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Economic development agency, school resources officer dominate City of Sonora budget talks

Sonora resident Ken Perkins, who sued the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority last week to release public records its withholding from him, urges the Sonora City Council on Monday to not provide the $102,000 funding for the agency proposed in the 2018-19 budget and use the money on other needs. (Alex MacLean / Union Democrat)
District 2 Supervisor Randy Hanvelt tells the Sonora City Council on Monday about the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority's in defense of the city providing $102,000 to help fund the agency over the next fiscal year. (Alex MacLean / Union Democrat)
The Sonora City Council listens and takes notes at a meeting on Monday as people express their concerns about aspects of the proposed budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year that begins July 1. (Alex MacLean / Union Democrat)

Much of the discussion at a public meeting Monday night about the City of Sonora’s proposed operating budget for the next fiscal year focused on questions about a $102,000 contribution to the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority and a lack of grant funding from the state to continue providing a part-time police officer at local public schools.

City Administrator Tim Miller presented the proposed uses for General Fund and Measure I revenues to the Sonora City Council on Monday. A special meeting was scheduled for 5 p.m. Monday to continue the talks and potentially vote on the budget for the

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Much of the discussion at a public meeting Monday night about the City of Sonora’s proposed operating budget for the next fiscal year focused on questions about a $102,000 contribution to the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority and a lack of grant funding from the state to continue providing a part-time police officer at local public schools.

City Administrator Tim Miller presented the proposed uses for General Fund and Measure I revenues to the Sonora City Council on Monday. A special meeting was scheduled for 5 p.m. Monday to continue the talks and potentially vote on the budget for the fiscal year that begins on July 1.

The city’s overall budget has hovered around $10 million over the past several years. The council has discretion over about $5 million in the General Fund, which pays for services like police, fire, public works, administration and employee salaries.

About $102,000 from the city’s General Fund was dedicated to funding about 23 percent of the the economic development authority’s $460,000 budget in the 2017-18 fiscal year that extends through June 30. The county covered the remaining 77 percent as part of a joint-powers agreement with the city established in 2009.

The proposed funding for the TCEDA’s budget remains the same for the upcoming 2018-19 fiscal year.

A recent lawsuit filed in Tuolumne County Superior Court last week by Sonora resident Ken Perkins over what he sees as a lack of transparency has raised questions about whether it’s worth the city’s annual investment.

Perkins addressed the council Monday night and urged the members to deny the city’s share of the authority’s funding because the agency has not provided date to prove its effectiveness over its eight-plus years.

“I am simply recommending to the council that you not fund TCEDA this year and keep the money to do the things you have facing you this year,” he said.

Arguments against funding TCEDA

Perkins said $102,000 represents roughly over 2 percent of the typical General Fund revenues in recent years, and he believed that the county could make up the difference from its General Fund that’s typically more than $70 million.

Perkins has criticized the authority during the past year in a number of Letters to the Editor in The Union Democrat and sought information from the agency to back up its claims of positive economic outcomes.

Larry Cope, executive director of the TCEDA, provided a report to the agency’s board in November that stated it has been involved with $393 million in investments that have created 2,080 jobs at an average wage of $20.87 per hour.

Perkins filed a request under the California Public Records Act for data to verify the numbers in Cope’s report. The County Counsel’s Office denied the request under a provision of the law intended to protect the trade secrets of private businesses.

The lawsuit asks the court to compel the release of the records as public information.

“I’m asking for performance results from an organization that’s made promises and in my opinion hasn’t delivered,” he said. “Now, they’re telling me I have to sue for those outcomes.”

The city’s portion of the annual funding has more than doubled since the agency started in the 2009-10 fiscal year, when city’s share was about $51,000 of an overall budget of about $231,000.

Cope’s base annual salary, which some county supervisors has hailed as one of the best investments the county makes each year, has increased more than 60 percent from about $93,000 in 2009-10 to about $151,000 in the current fiscal year.

