Jim Mele stoically announced on Tuesday that his last day as Tuolumne County sheriff would be June 30, six months before his term ends, but his emotions crept through as he started to explain why.
“With the uncertainty of the 2018-2019 budget,” he said as he gripped each side of the podium that faces the county Board of Supervisors and his voice began to waver, “I feel that my last act as sheriff should be with certainty.”
Mele has served at the helm of the department for nearly 12 years. His third and final term in office was set to expire at the end of December after he announced earlier this year that he would not seek re-election.
Undersheriff Bill Pooley is running unopposed for the sheriff’s position in the June 5 primary.
“At the end of the day, the people of Tuolumne County have embraced me and given me more than I ever dreamed I would become,” Mele said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. “They elected me sheriff three times, and I’m very grateful and indebted for what they’ve done.”
The reason Mele gave for taking the extraordinary measure was to hopefully prevent the Sheriff’s Office from having to demote or lay off staff, something he said has been discussed as the county looks to eliminate a budget deficit projected to be nearly $5 million.
Mele expects the department will save as much as $125,000 from him retiring six months early and keep a lieutenant position vacant until at least midway through the 2018-19 fiscal year, which would be enough money to save at least a couple of lower-level support positions that pay roughly $55,000 a year with benefits.
“The public won’t go along with us cutting deputy positions, but the reality is that you can’t do the job without your support staff,” he said.
Mele said he handed out pink slips to six employees in 2010 as part of countywide layoffs in the wake of the economic recession. He was ultimately able to save their jobs through a collaborative effort with the county administrator’s office, but the moment has haunted him to this day.
“It was very hard to call these people into my office and say, ‘You’re a valued person, we value who you are, but we’re going to let you go,’ ” he said.
In addition to saving jobs, Mele said he believed allowing Pooley to take over shortly after the election will provide clarity for the organization in the face of “many changes and decisions that will be made in the upcoming weeks and months.”
Mele said he’s concerned about all county services moving forward as the board looks to rein in deficits that are projected to grow to nearly $12 million in two years if left unchecked, but he had confidence the board and County Administrator Craig Pedro can get the finances under control.
“I do believe there will have to be some decisions made to where the services that the public not only deserves but expects will continue,” he said. “Does that mean put a tax measure on the ballot? That might be one of the things … There needs to be some things done that can bring in more revenue.”
Several were caught off guard by Mele’s announcement, including his own command staff, whom he informed about his decision Monday afternoon.
“I don’t think anybody was aware he was going to say what he said,” said District 2 Supervisor Randy Hanvelt. “He has a great dedication and passion for the success of that organization, and it goes along with his commitment to public safety.”
District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan said she wasn’t aware the announcement was coming at the time, but wasn’t surprised in retrospect when she considered Mele’s character.
“He’s always looking out of the needs of his staff and the budget constraints we are under,” Brennan said.
District 4 Supervisor John Gray said he was surprised by the announcement, but believes that Mele is being sincere about wanting to help his department and the new sheriff. However, he didn’t see the decision as a cause for alarm about the state of the budget.
“The budget process is what it is and we’ve had more public vetting of it in recent years,” Gray said. “In order to have the right numbers, all funds need to be closed out and that takes time.”
District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer, who said at a meeting on May 1 that he was confident the county won’t have a problem with balancing the budget, said he hoped the public didn’t focus “solely” on the budget aspects of Mele’s decision.
“In the grand scheme of things, the difference between Bill’s salary and Jim’s salary is a small delta,” Rodefer said. “He’s been a great sheriff and will be until June 30, but it’s hard being in a job and your heir has been announced and you’re hanging around.”
District 3 Supervisor Evan Royce was the only board member who said he received Mele’s announcement in his email minutes before the meeting. He called the longtime local lawman a “wonderful man and wonderful sheriff.”
Pedro also said he was surprised by the announcement and that everyone in the county was concerned about the current and future projected deficits, though he’s hopeful they will find solutions that will still provide full services to the community.
The board canceled a public hearing scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday to continue reviewing and giving direction on the development of the proposed budget because Pedro said it wasn’t ready to be presented.
“The budget is very complicated, and there’s a lot of moving parts and pieces to it,” Pedro said. “We have to make sure we’ve checked everything.”
One of those moving pieces include whether or not the county will receive funding support from the federal government for approximately $15 million in damage to roads from storms over the past two years.
Pedro said he hopes to schedule a meeting about the proposed budget by the end of May before it’s unveiled fully in June and voted on by the board.
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 588-4530.