After months of off-and-on debate, the Tuolumne County supervisors have done the right thing: They have voted to hire a $68,000-a-year grant writer.

The proposal drew an immediate and lone negative vote from Supervisor Liz Bass, who represents the Sonora area. "I'm not enthusiastic about this," she said. "How much sheriff deputy time could you get from that?"

The answer is a lot, and others may share the supervisor's skepticism about establishing a new position the county has done just fine without for decades.

But that would be shortsighted.

Although it may be several months until the grant writer's efforts bear fruit, County Administrator Craig Pedro expects the new staff member will soon be pulling in "hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants" each year and that the grand total will shortly rise into the millions.

And if it doesn't?

Well, the county can then dismiss the grant writer and go back to the way it's done now.

Seldom has job performance been so easily quantifiable: If grants brought in exceed the post's $68,000-a-year salary and related overhead, then the job's a keeper.

In a time of tight budgets, increasing demands for services and wide availability of grants, chances are it will be.

At present, county departments apply for their own grants. Staff members doing the paperwork aren't grant writers per se, but employees who have managed to fit the work in with their regular duties.

Because of this decentralized procedure, there is no countywide tally of grants applied for or received. Absent also is any employee assigned to search out grants for which the county is eligible.

Although some staffers are talented at finding and applying for grants, departments often learn of them by word-of-mouth or through fliers crossing their desks. The new grant writer will not wait for opportunities, but will look for them. With tens of millions of dollars in grants available from the state and federal governments and from private foundations, there is fertile ground to explore.

Pedro added the new hire won't put an end to departmental applications, which will continue. "The idea is to go above and beyond what we do now," said Pedro.

The new grant writer's desk, however, will be something of a clearinghouse for all county applications, assuring that deadlines and requirements are met.

In 2006 the county lost an $800,000 housing grant because required audits weren't filed. Later that year, $112,000 in trail construction cash went into limbo when environmental reports were not filed on time. A chief grant writer, Pedro said, could help prevent such problems.

Most smaller counties, including neighboring Calaveras, are without grant writers. Many larger counties have one or more.

Tuolumne County, as Pedro says, is ready to take the next step and, fortunately, the Board of Supervisors agreed.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board Publisher Geoff White; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.