Councilman Mark Plummer was one of two council members last year who voted against a 12-percent increase to the city’s portion of funding for the authority after Miller advised that continued increases would not be sustainable into the future.

“I personally have been disturbed that they don’t seem to have any metrics for success, other than counting the number of meetings and phone calls,” Plummer said before asking Perkins if he had any other metrics.

Perkins cited numbers from the California Employment Development Department that showed most economic indicators have remained flat and some have declined since the agency’s inception, such as population, average annual personal income, and the size of the county’s labor force.

Councilman George Segarini, who serves on the TCEDA board with City Mayor Connie Williams, interrupted the discussion between Plummer and Perkins to ask City Attorney Nubia Goldstein if the council could talk about the issue due to the pending lawsuit.

Goldstein advised that the council should stick to the agenda item, which was about the proposed budget as opposed to the lawsuit.

John Williams, husband of Mayor Connie Williams, was seated in the front row and applauded lightly as Perkins walked back to his seat.

Support for TCEDA, Cope

District 2 Supervisor Randy Hanvelt was one of several people who spoke in defense of Cope’s and the TCEDA’s performance and urged the council to continue funding the agency.

Hanvelt gave credit to Cope for helping timber giant Sierra Pacific Industries reopen its lumber mill in Standard that employs hundreds of people, bringing Kohl’s to The Junction shopping center in East Sonora, brokering a deal for Big Lots, Jo-Ann Fabrics and PetSmart to fill a large vacant space formerly occupied by Mervyn’s in the Crossroads Shopping Center, filling empty storefronts in downtown Sonora, the Bourbon Barrel, developer Doug Kennedy’s future Sonora Armory entertainment complex, and Adventist Health Sonora’s $36 million Health Pavilion and Diana J. White Cancer Institute at Mono Way and Greenley Road.

“I happen to be the vice chair of RCRC (Rural County Representatives of California) and they love Larry Cope because he makes things happen, and we will not know about them until after they happen,” Hanvelt said forcefully. “It’s ridiculous to think you might know about them beforehand because if I had a business plan, I sure wouldn’t share it with the world because my competitors don’t need to know what I’m doing.”
Amelia Harrison, executive director of the Tuolumne County Chamber of Commerce, said she would likely be out of a job without Cope because of the connections he fosters that helps the organization carry out its mission to support businesses.

Kurtis Clark, executive director of the Modesto-based Valley Sierra Small Business Development Center, said his organization provides consulting help for free to new and existing business owners in Stanislaus, Merced, Tuolumne and Mariposa counties with the help of $10,000 a year in funding from the TCEDA.

Clark’s organization is also heading up a countywide business outreach program that he said had visited with a total 134 businesses, 44 of which were within the city limits as of May 31. The goal is to visit with at least an additional 35 businesses in the city and 45 to 55 in the county through the end of June.

Mayor Connie Williams asked whether the city could contract directly with the Valley Sierra SBDC to get a more dedicated focus on businesses in the city, to which Clark replied that they would be happy to discuss.

Segarini read a letter submitted by Micki Rucker, owner of the antique store Funky Junk in downtown Sonora, who praised Cope with helping her get her business started when she moved to the county several years ago.

Tensions flare as council reacts

Former Mayor Jim Hildreth, who also owns a business in the city, said the council saw success in filling empty storefronts in the downtown area in the 1980s through the Main Street Program.

Hildreth questioned whether the city should use the $102,000 to start its own economic development program, which drew laughter from Hanvelt seated in the third row.

Hanvelt then went to sit next to District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan, who represents the county on the TCEDA board with District 4 Supervisor John Gray, and whispered to her throughout much of the rest of the discussion about the city budget.

Plummer acknowledged the outpouring of support for Cope at the meeting, though he recommended the city provide less funding to the TCEDA until the lawsuit is settled or the agency provides more information to measure results.

Segarini said he didn’t believe that Plummer should make a suggestion like that before meeting privately with Cope to discuss the agency’s work.

