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Reduction in county fees appropriate, appreciated

    It’s like seeing Isaac Newton’s apple fall back up into the tree.
    For the inexorable rise of government fees, you see, is like gravity in reverse.
    The law seems as immutable as Newton’s: When all costs, prices and inflation indices around us fall, fees still rise — as if driven by laws of physics that no mere mortal can change.
    Until now.
    In a startling but welcome move, the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors last week ratified reductions in scores of fees charged by numerous departments by 8.7 percent. In the toughest of economic times, the lower fees will cost the county nearly $150,000 in revenue during the 2010-11 fiscal year. 
    On the plus side, county residents and business owners whose budgets are drum-tight as the recession grinds on will welcome the relief. Suddenly, it costs a little less to pull a building permit (down $200 to $2,060 for a 2,000 square-foot house), rezone your lot (down $263 to $1,873), take out a concealed weapons permit (down $7 to $77) or even get fingerprinted at the Sheriff’s Office (down $1.25 to $12.75 — but suspected crooks still get this service free).
    Builders and developers will particularly like the cuts, as $90,000 to $100,000 of the customer savings will be in Community Development Department fees.
    The timing, many would agree, couldn’t be better.
    So who can we thank for this blessing?
    We can start by firmly shaking the hand of every Tuolumne County employee we meet.
    To help survive the recession, worker bargaining groups agreed to “givebacks” that collectively amounted to a pay drop of nearly nine percent.
    Once again, we don’t often hear of public employees taking salary cuts without kicking and screaming. But in these dire times, county workers realized that all involved would have to make sacrifices and that pay cuts taken by everyone would save more than a few colleagues from devastating layoffs.
    Next we can thank a fee formula adopted by Tuolumne County nearly 25 years ago. It mandates that all fees be based on actual costs of the specific services provide.
    Under the formula, fees are reevaluated every three to five years to ascertain precise costs. Between such evaluations — and because 80 percent of service costs are in employee salaries — fees rise at the same rate as county wages.
    And this year, thanks to the givebacks, employee pay dropped for the first time since the county began keeping the index in 1986. And it fell hard.
    Over 24 years, hikes had ranged from half a percent (1997-98) to 7.7 percent (1991-92). But the 8.7 percent drop of 2010-11 was biggest change ever.
    So big that County Administrator Craig Pedro thought he better run the normally automatic adjustment by the board. After, if supervisors found there were “extraordinary circumstances” — and in this economy, such a finding would be understandable — they could suspend the formula and keep the higher, 2009-10 fees intact.
    But the board didn’t.
    Yes, Pedro acknowledged that the county could use the cash and that the $150,000 gap would create yet another budget problem. But he had recommended that the board stick with its formula and drop the fees.
    “They did the right thing,” said Pedro. “This preserves the integrity of the process.” 
    For that — and for defying a law of governmental physics — the Board of Supervisors also deserves our thanks.

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