The Senate Appropriations Committee will soon consider a bill authored by State Sen. Tom Berryhill that would potentially save Tuolumne County millions of dollars on costs to remove dead or dying trees.
The Twain Harte Republican’s Senate Bill 265 aims to reduce the county’s share of the cost for emergency tree removal by increasing the state’s share from 75 to 90 percent. So far, the county has committed more than $600,000 from General Fund reserves to cover the ongoing work.
“Disaster is waiting to strike,” Berryhill said in a written statement sent via e-mail. “Our forests are filled with thousands of dead and dying trees that must be removed. This is a huge burden to a small rural county with limited resources. I urge my colleagues and Governor Brown to avert tragedy.”
More than 100 million trees throughout the Sierra Nevada have succumbed to bark beetle infestation or lack of water due to the five-year drought that was declared over earlier this month by Gov. Jerry Brown.
In October 2015, Brown declared a statewide emergency in response to a rapidly spreading epidemic of tree die-off in California forests.
Tuolumne County was one of the original 10 “high-hazard areas” identified by the state because of the large amount of dead or dying trees. Money was made available through the California Disaster Assistance Act for projects to remove those trees that posed a risk to public safety and infrastructure.
The county was the first to put together a program for removing dead or dying trees threatening public roads and get equipment on the ground, but the cost of the work has proven to be a burden as leaders wrestle with a projected shortfall of nearly $6 million in next year’s budget.
According to a Senate committee’s analysis of the bill, the county estimates needing a total of $12.2 million over three years to remove all of the dead or dying trees identified as potential hazards to public facilities.
Increasing the state’s percentage of the cost to 90 would reduce the county’s share over the same period by nearly $2 million, from $2.1 million to $300,000. The county’s General Fund reserve as of last year was $2.3 million.
Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, R-O’Neals, who represents the county in the state Legislature as part of the Fifth Assembly District, is the co-author of the bill that was introduced on Feb. 8.
At a hearing Tuesday, the Senate Governmental Organization Committee passed the bill by unanimous vote.
Deputy County Administrator Tracie Riggs and County Supervisor Randy Hanvelt, who represents District 2, testified at the hearing that the additional funding would preserve county funds for other future emergencies that could arise.
“The tree mortality damage in Tuolumne County alone is 437,000 acres, that’s 70 percent bigger (than the 2013 Rim Fire that burned about 253,000 acres mostly in the county),” Hanvelt told the committee, citing recent data he had received. “This problem is getting worse, and it will get a lot worse before it gets better.”
While there isn’t any opposition to the bill that has come forward, similar bills that have made it through the Legislature in the past were then vetoed by the sitting governor for cost reasons.
Berryhill also saw the same committee kill one of his other pieces of legislation that attempted to take a Trump-like approach to regulatory reform in the state.
Senate Bill 181, co-authored by Bigelow and State Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Antelope Valley, would have required state agencies to identify and repeal two regulations for every new one created, the same requirement as an executive order signed by President Donald Trump in January dealing with regulations at the federal level.
State Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, chairman of the Senate Governmental Organization Committee, called the bill a “bit of a meat cleaver approach”, according to a news release from Berryhill’s office.
“I know that comes out of frustration with how things have continued on a path that you’re frustrated with,” Glazer said, according to the news release. “But I don’t know if it’s the most thoughtful way to look at each one, because each one does matter.”
Glazer extended an olive branch, however, saying he appreciated Berryhill’s “thoughtfulness and leadership on the issue” and would like to work with him on other ways to deal with the issue.
“I appreciate the chairman’s gracious comments and I am eager to work with him on this issue,” Berryhill responded, according to the news release.