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Tuolumne County Braces For Steep Budget Challenges

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Sonora, CA — While there are uncertainties over whether a local sales tax measure will pass in November, tough budget times are on the horizon, regardless, for Tuolumne County.

A special meeting on the budget lasted four hours on Wednesday in the board meeting room. A formal budget vote will be held at the regular meeting on June 18, so yesterday’s session was designed to give staff final direction prior to it.

A big concern is the end of federal SAFER grant funding after the next year, which has recently been used to boost fire services. To keep the five-county fire stations operational, the county is looking at a $500,000 shortfall this next fiscal year (starting July 1), a $5.1 million fire deficit in fiscal year 2025-26 and a $6.8 million shortfall in 2026-27.

It is on top of other budgetary challenges like inflation, rising insurance costs, retirement obligations, labor negotiations and increased state mandates.

To cover the $500,000 needed for fire next year, a majority of board members said they are ok with tapping into reserve funds.

A couple of months ago the county was looking at a $5.9 million projected General Fund shortfall that was notably reduced by freezing some vacant positions and trying to make cuts that would have the least impact on public services, and prevent layoffs. To cover the remaining shortfall, a majority voiced support for cutting a $121,000 contract with the Tuolumne Parks and Recreation Department (it oversees some county operations in Tuolumne), and instead have existing staff members take on those roles. In addition, there will be $741,000 worth of worker furloughs, and the utilization of $100,000 of code abatement funding.

Supervisor Anaiah Kirk had concerns about the Tuolumne Parks and Recreation contract elimination and asked why other options were not brought forward by the CAO’s office for consideration. When pushed by Supervisor Ryan Campbell for an example of another area to potentially cut, Kirk brought up the Access Tuolumne contract (former Cable 8), which Kirk noted was “beefed up” in recent years.

Big picture, Kirk and Supervisor Jaron Brandon both expressed a desire to look at deeper cost cuts now, rather than waiting until later. Kirk said the county should get ahead of when “shit hits the fan” in the coming years.

Kirk pointed out that a complicating factor is that two of the existing supervisors, David Goldemberg and Kathleen Haff, will be replaced next year by new members, who could come in with different perspectives than the outgoing two.

Meanwhile, Brandon said the county should be looking at both furloughs and potential staff reductions, as a way to prepare for upcoming fiscal challenges, which is something Kirk seemed to echo.

Outgoing Tuolumne County Clerk and Auditor Controller Debi Bautista also pushed the board to consider looking at more significant cuts now, rather than later. She said, “We need to build up our contingencies. If we have a fire like the Rim Fire, in fiscal year 2024-25, we don’t have the contingencies to deal with it.”

Adding, “The sales tax (ballot measure) is not the end of our fiscal challenges.”

A lingering question is whether a sales tax measure will pass in November, which could bring $6 million in new annual revenue to the county. A similar measure was declined by voters two years ago.

Something that everyone agreed on was having staff come back in August to have a more in-depth conversation about the impacts of the ballot measure and what type of cuts the county may have to look at in the coming years.

There were some other decisions hashed out on Wednesday. Notably, a majority of the board agreed to pause plans next fiscal year related to renovating both of the downtown courthouse facilities (which are currently sitting vacant).