The Imperial County Deputy District Attorneys Association walked off the job for about a week in late March over low wages and unfair working conditions. While it ended its walkout March 20, the prosecutors’ union continued its impasse with the county until it finally signed a new contract with the county in the fall that saw no significant changes in pay, according to union officials.
“Today, we are going back
to work. We hoped that the strike would shed light on our current staffing
crisis and bring the county back to the bargaining table in good faith. That
didn’t happen; in fact, things are now worse as the county continues to
negotiate in bad faith. It seems there is no point to continuing the strike so
we will go back to court to continue serving our community the best we can,”
said association president Twyla Johnson, reading from the prepared statement
on March 20.
The prosecutors at the
time had six vacant positions, with 15 attorneys doing the work of 21, causing
a workload that they had said was unsustainable. The attorneys contended low
pay has made it impossible to retain experienced attorneys who leave for
higher-paying jobs outside Imperial County, and it has made it difficult to
recruit anything but inexperienced attorneys to fill the vacant positions.
In the ensuing months,
the D.A.’s office created a new classification of prosecutor, Deputy District
Attorney V, with a higher pay range. Also, signing bonuses and stipends were
approved to retain some prosecutors.
In the fall, the union
accepted the county’s 2.2 percent raise offer good for three years, which
amounted to 6.6 percent total over the life of the contract.
4. Imperial County Budget Strife
The county Board of
Supervisors on Oct. 1 approved a balanced final budget of $497.7 million for
fiscal year 2019-20 that was built through months of trimming and tightening. That
included the board instituting a hiring freeze and across-the-board cuts to
general-fund departments in an effort to avoid tapping into diminishing reserve
accounts that for years had been used to balance the bottom line.
The final budget included
a general fund of $218.2 million.
“We’re required to
produce a budget and we met the deadline. (But) it’s a living document. We’ll
be taking additional looks at it throughout the year,” board Chairman Ryan
Kelley said following the Oct. 1 meeting.
Supervisor Jesus Escobar,
who has been outspoken in his concern about the county’s financial footing
since taking office in January 2019, voted to move the budget forward but with
caveats. He called for his fellow board members to support “strategic planning”
efforts to continue to address the county’s finances and for the development of
a five-year budget outlook.
The general-fund budget
had been the source of much heartburn over the previous several months before
its passage. Budget shortfalls going back years had been covered by raiding the
county’s rainy-day funds, specifically its two general reserve accounts, which
have been at $6.9 million for at least three years, according to information
provided by county budget officials.
Earlier in the summer,
officials said the county had successfully found a way to overcome an $18.1
million deficit to its general fund. Reducing the deficit was accomplished by
instituting a hiring freeze for general-fund departments, leaving about 20
vacant positions unfilled and unfunded, transferring over millions of dollars
in one-time funding, transferring funding that was carried over from fiscal
2018-19’s general fund and taking $2.9 million from general-fund reserves.
The general fund pays for
departments such as social services, public works, public safety departments,
the district attorney’s and public defender’s offices, planning and building,
and several more. Departments such as behavioral health, public health and air
pollution control are funded through other dedicated revenue streams such as
federal and state funding and grants, officials have said.
On Nov. 5, the county
Board of Supervisors declared a state of emergency on the U.S. side of the New
River. The move was over federal and international inaction regarding the
cleanup of raw sewage spills from the Mexico side of the river that regularly
flow north into Imperial County, affecting locals living near the river.
Often cited as one of the
dirtiest waterways in North America, the New River is full of known carcinogens
and human waste. Its source is Mexico and it flows across the border into
Calexico before emptying into the Salton Sea in northern Imperial County.
The declaration proclaimed the U.S. side of the International Boundary
and Water Commission has shown no plans to address what the declaration called
a “public calamity” and “crisis” that is most certainly beyond the resources
and “the control of the services, personnel, equipment and facilities of the
The declaration pointed
out that there are differing sets of standards being applied to allowable
pollution levels on the New River in comparison to allowable levels at similar
Mexico-U.S. tributaries like the Tijuana River. The New River’s allowable
pollution levels are in violation of U.S. Clean Water Act standards, it stated.
