Tuolumne County leaders pulled no punches at a meeting Tuesday while expressing their positions on several proposals at the state and federal level that could have local impacts.
Two bills working their way through the state Legislature that would require employers to pay prevailing wage for tree removal and some private, residential construction projects even caused some on the county Board of Supervisors to openly question what the lawmakers were smoking when they came up with the proposals.
“I’m sorry, but those people in Sacramento are already using the recreational marijuana,” said District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer. “This is unbelievable.”
Rodefer made the comment in reference to Assembly Bill 1066, introduced by Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters, a bill that would add tree removal to the state’s definition of demolition for public works, which would require workers be paid prevailing wage for such projects.
Prevailing wage is determined by the California Department of Industrial Relations as the general rate for a specific type of job on projects that use public funding. This can increase the cost for projects in rural areas, where the cost-of-living is typically lower.
According to the county’s estimate, adding tree removal to the prevailing wage requirements could increase the cost of ongoing projects related to the statewide tree-mortality emergency by as much as 30 percent.
The county, identified as one of the areas hardest hit by tree mortality as a result of the five-year drought, has been in a local state of emergency for nearly two years due to hundreds of dead or dying trees that pose a risk to public safety and infrastructure.
“Honestly, this is insane,” Rodefer said. “We are in a state of emergency, and they are going to decrease our capabilities to address that by some 30 percent.”
District 2 Supervisor Randy Hanvelt called the proposed legislation “totally ridiculous,” adding that he believes it was a “misguided” response by Aguiar-Curry to address the number of out-of-state contractors being used for tree removal projects throughout the state.
The county has so far spent more than $630,000 of its reserves to cut down dead or dying trees threatening public roads. Under the current requirements of the California Disaster Assistance Act, 75 percent of the work is funded by the state and 25 percent by the county.
The board voted 4-0 to approve sending a letter to Aguiar-Curry opposing the legislation, with District 4 Supervisor John Gray absent.
District 3 Supervisor Evan Royce, a building contractor by trade, also colorfully expressed his strong opposition to Assembly Bill 199, introduced by Assemblyman Kansen Chu, D-Milpitas, that builders fear would expand the state’s ability to require prevailing wage for private, residential construction projects on private property.
“This is absolutely insane and a perfect example of why people in Sacramento are idiots,” Royce said. “It makes me shiver how absolutely stupid these people are.”
Royce said the legislation would have a negative impact on both businesses as well as consumers who need more affordable options in the midst of a widespread housing crunch.
The board believes the main problem affecting the lack of affordable housing is state laws and regulations that make such projects infeasible for developers. They made similar arguments in a letter of opposition to AB 199, as well as another approved Tuesday against a separate bill that would look to bolster subsidies for affordable housing projects by eliminating tax deductions for people with second homes.
“It doesn’t make housing more affordable,” Hanvelt said of the proposal related to second-home tax deductions. “It just find another way to finance a subsidy.”
However, the board did express support Tuesday’s meeting for an assembly bill expected to be heard in committee later this month that’s intended to continue funding for ensuring access to high-speed Internet in rural and underserved areas.
The board also supported a letter to the California Energy Commission urging them to provide funding for a project that would add up to two new biomass-energy plants in the county, something that would aid in forest thinning and wildfire reduction projects.
Also, the board approved sending a letter of support for the federal Community Development Block Grant program.
The program, established in 1974, is targeted for elimination in President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year. The administration says the program hasn’t achieved the desired results after providing a total of more than $150 billion for projects intended to help low-income populations.
Though previous estimates placed the amount of money the county has received from the program at over $50 million, consultant Terry Cox said Tuesday that the number is closer to $160 million over 35 years when you factor the almost $30 million in direct grants, loans that have leveraged over $50 million in private investment, and $70 million the county received last year through the program’s first National Disaster Resilience Competition.
“To have this program completely eliminated, for us and other rural counties all across the country, would be something the county would not be able to make up from other sources,” Cox said.
Rodefer called it a “no-brainer” in voting to send the letter of support for maintaining the program.
Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the board:
• Authorized the county Community Resources Agency Director David Gonzalves to seek estimates from a consultant who would facilitate the board’s new Marijuana Working Group that’s looking at possible local regulations on the cannabis industry. He estimated the contract could be in the range of $15,000.
• Appointed the county Human Services Agency Assistant Director Steve Boyack to step in as acting director of the county Behavioral Health Department following the resignation of former director Rita Austin last week.
• Approved a $132,240 contract with Comcast that’s $125 per month more than the county’s previous one with the company and provides five times as much high-speed Internet bandwidth.