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Byrne takes over leadership of Modoc board

Third-year county supervisor elected to serve as chairman

by LEE JUILLERAT, Herald and News 1/20/13

NEWELL — Geri Byrne knew she’d be facing unforeseen challenges when she won election as the Modoc County Supervisor in 2010 from a district that includes the remote communities of Adin, Canby, Lookout and Newell, her home since 1980.

What she didn’t realize was how much time she’d be on a phone and iPad staying in contact with county offices in Alturas.

“I had to go to an unlimited cellphone plan,” Byrne laughed.

Staying in touch will be even more time-consuming this year. With a very “young” board, she and Dave Allen of Surprise Valley are the only supervisors with two years experience on the five-member board. Byrne was elected board chairwoman earlier this month. The board includes a trio of new supervisors — Jon Pedersen, Kathie Alves and Jim Wills.

The challenges are many, and serious.

Funneled funds

Most significantly, Modoc County is still working its way out of financial chaos created when county officials illegally and unknowingly transferred restricted funds to support the financially struggling county-owned Modoc Medical Center for several years. The Alturas hospital now has its own voterapproved tax district.

Investigations determined millions of dollars — one estimate was $15 million — were funneled to the hospital in the early 2000s. Although state investigators determined there was no criminal intent, the county was left financially teetering. A series of audits resulted in hundreds of pages of findings detailing the improper dealings. Payback plans obligate the county to pay $800,000 a year on its debt, which last year dropped under $12 million.

“We’ve started toward recovery, but it’s a hard battle,” Byrne said.

Some previous supervisors considered declaring the county bankrupt. Massive cutbacks have reduced employee numbers and services, which has led to ongoing interdepartmental battles about budget cuts.

“We’re having to get more creative,” Byrne said of continuing efforts to restructure departments and cross-staff employees. “There’s not enough people to do everything now.”

Being creative and finding ways to continue paying down the debt is just one of the reasons Byrne, 56, is spending more time on her phone and iPad.

Focused meetings

She’s also trying to find ways to keep board meetings focused and short. After being elected chairwoman, Byrne set ground rules aimed at keeping conversations civil and respectful. While she won’t say it publicly, she also wants to avoid the drama that too often turned board meetings into prolonged shouting matches. The first session she presided at was completed in a little over two hours, half as long as most sessions held last year.

“It’s important people have their say but we need to be professional and get to the business at hand,” she said. “The board was very responsive to that.”

Although Byrne attended supervisor meetings for a year before she was elected and has two years experience, she said the job routinely holds surprises.

“You get in there and there are so many facets to the job. Every meeting you have 20 different items and on some of them you don’t have a clue,” she admits.

As chairwoman, Byrne wants the board to do strategic planning, something not previously done. She believes planning is needed to “see where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. I really see that we’re starting to make some progress.”


Get to know Geri Byrne

The Newell area has been Geri Byrne’s home since moving to the Tulelake Basin community in 1980. She met her husband, Dan, while both were studying at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, where she majored in animal science.

After college, they operated a ranch with other Byrne family members. Dan died four years ago, but she still lives on the ranch. She has 50 sheep used to train her border collies.

Byrne, a self-described fiscal conservative, has long been involved in a variety of activities, including the Tulelake-Butte Valley Fair Board of Directors, Modoc County Farm Bureau, Tulelake Basin Republican Women and the U.S. Border Collie Handlers Association as a board member. She produces stock dog training videos and has become best known for organizing five National Sheepdog Finals.

Byrne said her district, which is far-flung from the county seat in Alturas, is agriculturally based, noting, “Agriculture’s been the one bright spot in the economy” for Modoc County, she said. Partly because of its distance from Alturas and lifestyle differences with other areas of the county, her district often doesn’t receive its share of county services.

“People in my communities need to have better benefits,” she said.

With all the challenges, Byrne believes her late husband would be astonished, insisting, “He would think I was crazy for what I’m doing.”



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