County officials, in the
declaration, called for federal or international dollars to fund a wastewater-treatment
plant on the U.S. side of the New River, and the ongoing funding of a
county-based water-monitoring and reporting program.
In December, it was
announced $515 million in environmental funding could be made available for the
New River with the passage of the United States-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement
implementation act being considered by the Congress.
2. County Declares Salton Sea Emergency
In late October, the
county Board of Supervisors declared a public health emergency at the Salton
Sea over air-pollution issues. The declaration claimed pollution is being
exacerbated by the state’s slow movement on providing the necessary funding and
action required to begin restoration efforts at the sea.
The county’s declaration
noted that after the signing of the Quantification Settlement Agreement in 2003
by the Imperial Irrigation District that less water began to flow into the
Salton Sea. That is in part because farmers create less agricultural runoff due
to better farming practices and the transfer of water outside of the county
through a deal between the San Diego County Water Authority and IID.
The declaration pointed
out the result is the rapidly increasing exposure of the toxic seabed whose
materials become airborne during windy days. That creates dust pollution that
causes asthma and other breathing conditions.
The declaration was
followed about two weeks later with a list of resource demands by the county
for money and equipment so the county could handle some of the air-pollution
mitigation efforts on its own.
No real movement on the
issue has been seen since the declaration was made.
1. Ransomware Attack Cripples County in April; Recovery Efforts Continue
The top story of 2019 for
Imperial County was the ransomware attack in mid-April. It took the county’s
website, computer networks and phone and email systems offline for more than a
week, a process that was still being played out late into the year as thousands
of county computers were upgraded and new security protocols put in place.
Spending $1.9 million in
software, hardware and cybersecurity upgrades, the county Board of Supervisors
fought back against demands to pay a reported $1.2 million in ransom. The board
unanimously decided to rebuild its system from the floor up at the time of the
attack. Much of the recovery costs were covered by ransomware attack insurance,
except for a $50,000 deductible.
Officials have maintained
that no personal information was ever accessed and that the ransomware did not
have “data exfiltration capabilities,” or could not copy or move data off the
infected network. That was according to the results of a mid-August
after-action report from county information technology officials and a
third-party cybersecurity firm.
The attack was first
discovered when county officials noticed the county website offline on April
14, a Sunday. The ransomware was unleashed in stages after a county employee,
and multiple employees thereafter, opened infected attachments in “phishing
emails.” That led to what county officials have previously described as a
cascading effect of events.
The after-action report
revealed in August that the seeds for the ransomware attack were planted in the
county’s system when seven “Trojan” viruses were introduced into the county’s
network in February.
It appears as though a
phishing email campaign that began April 10, coupled with the existing viruses,
“spread within the internal network by harvesting credentials of infected
machines, elevating privileges to administrator, and remotely installing the
banking Trojans as a Windows service. The banking Trojans attempted to spread
externally using (redacted) email to appear as a legitimate email,” according
to the after-action report by Kivu, the third-party cybersecurity firm that
consulted with the county.
“Using the stolen
credentials and vulnerabilities installed by the banking Trojans, the Ryuk
threat actors (hackers) were able to gain access to the device (redacted) on
April 13, 2019,” around 3:20 a.m., the report stated. “The first instance of
the ransomware being executed was on (redacted) on April 13, 2019, at 11:35
It took the county
several months to fortify its systems with hardware and software meant to
isolate or limit the flow of data between individual departments, and to
upgrade the county’s 2,000-plus computers with Windows 10, which was required
for the latest cyberattack protection.
The county also developed
a “white list” of applications, or executable files and programs, that can be
installed or activated on county computers and devices like cell phones. Technology
officials have said if an application or program is not on the “white list” it
will not run when introduced into any county device or computer.
County IT manager Henry
Felix said in August the root causes of the attack were a vastly underfunded
and outdated cybersecurity system and the lack of a “culture” of constant
awareness and training in place that comes with a true cybersecurity program.
“There was no
cybersecurity program (prior to the attack); it didn’t exist,” Felix conceded.
“Cybersecurity doesn’t mean technical controls. It means the training and
education of county employees in how to protect county data.
awareness programs are now a large part of what the IT department does to
defend the county’s networks.