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2023 Tuolumne County Accomplishments – Year In Review

As the Board Chair for this past year, I thought the public might be interested to read what our County was able to achieve in 2023. Here are just some of the most important ones… This is in no way a complete list, but it does highlight some of our biggest accomplishments, along with a couple of projects I worked on during 2023.

Legislative 2 Year Platform: We started off the year with a workshop in January to develop the first legislative platform in many years. In past years, a long time ago now, when the legislative platform process took place, there were pages and pages of objectives. To be effective, our Board determined that we should have no more than 4 priority legislative policy areas as a focus.

Tuolumne County Legislative Platform

This is a 2-year platform that will remain our focus between January 2023 until January 2025. The full platform can be accessed here:

https://www.tuolumnecounty.ca.gov/DocumentCenter/View/24762/2023-Legislative-Platform-Final

Here are the highlights of our four policy areas, and what we have been able to accomplish so far with each.

  • Homeowner’s Insurance- We approached this policy area on several fronts: through our Office of Emergency Services team, via the Assessor’s Office and Supervisor supports; and in tandem with the Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC – a rural counties advocacy group) Ad Hoc Committee in which I represented Tuolumne County. This group developed policy recommendations for insurance companies, the California Insurance Commissioner’s Office, and wildfire mitigation measures, to name just a few. The strongest recommendations were for modernizing the FAIR Plan as well as recommending efforts to depopulate this plan to transition policy holders back into the regular insurance carrier market by holding the Insurance Commissioner more accountable. We recommended an expedited and streamlined rate review by the Insurance Commissioner. His office’s snails pace review, spanning more than 12 months, has held up policy issuance over the past several years. We stated that we would like to see better oversight by the Insurance Commissioner on all insurance risk modeling, including proprietary catastrophe models used by insurance carriers. There should be information sharing with our communities on risk models utilized so that we (the Counties) can respond with appropriate and effective mitigation measures. We also stated that we would like to see full transparency throughout the rate setting process, including insurance risk modeling, reinsurance, rate-filing, and intervenor actions. Additionally, our Ad Hoc group supported an independent review of the rate-filing process in California including periodic review after new regulations are implemented to improve affordability and accessibility. Another thing we recommended was a collaborative approach between the State, insurance providers, and policy holders to develop a comprehensive program which encourages insurance companies to write policies in high wildfire risk areas where community wildfire risk mitigation programs meet agreed-upon standards. There’s actually a lot more to the RCRC recommendations than listed here…these are just some of the highlights. I will send out the entire report on our policy recommendations to anyone who asks for it. Please send your request to me: khaff@co.tuolumne.ca.us
  • Roads– In 2023, our Board invested an unprecedented $5.59 million for road projects in every Supervisorial district in the County in 2023. This investment also included funding for a roadside masticator, to remove brush and woody mass in the county road right-of-way areas. Some of this funding came from a one-time grant made to “public lands” counties in the United States as a separate funding source from the American Rescue Plan Act funding. This funding is above and beyond the SB1 -gas tax funding we receive which basically covers only major collector roads.
  • Homelessness- Undoubtedly this is THE MOST controversial subject we have attempted to tackle this year. We have made headway in providing shelter and programs to help the unhoused who want the help, a hand up in the newly acquired Navigation Center. This is a place for this population to move into intensive case management support services plus housing so that they can either move out at or before the end of a six-month period and into standing on their own, or into a transitional phase where they still receive shelter at another location and services for up to two years to get back on their feet. Earlier in the year we approved the Navigation Center, and the Board just made decisions for transitional housing, and a Veteran’s home, none of which are “homeless shelters” at the December 19th Board meeting. In addition to this, the Board also gave direction to staff on a “first ever” Clean and Clear draft policy, to hold unhoused folks who don’t want the help to be accountable for their actions!
  • Water– As the Board Chair this year, our supervisors gave me the authority to sign bills on the full Board’s behalf to oppose some pretty egregious bills that aim to dismantle the water rights system we have in place right now and give the State Water Resources Control Board a lot more power! Along with the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), our policy letters on water, mostly in opposition, curtailed many of these onerous bills from passing in this legislative year. Some of these bills are 2-year bills, which means they will be continued in the next legislative session beginning in January. The goal of our County’s Water Agency (which was set in State statute in 1969) is to strategize and look out for the needs of our entire county where water is concerned.

