Expanding broadband Internet access, funding for the Community Development Block Grant program, and prevailing wage requirements are some of the topics being discussed through legislation at the state and federal level that Tuolumne County leaders will weigh in on Tuesday.
The Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to meet for their second regularly scheduled monthly meeting at 9 a.m. Tuesday on the fourth floor of the County Administration Center, located at 2 S. Green St. in Sonora.
In addition to the legislation, the board will also consider authorizing a search for a facilitator to aid the county’s new Marijuana Working Group.
Broadband Internet expansion
Assembly Bill 1665, or the Internet For All Now Act, would continue funding the California Advanced Services Fund in hopes of providing high-speed Internet access to 98 percent of households in the state by 2023.
Introduced and co-authored by a group of Democrats in the Assembly, the legislation would use an existing surcharge on cell phone bills to provide $500 million for projects and initiatives to develop broadband infrastructure and help low-income and rural residents get connected.
County staff’s analysis stated the bill would benefit the area by continuing financial support for Central Sierra Connect, a regional collective of government leaders, business owners, Internet service providers, and members of the public focused on bringing more widespread broadband Internet access to the Sierra foothills.
The fund was established through legislation in 2007 with the goal of 98 percent of the state’s households having access to high-speed Internet by 2017.
An annual report by the California Public Utilities Commission last year found that while the state has met the 98-percent goal for urban households, 53 percent of rural households are still without access.
According to the Central Sierra Economic Development District, 31 percent of households in Alpine, Calaveras, Mariposa and Tuolumne counties are underserved or without access to high-speed Internet.
Economic development experts have stated that a lack of access to high-speed Internet is a key factor hampering growth in the area.
A draft letter from the board in support of the legislation states, “It is critical that our residents, businesses, educational institutions, and emergency services have high-speed Internet access. Our rural mountainous geography and lack of infrastructure has caused a true rural digital divide for Tuolumne County.”
Community Development Block Grant funding
The board will consider applying pressure on President Donald Trump to rethink part of his proposed federal budget for the next fiscal year that would eliminate the Community Development Block Grant program, which county staff says has supported dozens of important projects and programs over the years.
Since the county began participating in the program in 1982, the CDBG program has funded more than $27 million for local infrastructure projects, community facilities, public services, housing and economic development, as well as provided over 60 loans that have leveraged $50 million in private investment and created 300 jobs.
The county recently received $2 million through the program to replace a deteriorating concrete water tank in Jamestown, as well as support housing stabilization services offered by the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency that last year assisted 338 people from becoming homeless and provided food to 813 households per month.
Other services that receive support from CDBG funds include the Meals on Wheels program that delivers nearly 200 meals per day to homebound seniors. Administrators of the program have said the loss of funding would be hard to make up elsewhere, as they already raise a significant amount of money through donations each year.
Trump administration officials defended the proposed cuts by saying the 43-year-old program has not achieved the intended goals after providing a total of $150 billion to communities over the course of the its existence.
Two bills proposed by Democratic legislators in the Assembly would mandate workers be paid prevailing wages for tree removal projects and expanding the types of private, residential construction projects that would be subject to the requirements.
Existing state law requires most projects paid for in whole or in part out of public funds to pay all workers prevailing wage, which is determined by the California Department of Industrial Relations as the general rate throughout the area for a specific type of job.
Supervisors have been critical of the state’s prevailing wage policies and included suggested changes as part of its 2017 legislative platform that was approved by the board in February.
County staff recommends sending letters in opposition to the respective authors of the bills. The drafts of the letter state that requiring workers be paid prevailing wage for tree removal and private, market-based residential home construction could increase costs for such projects by as much as 40 percent.
They say the increased costs could hinder emergency efforts to remove dead or dying trees due to widespread mortality and add the county’s shortage of affordable housing.
The board will also consider sending a letter to the California Energy Commission urging it to provide funding for more projects under a program intended to support the development of clean energy technology.
According to county staff’s analysis, only two of the five highest-ranked projects received funding in the latest round of grant applications through the commission’s Electric Program Investment Charge Program.
One of those projects could add two additional energy plants powered by forest biomass in the county that would work in conjunction with an existing plan in Chinese Camp.
A draft of the letter stated, “These forest biomass projects will help reduce wildfire and other impacts as a result of California’s tree mortality crisis.”
Also, the board will consider either supporting or opposing a Democratic legislator’s bill that county staff is concerned could reduce the number of people purchasing homes in the area and have an overall negative impact on property values.
Assembly Bill 71 add $300 million a year to the Low-Income Tax Credit Program, one of the state’s only remaining funding sources for affordable housing, by eliminating the state mortgage interest deduction on second homes, according to county staff’s analysis.
A memo to the board stated that, while the bill propose many benefits, eliminating the mortgage interest deduction on second homes could hurt rural counties.
The memo stated nearly 55 percent of homeowners in Tuolumne County do not claim homeowner exemption on their taxes, which can only be done for a person’s primary residence, suggesting that potentially more than half of all homes in the county are secondary or vacation residences.
Second homes used as rental properties would still be eligible for the deduction, however.
Marijuana Working Group facilitator
The board will also consider authorizing staff to begin the process of seeking a facilitator for a new committee looking into potential regulations on medical and recreational marijuana in the county.
Meeting documents stated that an independent and neutral facilitator would ensure a “sound process and positive outcome” for the county given the controversial nature of the topic.
If approved Tuesday, the county’s Community Resources Agency would begin seeking proposals from qualified consulting firms and bring back a recommendation to the board at a future meeting.
The five-member group is comprised of District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan, District 3 Supervisor Evan Royce, Groveland resident and Planning Commissioner Jerry Baker, retired California Highway Patrol commander Scott Clamp, and Tuolumne Cannabis Alliance Director Kira Tucker.
At its first public meeting Wednesday, the group went over the scope of its immediate work plan that will focus primarily on cultivation of medical and recreational marijuana for personal use. The plan is to look at potential regulations on commercial grows and sales when the state releases its proposed regulations expected later this year.