The Path to a Healthy Tuolumne County
-Jeff Redoutey, President, Tuolumne County Business Council
-Erik Segerstrom, President, Tuolumne County Association of Realtors
Tuolumne County, along with the entire world, is facing a new normal. Covid-19 has greatly impacted the way we live and the local businesses and industries that provide the economic engines for revenue and growth that pay for our county services, quality of life and needed upgrades for our aging infrastructure. The decrease in tourism has impacted County Transit Occupancy Tax (TOT) and County Sales taxes and when combined with tax measures P and Q failing to gain local support this year, Tuolumne County is facing an estimated $1,000,000 shortfall for 2019-2020 and another estimated $5,000,000-$7,000,000 budget shortfall in 2020-2021 fiscal budget operations starting in July of this year.
The exploding budget deficit will require a combination of cuts to core County services and staff, in excess of those seen during the 2008/9 recession. The County has indicated that they must look at reducing costs by reducing hours of operation or closing facilities like libraries and the recently constructed juvenile hall, cutting recreation services and further reducing the Visitor’s Bureau marketing budget.
This pandemic has exposed how vulnerable our County economy is. As we work ourselves out of the Pandemic and the recession, we need to be better prepared and diversified for economic downturns and develop a new strategy on how we weather future calamities, or face more severe cutbacks in these uncertain times.
Tuolumne County voters sent a strong message by not approving the additional TOT or sales tax revenues. It is time for all Tuolumne County to work together to seek out and develop new revenue streams. Historically the most beneficial revenue streams for our County have been through economic development to create additional revenue and jobs. It is time for all of us to support ways to grow our County out of a severe budget deficit and work with our County Planning Department and Supervisors to streamline and simplify the cumbersome entitlement process for needed investments in our County. This includes homes at all levels, apartments, projects that provide well-planned mixed-use housing that is affordable, along with commercial and resort projects that will bring in permitting fees, living wage jobs, additional tourism options and an increased annual tax base. This has never been more critical to our dwindling County economy.
For many years we have had small vocal opposition groups. The “Not in My Back Yard” (NIMBY) mentality, no growth groups and quasi self-declared environmentalists oppose economic development in our county and fight against many new projects brought before our county planners. These groups often state that they want to preserve our quality of life, which sounds well intended, however; their opposition and lawsuits have had a huge adverse impact on the County General Plan, well planned mix use housing communities, needed apartment and resort projects. The result has been the loss of millions of County dollars in project fees, along with needed road and infrastructure improvements, and missed opportunities to increase the yearly property tax base of the county.
New sources of revenues are needed more now than ever. The cuts to County core services in the 2008/9 recession negatively impacted our quality of life, and the projected cuts needed to
close the current budget gap of $1,000,000 now and the projected $5,000,0000-$7,000,000 county budget deficit for 2020/2021, will have a much larger negative impact to the quality of life we all enjoy.
Last year County tax payers had to pay over $80,000 in legal fees against the lawsuit brought by a local environmental group seeking to block improvements to the General Plan, and lost hundreds of hours of valuable County staff time dealing with the lawsuit. In the end the unnecessary delays resulted in very small changes to the General Plan and could have been negotiated in good faith with the County instead of litigating for marketing purposes to help raise donations.
Opposition resulted in slowing and derailing the approval process for other much needed apartments, housing and tourism-based resort projects. Well planned infill communities like Mountain Springs were hit with delays and demands for reduced housing and increased mitigation costs to the point where the project could no longer afford to provide a mix of housing that met the needs of County residents. The developers, who partnered with long time local families and investors, gave up and walked away after spending millions of dollars for planning and re-planning two EIR approvals. Lawsuits and threats of future lawsuits are not the way to attract, encourage and retain groups with the experience and capital needed to provide for well-planned sustainable growth.
Every County needs sustainable growth to remain healthy and generate much-needed revenues for government services, and continued infrastructure improvements. Without new investment in our county and associated jobs, Tuolumne County is losing the experienced staff and our younger generations are being forced to move away to find jobs outside our county with living wages and housing that is affordable. As young families continue to leave our County, enrollment in our schools has plummeted resulting in layoffs and school closures and impacts to our workforce, thus continuing the downward spiral, year after year to our quality of life.
Our neighboring counties bring in more parcel tax revenues because they have a much lower percentage of State and Federal lands and Mariposa has many more lodging options. Yosemite National Park generates a lot of tourism traffic through both Counties. Visitors that stayed in Mariposa County generate approximately $15 million in Transient Occupancy Tax revenue per year for Mariposa, while Tuolumne County received less than $5 million due to a lack of lodging options. Planning efforts to create more tourism & convention destination resort options in Tuolumne County have been threatened with continuing litigation by NIMBY opposition and a local environmental group. The net impact costs Tuolumne County millions of dollars of new revenue every year. With increasing budget deficits every year, we need to stop opposing sustainable positive growth to our county.
It is time for all county citizens interested in maintaining our quality of life to support the protection of the majority of our county lands that are preserved as State and National lands and equally support the well-planned economic development on the remaining 5% of our County in other areas.
It should be noted that Covid reductions in the Tourism TOT revenue, collected by resorts, hotels and Air B&Bs, has reduced County Revenue and the Visitors Bureau marketing allocation of 25%. Additional cuts, as suggested by the County to tourism marketing, will undoubtably have further negative impacts on tourism travel while other destinations will be aggressively marketing to attract visitors as pandemic restrictions are lifted. In addition to the TOT revenue, Tourism also provides associated business revenues, and sales taxes, to the county General Fund, and employment.
We can break this downward trend by working with County Planners in adopting better Zoning and Ordinances, and developing a streamlined planning process that enables more economical well-planned development for needed businesses and mixed residential projects. Well planned economic development will bring in jobs, permitting fees, and increase the annual tax base to stabilize the County General Fund.
Post Pandemic we need to embrace a new normal, as we work through the recession that is impacting all of us in our county, we have to think and act differently. Sustainable, positive growth with good, responsibly planned development will provide new revenues with a mix of needed housing and economic development and sustain living wage jobs so return to the quality of life for ourselves, our children, and future generations.
Tuolumne County Business Council
Tuolumne County Association of Realtors