Board Actions and “Other” Projects in 2023:

  1. Housing for Tuolumne County- There has been a big push to do everything within our power to remove the obstacles as best we can that prevent housing from moving forward in our County. It has reached a critical point where our citizens are being priced out of a place to live in either purchases or rentals. Those wanting to accept job offers to move here to be teachers, health care workers and even medical specialists, after accepting the job, must often give the offer back due to their inability to find adequate housing. This is serious, folks! Here are some of the things that have been done to change the dynamics of this situation.
  • Housing Collaborative: In 2022 and continuing in 2023, a group of concerned people formed the Housing Collaborative to address our county’s critical housing needs. This group was not “county-centric” but was composed of City, County, Tribal, non-profit groups (like Habitat for Humanity), for-profit businesses like contractors and private mortgage lenders, community service districts, regional and state housing and the like. I was one of the founders of this group and we have made great headway this year! Most notable was the hiring a Housing Specialist by our Board to help with the internal Community Development Department’s streamlining and processes while also keeping an eye on the external/contractor/developer viewpoint to help guide them toward successful outcomes as far as housing is concerned.
  • Workforce Housing: We definitely need housing for those who are gainfully employed but just can’t afford the high rental amounts or homeownership costs. These are oftentimes families who work as grocery store cashiers, teacher’s assistants, and sometimes even teachers who need less expensive housing. With the help of Senator Marie Alvarado-Gil, I was able to get funding from the State to pay for a 20+ acre parcel of land, just off of Hwy 108 across the highway from Papa’s New Roost for Workforce Housing. We still have a long way to go, with many more hoops to jump through before this vision can be realized, but we have started the process in 2023!
  • Online Permitting: Also in 2023, our Community Development Department (building department) went “live” with online permitting. This will greatly streamline our permit process. A contractor can now submit his or her plans for building homes (or other projects) online and watch the approval process as it happens. This was one of our Board Goals from our last goal-setting session and it is really fantastic to see this service come online.
  1. Food Security– As we saw through the pandemic, our US food supply chain, among other supply chains, was in jeopardy. This was especially acute for the meat industry! We have a solid number of ranchers locally dedicated to raising livestock for meat. However, they have to go to great lengths to find a USDA meat processing facility if they want to use one. Sometimes this means traveling long distances (like to Sonoma County!) or they need to place their names on a 2-year waiting list for some valley facilities. This is before their animal is even born!! Earlier this year, as representative for Tuolumne County, I joined forces with Calaveras County Supervisor Amanda Folendorf and UC Extension/Farm Advisor Livestock Coordinator Flavie Audoin to embark on the USDA Motherlode Meat Processing Facility Project. An online survey was completed in November to ascertain whether we have enough interested ranchers and livestock (cattle, sheep, goats and pigs) to embark upon such a venture. The results came in and the answer was a resounding YES! Early in 2024, we will seek input from those with a vested interest on what model we should use and what type of partnership we will employ to make the next set of decisions.
  2. Law Enforcement and Fire– Our Board approved increased recruitments for the Sheriff’s Dept and so far that has netted 17 additional deputies (jail and patrol) compared to 8 that were hired in 2022. There are 2 more in background checks that could potentially be hired by the end of December. In 2023, our Board made a very large investment in Fire Apparatus, at $2.87M for (4) Type 1 engines, (1) Type 2 engine, and various equipment and furnishings for fire stations. Big investments were made in 2022 as well. Additionally, the County landed a $9M SAFER Grant to allow for better fire coverage for a 3-year period. This has increased coverage for the Groveland and Columbia areas.
  3. Broadband Accomplishments– First of all, our Board was able to hire a Broadband Specialist. This was a huge and necessary investment due to the sheer number of grant and other funding opportunities from the State and the federal government to plan for and build broadband infrastructure.Most of the project work so far has been the “unseen” type such as planning. In 2023, we embarked on an environmental review for the entire county, specifically for Broadband projects. This will actually streamline the process for Internet Service Providers (ISP) who want to build projects in our County. They won’t have to wait a year to have this study done for their particular project, like in many areas of the State that didn’t have the forethought to plan for this requirement in advance.A County Broadband Strategic Plan was just completed, and the administrative draft was just received. A completed plan will be presented to the Board of Supervisors in early 2024.Broadband middle-mile mapping has been completed for the County. Basically, this is a State funded project in conjunction with Caltrans and the CA Department of Technology to bring open-access (any ISP can plug into this fiber line) up the Hwy 120 corridor all the way to Buck Meadows and up the Hwy 108 corridor to Strawberry. We have yet to see if the 2024 State budget will actually fund this essential “trunk line” for our county. Our Governor has promised this funding, so let’s hold him to that promise!

    Last-mile broadband projects are the ones that go into our local neighborhoods. It is hoped that many ISPs will submit applications to build out these projects in locations all throughout the County. Our Board approved a plan to go to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) that will pay for broadband infrastructure in areas that ISPs aren’t likely to (ever) build and that are almost entirely unserved. Those project areas are in Chinese Camp, Big Oak Flat, Jamestown, and Columbia. It is up to the CPUC to make the final decision, which should be forthcoming, possibly as early as March, 2024.

