Spending, revenue and aging infrastructure took up much of the discussion on Thursday as nine candidates for the Tuolumne Utilities District Board of Directors sounded off on a string of issues.
The Tuolumne County Chamber of Commerce sponsored the special forum for candidates seeking local offices in November. Four of the five TUD board seats are up for election, with three incumbents (Bob Behee, Ron Ringen and Dennis Dahlin) and six challengers (David Evans, Jim Grinnell, John Maciel, Michael Sarno, Kent Johnson and David Axelrod) vying for them.
All nine answered questions from moderators and the public that touched on myriad topics like water and sewer rates, system improvements, employee compensation, cost cutting, regulations and more.
Throughout the lengthy forum, the debates regularly broke down into two sides — the incumbents on the board who defended believe they have made the right decisions for the future of the district, and those who think TUD needs to head a new direction.
The challengers often criticized various moves made by current TUD leaders, saying the district needs to find ways to cut costs and questioning the recent move to raise rates during tough economic times. All six challengers were also critical of recent water rate increases.
“We don’t have enough money for the current spending,” Sarno said before advocating for 20 to 25 percent in spending cuts. “What we have to do is reduce spending and reduce costs.”
The current board members pointed to the district’s deteriorating network of pipes, storage tanks and treatment plants, saying TUD needs to invest to avoid even bigger problems in the future.
The district is “going to see what happens when we don’t fund things today and end up having to pay for them tomorrow,” said Dahlin, who along with Ringen was appointed within the past year. The two and Behee approved a multi-year rate plan that will increase water rates.
The discussion also touched on employee pay and benefits multiple times, with Grinnell, Maciel, Sarno, Johnson and Axelrod all calling for the district to look there for future cost savings.
“Wages and benefits are high,” said Grinnell, before adding the district has “got a problem here.”
Behee, Ringen and Dahlin all said TUD employee compensation is competitive with other districts, stressing the need to keep the pay at a level that will attract quality workers.
“We have to pay them adequately,” Behee said. “Pay the bottom price, you’ll get the bottom employees.”