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Tuolumne Supes Weigh More ‘Hot Topic’ Reductions Over COVID-19

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Sonora, CA – COVID-19 impact-related budget cuts with the visitors’ bureau, recreation, libraries, and jobs on the chopping block created an afternoon of pained discussions for the Tuolumne supes.

The post-lunch reconvening of Tuesday’s Tuolumne County supervisors’ session followed a morning of intense debate over possible cuts to the juvenile hall that triggered a “verbal fracas” between Supervisor Karl Rodefer and Juvenile Services Coordinator Mike Arndt, who called for Rodefer’s resignation before tendering his own, as reported here.

Upon the board’s return, Board Chair Sherri Brennan asked for those in attendance to be thoughtful in their language as they shared their comments, acknowledging, “We heard a lot of emotional conversation this morning and still have a lot of items that people feel very, very passionately about.” CAO Tracie Riggs noted that everything being presented constituted a “hot topic,” adding that it was up to the board to provide direction so that her office could come back with a complete recommended budget at its June 2 meeting. Counties are required to approve a balanced budget by June 30.

Among the options she presented is to reduce an outside agency contracted expenditure of $110,000 by Tuolumne Park & Recreation (TPRD), which was allocated to maintain the park with the alternative of having sheriff work crews care for it in tandem with county recreation and facilities management.

Another contract reduction being scrutinized with Visit Tuolumne, the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau, which receives 25 percent of the county’s 10 percent Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) visitors pay for lodging accommodations to fund its tourism marketing outreach programs and activities. If the amount is reduced to 15 percent, as was illustrated in Riggs’ presentation, it would cut $250,000 to the bureau.

Revenue Increases Through Tapping Tourists 

Although Riggs and Brennan both pointed to Mariposa County’s arrangement with its visitors’ bureau, which caps its contribution at $500,000, the bureau there receives additional funding through a voluntary Tourism Improvement District (TBID) agreement among lodging operators that tack on an additional assessment fee in charges to their guests. Supervisor John Gray pointed out that Mariposa has a higher number of lodging rooms and wondered how much, if operators add 1.5 percent to 2 percent surcharge, how much it generates.

Supervisor Karl Rodefer offered that the board should be careful if it plans to revisit approving another TOT ballot initiative seeking an increase from 10 percent to 12 percent. Such an increase over a 12-month period could increase revenues by an estimated $1 million annually.

As the recent attempt failed to get voters’ support, he pondered whether getting a TBID in place might be an easier option, a thought Brennan echoed. Supervisor Ryan Campbell pushed to have the board move up and not defer a decision on a possible TOT measure, which would have to be passed by Aug. 7 to make the November ballot. His position met with a lot of pushback, including by Rodefer, who insisted the TOT topic was separate from getting the budget balanced and passed. Campbell insisted since it is a revenue it is a necessary discussion.

Ahead of directing any adjustments to the contract, the board directed Riggs to meet with Visit Tuolumne President and CEO Lisa Mayo, who has already made deep budget cuts, effectively reducing its operating budget from $1.3 million to $450,000.

Evergreen Lodge and Rush Creek Lodge Marketing Director Teri Marshall, who spoke during the public comment period as a bureau representative, warned the board that requesting the bureau to help initiate a TBID is not a short-term revenue solution as it is a process that takes a few years to build and grow. She added that the bureau’s board when it meets on Thursday will be discussing creative solutions to address current budget challenges. Marshall also reminded the supervisors that the bureau maintains a key role during COVID-19 recovery as it is responsible for all front-facing messaging to visitors, reflecting current limitations using appropriate language driven by state mandates and regional and local strategies.

Library, Rec Cuts Another Painful Topic

Riggs presented some options involving reducing library and recreation services and making relief staff cuts during which County Library and Recreation Manager Eric Aitken chimed in with an idea to combine staff from both departments.

Over the past five years, the net county’s cost to provide library services runs about $1.1 million, which includes Sonora, Tuolumne, Groveland, and Twain Harte branches along with a traveling bookmobile. Closing it all, which Riggs initially recommended, would save about $850,000 with nominal savings to the county by only closing the Twain Harte and Tuolumne locations.

Aitken noted, “Anything we allocate to the library is a cut somewhere else. But we don’t just provide books.” While libraries are not set to reopen for perhaps two months in Stage 4 recovery mode, he pointed out that the library teaches literacy skills, provides warming and cooling centers during severe weather, and assists with job training through providing 17,000 hours of free computer use for approximately 1,200 job seekers to apply for jobs and acquire skills to qualify for some of them.

He shared a plan he was still sketching out that could provide the county with $260,000 in savings. It would include closing all library locations except for Sonora and pool the staff, cross-training them so that they could serve both departments. There are possible grants available to apply for as well. As the libraries are closed now due to COVID-19, Brennan suggested that Aitken further develop the idea. The board also indicated that summer recreation program planning, since activities will not be able to open for weeks anyway, due to the phased recovery mode, should not be pursued. Rodefer asked about involving some of the Friends of the Library groups, particularly in Groveland, to become involved.

Riggs updated the board on pending legislation under the CARES and HERO acts, which both provide uncertain assistance at this point. While the county has an allocation of about $5.5 million under the former, lost revenue is not an eligible expense as the legislation is currently written. She suggested residents join the lobbying efforts now underway by state associations to get the language amended. As for the HERO Act, which passed the House last week, while it would allow for lost revenue as an eligible expense, it is currently not expected to pass the Senate in its current form.

While drawing down on over a million dollars in reserves is also a possibility, it is probable that even with all the options in play that Riggs presented, there will be a half-million-dollar shortfall that might involve cutting eight positions layoffs for a total of 32 positions.

More discussion about ways to cut costs will come a future meetings.

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