Union Democrat staff

Beginning Jan. 26, the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors will hold five successive Tuesday-night meetings to help members and staff come up with a five-year strategic plan.

We can hear the yawns already.

Want to pack a meeting room? Then propose a 1,000-unit subdivision or a landfill next to a tree-lined neighborhood. Or raise rates, taxes, fees or the number of cans you must set out for the garbage truck. There's nothing like fear to prompt community involvement.

Long term plans, where the threats are typically distant rather than imminent, generally won't pack a meeting room.

But county residents should make an exception for next month's strategic plan meetings, because the consequences of inaction will be imminent and painful.

The reason? Our still-dire economy.

"We're still in difficult fiscal times," said County Administrator Craig Pedro. "We're looking for guidance on how the community would like us to address that."

In other words, the county doesn't have nearly the money it once did and can no longer be all things to all citizens. What Pedro has called "the new normal" has set in. Programs and staffs have been cut, and likely will be cut further.

The county lopped $8.5 million from this fiscal year's budget and, with the state facing a deficit of well over $20 billion, further slashing is inevitable.

There are two ways to determine which county programs go and which stay, and which departmental budgets are cut and by how much:

• Trust the Board of Supervisors and county staff to decide.

• Or participate in the meetings, to be held in each supervisorial district, and have a say in the matter yourself.

"We're just trying to identify the most important things county government should be doing over the next five years - it's really that fundamental," said Pedro. "If people want to have some voice in what they want their county government to be doing, this is perfect opportunity."

Think about it: Do you want potholes patched? Pools open for the summer? Branch libraries reopened? More deputies on the street? Public transit saved? Shelter for the homeless? Incentives for the economy?

Then it's time to speak up - while at the same time realizing we can't have it all.

The strategic plan meetings will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 26, Feb. 2, Feb. 9, Feb. 16 and Feb. 23. Although locations have not yet been matched with dates, they will be held in Sonora, Willow Springs, Twain Harte, Groveland and Columbia.

Also, individual supervisors may hold additional town hall meetings elsewhere in their own districts.

In addition to the coming meetings, the county will soon circulate a survey on which constituents can list their priorities.

Together, these are the first and most important steps in a process that could yield a strategic plan by the end of 2010.

So, yes, you can stay home on the Tuesday night of your own district's meeting and catch another "Gilligan's Island" rerun.

But then, as county budgets tortuously unwind over next five years, you'll know you gave up your chance to help our leaders get it right. And that someone else decided how your own tax dollars will be spent.

Which should be enough to motivate you into community involvement.