Update From Tuolumne County Supervisor District 3
It’s hard to believe two quarters have gone by since my last blog. During this time the budget process has been the main focus, and this was the first full budget which I have participated in as a Supervisor. One of the other Supervisors commented this has been the most in-depth, transparent budget review they have ever been a part of in our County. Much of the credit is due to our new CAO Tracie Riggs with her adoption of the zero-based budgeting approach and her desire to be transparent.
One of my priorities in the budget process is to run the county more like a business and zero-based budgeting supports that. This is the opposite of how government usually approaches budgeting by just allocating percentage increases over previous year expenses. That approach encourages frivolous expenditures and is not fiscally responsible. Our CAO had every department review what they do, why they do it and if it is mandated by law. This process brought emotions from both the departments and you the constituents as discussion about possible cuts to libraries, animal control, law enforcement and many other services were presented. At the end of the day, we made some cuts in personnel and some services to balance the budget. The main responsibility of Government is Public Safety, therefore we also advised staff to re-instated at the beginning of next year, three Deputy Sheriffs, Probation Officer and Animal Control Officer positions. We funded a type II Fire Engine and paid down an additional $192K in unfunded Liabilities. We also paid off a debt of $781K for the Justice Center land, which reduces interest expense and frees up money moving forward.
On the flip-side, there has been discussion of obtaining additional revenue including a proposal to put sales tax and Transient Occupancy Tax (ToT) increase measures on the ballot for the next election. The overall issue is that the cost of doing business is slowly outpacing revenue growth. There are many reasons for this, but the main reason is the rising cost of employees and changes to the PERS retirement system which has pulled-in their payment schedule. As a result, there are fundamentally important services that are not fully funded as I believe they should be, such as Sherriff Patrol, District Attorneys, Fire and EMS services as well as Library and Parks. Finally, people don’t want to drive on third-world roads.
There are three options in my opinion. If the tax measures fail, we will continue to make cuts. If the tax measures pass, we will continue to need to prioritize the needs as mentioned above, paying off debts, building reserves and avoiding future financial hardships. The third option is to push back on the State of California, specifically the Governor’s office and share with him and his staff the struggles we are facing and request additional funds.
In the September 3, 2019 BOS meeting, there was discussion to place measures on the ballot to increase sales tax from 7.25% to 8.25% and TOT from 10% to 14%. I voted against this. I did so because I see the State with a $21B surplus, building trains to nowhere, giving out CEQA exemptions to build homeless shelters, etc. meanwhile my neighbors are losing their homes from lack of affordable fire insurance, roads are failing, fire ingress-egress roads remain un-drivable. I see that we are the highest taxed State in the Union, yet a USA Today article notes that California ranks LAST in the quality of life in America. Clearly, we don’t have an under-taxation problem. I believe we have a priority problem. In our rural county, people want the basics from their government: Law Enforcement, Fire Protection and Roads.
As constituents continue to deal with rising gas prices, higher medical costs and fire insurance renewals, I can’t in good faith support asking more taxes from them unless I know I have done all I can and there are no other choices. That is why at the October 1, 2019, BOS meeting I again voiced my concern to the board, and requested we pursue a meeting with the Governor’s office. The board was supportive, and it has sparked more conversation about other strategic measures we can take. With the board’s support to reach out to the Governor, I support putting the tax measures on the ballot for you to decide.
- Mt Provo road continues to be a top priority. CAL FIRE is ready to grade it, however, a critical phone line was discovered buried and exposed in the middle of the roadway. I am working with county staff and USFS to find a way to address the issue.
- Appointed Carol Hallet and Wes Brinegar to Fire Safe Citizen Advisory Committee. One of the issues being pursued by the committee and the Superintendent of Schools is protecting kids during fire. The recommendation is for 500-foot defensible space around each public school. The project is in the final stages in preparation for grant submittal. These schools could then be shelter-in-place spaces for the entire community.
- CAL FIRE will soon be getting a permanent, year-round 13-person fuel reduction team. The team will be equipped with a chipper, skid-steer masticator, and an excavator with mastication head. The priority will be to maintain fuel breaks. They will also assist with the construction of new fuel breaks.
- Even with a challenging budget cycle, our Board tripled the amount of money towards fire this year:
|General Fund Transfers to Fire|
- In 2018, there were 550 fires started in Tuolumne County. Please make sure to maintain defensible space around your home.
- For more thoughts on fire protection, see my blog https://www.mymotherlode.com/community/blogs/restructuring-fire-protection-in-tuolumne-county
- In May, I did a road tour of District 3 with the CRA director. Yes, we hit lots of potholes. Since that time, the road department has made several key road repairs, including Joaquin Gully Rd, Tiffeni Dr as well as over 50 other roads in our district.
- Despite the fires and smoke last year, tourism dollars increased by 5% in 2018 to $264M. We had the highest growth of any rural county in the state.
- We hired a new Economic Development Director.
- There was a recommendation for another study for Capital Improvement Plans which would have cost $175K. The BOS recommended we not do the study and put the money towards debt and liabilities.
- I approved spending $188K on Justice Center land development evaluation. Why? Because the money can only be used for the Justice Center. There is talk about developing more of that land. I can’t make a reasonable decision without all the facts. That study will give me facts to make decisions whether I want to support or reject more development on that site in the near future.
- Members from CSAC met with Supervisor Rodefer and myself to get a tour of our Juvenile Hall and discuss our concerns regarding the operational costs.
- Received $500K in State grants to start addressing homelessness. The plan is to partner with private builders who will provide affordable housing.
- I wrote a blog on Abortion. https://www.mymotherlode.com/community/blogs/where-i-stand-on-abortion-2
- If your trash pickup by Waste Management was slow this summer, it was due to staff shortages. They have since been hiring more staff.
- The HUD (Housing and Urban Development)-funded NDRC (National Disaster Resilience Competition) recovery projects (due to the Rim Fire) being conducted under the Forest and Watershed Health Pillar are being litigated. This means the Biomass Utilization Facility pillar is also on pause as HUD and the Stanislaus National Forest are all being named in the lawsuit. The Community Resilience Centers are not a part of the lawsuit, though they face their own challenges.
- Some restoration work has taken place in the Rim Fire burn area. An outside conservation group is now suing to stop those efforts. Our Board has consistently supported the Rim Fire restoration and reforestation projects through letters of support, participating in the Rim Fire Record of Decision process and through active engagement in Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions and their shared advocacy. We will continue to support the effort being undertaken by the YSS Leadership Team to do whatever is necessary to see these important projects move forward.