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County 2019 Top 5 News Stories

2019 TOP NEWS COUNTDOWN

5. Deputy District Attorneys Strike

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.

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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.  

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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.

3. County Declares New River Emergency

County 2019 Top 5 New Stories
FILE PHOTO | Calexico Chronicle

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 county.”

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.

“There was no cybersecurity program (prior to the attack); it didn’t exist,”

County IT Manager Henry Felix

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 p.m.”

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. Training and awareness programs are now a large part of what the IT department does to defend the county’s networks.


This story is featured in the Jan 02, 2020 e-Edition.