Cope previously invited Plummer to meet with him last year, but Plummer said he had yet to accept the offer because he wanted to remain neutral on the subject.

“One of my concerns is being that everybody who is in a position of funding for Larry is his buddy and friend,” Plummer responded. “He’s a likable guy … and I like him, but I don’t want my personal favor for him to be clouding my judgment for what he may or may not be doing.”

Plummer added that he polled 12 business owners in the city last year after the controversy over his vote against increasing the TCEDA’s funding and only two said they had any dealing with Cope, both of which the councilman said were bars.

Councilman Matt Hawkins said he thought it was “disgusting” and “disturbing” that Plummer would refer to those who fund the TCEDA as Cope’s friends.

“I’m not Larry Cope’s buddy, but I think he’s a wonderful guy,” Hawkins said. “If you sat down with him, I think you would see how many of the council members have been tough with him.”

Mayor Pro-Tem Jim Garaventa, who is likely to become mayor next month after winning re-election on June 5, said he had mixed feelings about the debate because he believed there should be some sort of measurement to evaluate the TCEDA’s performance, but he was reluctant to stop funding without an alternate plan in place.

Williams said she’s been on the TCEDA board for two years and has requested information about the agency’s successes, but has also been denied on the grounds that it would disclose information about private businesses.

“Transparency is very important,” she said. “These are all taxpayer dollars being spent on the EDA.”

Williams suggested continuing the conversation to future meetings before making any decisions, though she was most concerned about the lack of funding for a part-time police officer’s presence at the schools in the city.

No funding for officer at schools, raise for city administrator

Several people at Monday’s meeting urged the council to find finding elsewhere for a part-time school resource officer in the Sonora Police Department, a position that’s proposed to be cut in the next fiscal year’s budget due to a lack of grant funding from the state that previously paid for most of it.

Sonora Police Chief Turu VanderWiel explained after the meeting that the position was funded from money provided by the state for several years through Assembly Bill 109, but this year the state Legislature decided not to provide it for city police departments.

The position cost about $30,000 in the current fiscal year that ends June 30.

Cindy Zelinsky, who teaches culinary arts at Sonora High School, said she’s seen first hand how School Resource Officer Gordon Winningham has benefitted the campus and worried about the loss of the position amid increased gun violence in schools across the United States.

Zelinsky said money planned for repainting the vacant former Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau building on Stockton Road and upgrades to the city-owned Fire Museum on North Washington Street would be better spent on funding a school resource officer.

The school resource officer can be your first line of defense,” she said. “For me as a community member, when I hear that we are going to be painting a building that doesn’t need to be painted or I hear that we are making upgrades to a firehouse that is a museum and we’re not looking at ways for funds to protect our children, that’s appalling.”

As the co-owner of Emberz restaurant, Zelinsky also offered support for maintaining the current level of funding for the TCEDA because of the help the agency has provided to her over the years.

District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan said the county is planning to fund two community resource officers in the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office in the next fiscal year who will partly assigned to Sonora, Summerville, Don Pedro and Tioga high schools.

Brennan said she would encourage the city and county to have conversation about coordinating on that effort. After the meeting, she also provided support for the TCEDA funding because she believes the city and county see better results when they pool their resources.

Also at Monday’s meeting, the council voted 4-1 to approve a 7-percent raise for the city administrator that will increase his annual base salary from $154,307 to about $166,000.

Five-percent of Miller’s raise is for taking on the duties of the administrative services director, who left for another job in November, as well as a two-percent cost of living adjustment.

The raise comes out to an increase of about $1,100 per month in payroll expenses for the city, according to Goldstein.

Miller clarified that the 5-percent increase would be taken away when the city hires a new administrative services director, which he said they are in the process of recruiting.

Williams was the only one to vote against the increase and didn’t cite her reasoning at the meeting, but provided a written statement after the meeting that said she did not vote for the increase because she “hoped the administrative services director position would have been filled sooner.”

Contact Alex MacLean at or (209) 588-4530.