Community services district needed

By Union Democrat staff September 09, 2010 12:57 pm
    If there ever was an idea whose time has come, it’s formation of a community services district for the town of Tuolumne.
    Even under the best of circumstances, consolidating districts now responsible for fire protection, sewer services, parks and recreation and cemeteries makes a lot of sense. Why have several boards and agencies when one can do the job?
  

    Twain Harte saw this logic 15 years ago, when members of its water, fire and park boards all voted unanimously — and with nearly unanimous public support — to merge.
 Making such a merger even more urgent in Tuolumne is that it is hardly amid the best of circumstances.
    Its fire district is in disarray: Three of its directors were forced out because they did not live in the district. Replacements were hurriedly appointed, but the new board has already made waves by reinstating former chief Ben Oyarzo as a captain at a hurriedly called Labor Day meeting. The move has already spurred a number firefighters to resign.
    The Tuolumne City Sanitary District’s questionable deal with the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians over service to the tribe’s Black Oak Casino has spawned months of controversy over who was responsible for the agreement and how millions of dollars in potential revenue somehow became millions in debt. Board resignations, stormy meetings and charges of under-the-table deals became commonplace.
    None of which is to say that a community services district will guarantee harmony and smooth sailing. After all, Groveland Community Services District has seen its share of controversy over a nearly six-decade history.
    What a community services district would do is centralize services and give Tuolumne residents one agency, one board and one general manager to bring its concerns to.
    At present, a citizen determined to remain current has to monitor the activities, budgets, administration and policies of three regularly meeting boards and a couple which meet less frequently. It’s a time commitment few are likely to make.
    As a result, smaller boards are apt to operate with little public scruntiny. The result?
    Infighting, bad decisions and talk in “dark rooms,” fears John Feriani of the Tuolumne Township Citizens’ Group, which has plans to examine the feasibility of forming a CSD.
    Although such behavior certainly isn’t guaranteed in such small districts, it’s certainly easier if no one’s watching.
    Some critics are concerned consolidation would lead to a loss of concentration of power in fewer hands. But as it is, reports County Clerk Debi Russell, elections for fire, sanitary and park district often attract fewer candidates than seats available, betraying a lack of community interest.
    If all services were handled by a single board, however, better attended meetings and more candidate interest would almost certainly result. Also — and this issue is especially relevant in today’s tough economy — consolidation would almost certainly yield savings.
    If there is an ideal template for converting from multiple districts to a CSD, it was forged by Twain Harte. Its transition took just only a year.
    During that period, the community’s water, park and fire boards each voted unanimously to merge, members of the public voiced overwhelming support, Tuolumne County’s Local Agency Formation Commission approved the plan and county supervisors voted to form the new CSD, which held its first meeting on Aug. 6, 1996.
    Will things go so smoothly in Tuolumne? Perhaps not, as directors of existing boards have already expressed reservations.
    Still, formation of a community services district is too important to abandon in the face of opposition from a few directors whose desire to stay in power may exceed their concern for the community.
    So we encourage the Township Citizens Group to pursue formation of a CSD, work for consensus of the smaller boards and research boundary changes and legal agreements that may be necessary.
    If consensus among the existing districts is not forthcoming, the plan is not doomed. Russell said a CSD can still be formed via an election of the people.
    And, as Tuolumne’s citizens are the ones who would stand to benefit, they should have their say.