve their stated mission: “To make Nevada County safer from destructive wildfire”

The full report is here.

Nevada Irrigation District Troubled Waters

The Nevada Irrigation District is an independent special district responsible for the provision of agricultural irrigation water and residential drinking water to areas in and around western Nevada County and northern Placer County. The district operates an extensive reservoir and canal system, and a network of water treatment plants. Additionally, the district produces hydroelectric energy and provides outdoor public recreation.

The Nevada County Grand Jury received two citizen complaints. The first complaint asked for a review of the rates for raw, untreated water provided to agricultural customers, in comparison to the rates paid by customers of treated water. The second complaint requested review of the actions of the Board of Directors for failures to follow requirements outlined in the California Government Code and Nevada Irrigation District policy and procedures.

During these investigations, the Nevada County Grand Jury broadened the scope of the investigation and reviewed the 2019 and 2022 reapportionment processes of the Nevada Irrigation District.

The Nevada County Grand Jury found that there is a significant disparity in the price of raw water provided by contract to the cities of Grass Valley and Nevada City, and to “agricultural” customers of raw water for irrigation.

Nevada County ranks 54th out of 58 California counties in agricultural production. Many customers receive raw water, at the low agricultural rate, and do not produce an agricultural product from their land. There is no policy or procedure for which customers of the raw, untreated water are required to show income from agriculture on their property.

The Nevada County Grand Jury has found that the combination of the low rates for “agricultural” customers, coupled with a historical reluctance of the Board of Directors to raise these rates, have forced water operations to now operate at a deficit. The Nevada Irrigation District transferred monies from reserve funds in other operating areas to supplement water operations. This may force the Nevada Irrigation District to forego needed infrastructure repair and replacement, and affect the investment rate for potential bonds.

The Nevada Irrigation District is divided into five Divisions with one Director representing each Division. The last record of reapportionment, prior to 2022, by the Nevada Irrigation District was found to be in 1983.

During the Board of Directors’ discussions over the course of several meetings in 2019, the legal counsel for the district advised the Board of Directors that not reapportioning placed the district at risk of a lawsuit based on California Election Code law and the Voting Rights Act. However, the Board of Directors tabled the reapportionment process in October 2019.

The Nevada County Grand Jury finds that by ignoring advice from legal counsel and not asking counsel for an interpretation of the law, the Board of Directors placed the Nevada Irrigation District at legal risk and in danger of facing a potentially expensive civil lawsuit.

In January 2022, Nevada Irrigation District staff and the Board of Directors revisited the issue of reapportionment of the Nevada Irrigation District Divisions. The Board of Directors faced a strict timeline for completion of the reapportionment process as statutes required reapportionment be completed by April 17, 2022.

The Nevada County Grand Jury found the Board of Directors was presented a new map and voted on adoption of this map on the same date. This action violated California Election Code section 22001.

The Nevada County Grand Jury found that Directors contacted each other on issues coming before the Board outside of open, public meetings in violation of sections of the California Government Code, commonly known as the Brown Act, and the Nevada Irrigation District Policy Manual. In public meetings, Directors also spoke on issues that were not on the posted agenda for the specific meeting.

Further, the Nevada County Grand Jury found a lack of trust and communication throughout the Nevada Irrigation District’s Board of Directors, administration, and staff.

The full report is here.

Nevada County Sheriff’s Department Inmate Welfare Fund: Tipping the Scale in Criminal Justice

A fundamental component of every county government involves the detention of suspected criminals for impending charges, possible prosecution, and fulfillment of sentencing. Nevada County houses these detained individuals in the Wayne Brown Correctional Facility. The Inmate Welfare Fund is a component of the jail operations in Nevada County.

California Penal Code §4025 is the legal foundation of the Inmate Welfare Fund. Penal Code §4025 defines the source of revenue for the fund and the targeted purpose of expenditures from the fund. Revenues for the fund come from profits on items sold in the jail commissary and commissions charged on telephone/internet calls made by inmates. The fund shall be spent by the Sheriff primarily for the benefit, education, and welfare of the inmates confined within the jail.

As of May 2022, Assembly Bill 1782 pending in the legislature will rename the fund to ‘Incarcerated People’s Welfare Fund’. This will further tighten the focus of the IWF expenditures from ‘primarily’ to ‘solely’ for the inmate welfare.

During the investigation, the Jury found the Inmate Welfare Fund was used appropriately for legal fees, labor costs for the commissary, etc. No misuse was found of the Inmate Welfare Fund at the Wayne Brown Correctional Facility.

The Inmate Welfare Fund balance has increased over the last 10 years from $69K to over $500K, almost an 800% increase.

The Inmate Welfare Fund balance was $360K at the end of fiscal year 2015/2016. This increased to $557K at the end of fiscal year 2020/2021, an average increase of approximately $33K per year. Despite recent decreases to the revenue from surcharges on calls made by inmates and use of computer tablets, the balance of the fund going forward looks stable.

The Nevada County Sheriff’s Office should consider the addition of an Inmate Welfare Fund coordinator to administer expenditures of the fund balance to implement programs which benefit the welfare of inmates. This coordinator can use a pre-defined minimum end of year balance target to determine if additional programs or expenditures are a responsible use of the fund. This would be at little or no cost to Nevada County.

Nevada County should emulate successful Inmate Welfare Fund administration in other counties (e.g., Humboldt County). Programs, grants, and partnerships should be managed by dedicated staff to improve the use of this fund.
The inmates benefit directly from the Inmate Welfare Fund. Increasing the use of the fund will improve the living conditions for the inmates and the working conditions for the staff at the Wayne Brown Correctional Facility.

The full report is here.

Nevada County Schools The Lesson Never Learned

The Nevada County Grand Jury researched and conducted two surveys and has recommendations for the Nevada County Superintendent of Schools office, individual schools, and districts.

The Nevada County Grand Jury focused on three key areas:
• survey responses from the schools and districts
• attendance/enrollment statistics
• review of independent financial audits of school districts

The survey responses indicated the relationship between administrators and teachers is healthy. Covid issues and related problems have been addressed by the entire Nevada County educational system. The Nevada County Grand Jury has given a special commendation in this report.

The Nevada County Grand Jury received a complaint regarding the handling of a Covid related issue. Upon investigating the complaint other issues surfaced. The Nevada County Grand Jury discovered enrollment and district revenues are declining at the same time as pension and other expenses are increasing.

The Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Office needs to make it a priority to work with the districts in a transparent way to ensure current and future solvency. Also, make short-term and long-term plans with the districts, with particular attention to unfunded liabilities, pensions, potential consolidation or unification, decreasing teaching staff, and administrative duplication. These are hard and essential decisions.

The Nevada County Grand Jury reviewed audits and found some school districts were repeatedly non-compliant with some education code requirements and the handling of Associated Student Body funds. These issues need to be remedied.

The full report is here.