  4. National Opioid Litigation Settlements – gained traction in 2023. These are monies that will soon start flowing into the County from lawsuits filed as a result of rampant opioid use/misuse in jurisdictions all across the country. In 2023, our County filed as a party to these suits (there are several) and we will soon be the beneficiary of funding to combat and educate about the harms of opioid and fentanyl use. Here is what we have done so far. Our County, through the Health Officer has reintroduced the Tuolumne County Opioid Safety Coalition this year. She has worked tirelessly on outreach to providers, the public, and schools to lower substance abuse. Although we can’t claim a direct correlation, a recent report shows that Tuolumne County rates of opioid prescriptions have declined, as have overdose deaths. That’s definitely a step in the right direction!
  5. Visit Tuolumne Contract, awarded this year – This has been a multi-year struggle to come to an agreement to give stability to the Visitor’s Bureau, because Transit Occupancy Tax (TOT) funds are involved. This was the year we were actually able to finalize an agreement that everyone can live with. This was a somewhat controversial decision because not everyone has been able to grasp the understanding that these funds devoted to Visit Tuolumne are parlayed and increased, which returns to the County in terms of increased TOT and sales taxes due to an increase in visitor counts. Especially when it comes to the overseas travelers who tend to spend more money and stay longer.
  6. Holding PGE accountable for providing reliable service! As the result of my holding PGE accountable, as the Board Chair and representing District 4 (the most widely affected area affected by continuous EPSS events), PGE has introduced a new technology called Gridscope that is being installed on powerlines that will allow PGE to more quickly identify the location of an issue and restore power faster, thereby increasing reliability on the grid in the Groveland and Big Oak Flat areas and other affected areas of Tuolumne County as well. It is a limited pilot project. I am expecting more reliability work specifics from PGE to be released to me in writing in the near future.
  7. Master Stewardship Agreement work accomplished in 2023 – Major work has been conducted in our forests this year. These projects improve forest health, reduce fuel loads, and work to reduce our risk of catastrophic wildfires, which in turn, better protects our local communities. (At some point, the insurance companies will have to recognize this!) In 2023, we have spent $10.4M from the federal government and $4.5M from the State in grant funded projects. The project areas include the communities of Cedar Ridge, Cold Springs and follow the Hwy 108 corridor, and include thousands and thousands of acres treated and even more project planning for future acreage to be treated.
  8. Office of Emergency Services (OES)– Our Board has supported the development of a very professional and robust team for our County to plan for, respond to, mitigate, and recover from emergencies and disasters. And yes…we experienced some major emergencies in 2023, but not the usual suspect, wildfires. This time it was the atmospheric rivers that brought unprecedented flooding and damage to our area. Our team successfully responded to 2 Presidentially Declared Disasters (back-to-back). The coordinated Public Assistance process for County departments and all eligible entities within the County for both storms amounted to a whopping $47,318,218 in damages! Our County has submitted to FEMA for reimbursement Individual Assistance that has provided over 4 million dollars in relief to individuals and businesses that suffered damages.As far as planning and mitigation goes, our OES team coordinated the funding for and completion of the County’s Emergency Operations Plan which had not been updated since 2012. This plan is currently under review with Cal OES but several consultations with various state departments have stated that it is one of the best they have seen!Various grants have been awarded to our OES team totaling about $31,249,000. Here are just a few to highlight: The Community Wildfire Defense Project = $10 Million which provides defensible space work on approximately 1,290 homes, roadside vegetation management on about 23 miles of road, and outreach to create additional Firewise Communities and other fire adaptive cohorts within at-risk and low-income communities. The California Wildfire Mitigation Program Home Hardening Initiative = $20 Million which reduces the threat to life and property in our area’s Wildland Urban Interface/Intermix (WUI) areas. This will be the 4th pilot project of its kind in the state.We are the recipient of a California Jumpstart Grant = $694,000 which provides a full time OES Resilience Analyst to help socially vulnerable and high-hazard-risk communities “jumpstart” their progress toward greater resilience through advanced outreach.

    Additionally, we were awarded 2 California Fire Safe Council Grants. One pays for a County Coordinator position full time for Education and outreach. = $175,000. Another one pays for County Evacuation Planning. This is for GIS evacuation planning of potential secondary egresses and 5 miles of roadside brushing. This grant also helped fund a GIS dashboard for vulnerable entities needing additional assistance during evacuations = $380,000.

    Our OES team didn’t stop there. They also assisted and participated in the development of a county-wide Fuels Reduction Storyboard which was just launched. All fuels reduction projects, no matter which organization conducted them, are plotted on this multi-layer map. Have a look. Go to: https://tinyurl.com/TC-Mitigation We need to paint an accurate picture of how well we are doing so that we can move insurance companies off the dime to come back and insure our homeowners. This storyboard does that!

    And last, but not least, the Alert and Warning System was launched this year. 5 sirens are now on-line and operational. We have also increased the number of registrants in the Everbridge Emergency Alert notification system to over 90,000 (in Dec 2020 we had about 33,000). If you are not yet registered, why not? Please go to: https://member.everbridge.net/1332612387832200/login to sign up.

  9. Our Board makes decisions primarily on “policy and budget” matters. When we are successful in GSD (getting stuff done), it is due to our dedicated and talented staff, who actually do the work to make it all happen. Yes, the Board makes the high-level decisions, but the thanks and tribute goes to our devoted County staff who have worked tirelessly to serve all of you.

I am grateful to have been a contributing member of this organization and have enjoyed serving you, as your Board Chair this year. From all of us on the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors, we wish you a prosperous and fantastic New Year! More to come in 2024.

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