The solution to Tuolumne County's budget gap should not run through its children.
Cutting summer recreation programs should never have been considered by county staff much less make it to the Board of Supervisors for discussion.
Wisely, the board decided to hold off on the plan for now, but the idea is out there. No more soccer, horseback riding, climbing, tennis, fitness, golf, jujitsu, basketball or fencing. Summer programs for kids, in the eyes of county leaders, are expendable, frills, unnecessary in a time of fiscal troubles.
This is short sighted in many ways.
The most obvious is kids with something positive to do don't get in trouble. But beyond that is the fact that a wide range of opportunities for children, especially during the down times of summer, keeps families in our community and attracts new ones.
Tuolumne County is growing older, year by year. More people die than are born and the in-migration of young people has not grown appreciably. This is a cycle that left unbroken will only cause more financial troubles for every government and entity that relies on tax dollars.
County staff deserves a lot of credit for pulling together a budget despite unfunded state mandates, federal revenue cuts and mounting debt caused by past decisions. None except the debt are of Tuolumne County's making. This has required tough decisions. People have lost jobs. Others will have to bridge that gap. No one has come out unscathed.
And it's unlikely county leaders want to do away with summer programs for kids.
But like their friends at Sonora High School District, Tuolumne County has relied too much on cuts and not enough on inventive ways to increase revenue.
Perhaps the funding mechanism for youth programs is flawed and not the program itself. That is borne out by the fact that the county arbitrarily set a ridiculously low percentage that the participation fee covers. A decision made 20 years ago. Families pay 30 percent of the county's cost to run the program.
Thirty percent. Most of the camps cost between $35 and $50 and are usually held for a few hours each morning for a week. They're run by people such as Sonora High School basketball coach Dan Dona and PGA professional Ray Claveran. Parents without fail would pay more for instruction from that caliber of coaches.
County staff justifies this low fee with a considerate response. Not everyone can afford to pay more. That's true but there is also the opportunity to create a scholarship fund that would provide assistance to families. People, especially, those who have raised their children and have seen the benefit of such programs, undoubtedly would be willing to donate to a cause. This is precisely under the purview of the Sonora Area Foundation.
County staff also has said schools offer some of the same programs. This misses the point entirely. Parents want their children to be involved in an activity every week. They piecemeal a fun summer by enrolling their children in a range of activities. Kids get the opportunity to discover new sports.
County leaders also say the public has falsely connected the juvenile detention center with the cuts. Soon after The Union Democrat published a story on this possible elimination, readers started writing in saying we can afford a prison but not programs. One even suggested cutting the programs was an effort to fill up the jail, which so far has been inhabited by very few young people.
That's far fetched, of course. But the truth is the juvenile hall is an expensive proposition, far beyond what was expected, without help from other counties that liked the idea years ago. We're stuck with it.
The county would save roughly $100,000 by cutting the recreation program, which includes the salary of an activity coordinator. The county's projected shortfall is $4 million.
To be sure, every little bit helps when trying to make up a shortfall, but on the backs of children?
Our community needs more programs for children, not fewer.