The Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors passed a $232 million recommended spending plan for the 2018-19 fiscal year on Tuesday that includes $20 million for construction of a new county jail, but there’s a looming debate over pending requests from a local arts organization and food bank when the final budget is presented in September.

District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer was highly skeptical of approving a request by Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency for up to $250,000 and another by the Tuolumne County Arts for $35,000.

“I’m going to find it impossible to write bigger checks or checks to outside organizations if we can’t staff this county and do our job the way I think we need to,” Rodefer said.

Rodefer said he wanted County Administrator Craig Pedro to work with Amador County, the other half of the joint-powers agreement that established ATCAA, regarding the agency’s request for the board to increase the annual funding it provides from $24,000 to $50,000.

The agency also is asking for up to $200,000 to support its Food Bank in Jamestown that recently lost more than $150,000 a year in federal funding due to changes in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program.

“I’m on ATCAA’s board and I’ll be very glad to look at my fellow board members and tell them we’re not going to give them $26,000 extra dollars,” he said. “As far as the food bank goes … that’s off the charts. I mean, I wouldn’t give them $20,000, let alone $200,000.”

Rodefer said people who enjoy the arts should support the Tuolumne County Arts program through fundraisers as opposed to taxpayer money helping to support its operations.

Raj Rambob, executive director of ATCAA, said he was previously warned by Rodefer that funding the requests would likely be a “near impossibility” for the county this year, so the agency is working on an alternate plan to acquire funding for the food bank.

“I have great respect for Karl and enjoy working with him on the board, so I don’t see this as personal,” Rambob said. “He’s just in a tough spot.”

Rambob, however, said he didn’t believe the requested increase to the annual funding for the agency’s administration was too much to ask because its funding from the county has remained the same for the 37 years ATCAA has been in existence.

Amador County, which has a budget less than half the size of Tuolumne County’s, recently approved increasing its annual funding to ATCAA from $16,000 to $30,000, according to Rambob.

“We’re part of the county and I don’t think any other department hasn’t received an increase in 37 years,” Rambob said. “We’re not asking to keep up with inflation.”

The $24,000 per year provided to the agency would be about $70,000 today when adjusted for inflation since ATCAA was formed in 1981.

Lisette Sweetland, executive director of Tuolumne County Arts, said she wasn’t pleased to hear Rodefer’s comments about the $35,000 requested but “understands where he’s coming from.”

The 40-year-old organization, formerly called Tuolumne County Arts Alliance, previously received $45,000 a year until the board reduced the amount by $10,000 last year because supervisors wanted the group to do more fundraising.

Sweetland said she hopes the county will provide some funding in “good faith” considering that this is her first year leading the organization, though she didn’t want it to take away from other important programs.

“We have been able to throw fundraisers, but you need money to throw a fundraiser with,” she said. “That being said, I don’t want to take away from programs that are just as important and jobs that need to be saved just as much.”

Most of the money that the board has discretion over spending is in the county’s General Fund that pays for most core services and employee salaries. The amount in the fund this year is expected to be nearly $75 million.

County officials spent months chipping away at a nearly $5 million projected deficit in the General Fund to balance the recommended budget, which doesn’t account for things like state and federal spending that won’t be known until later in the summer.

Auditor-Controller and County Clerk Debi Bautista warned of the need to start paying down the county’s unfunded liability in the California Public Employees Retirement System.

Bautista said the county’s unfunded liability for employees in the “miscellaneous group” was $86 million as of June 2016.

“We haven’t even started to start delving into the safety group,” she said.

The county will face even more problems in the future because it’s currently paying out about $4 million more per year than it’s putting in, Bautista added.

District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer said he didn’t want the public to believe that the county was in a unique situation, as all public agencies in CalPERS are looking at rising costs mandated by the state to fund liabilities.

Rodefer asserted that the county was in better shape than most jurisdictions, but Bautista said that wasn’t true when it comes to CalPERS.

“Again, we’re being blown away by these numbers,” Bautista said.

Bautista said she and her team are planning to give a presentation to the board that will show where the county stands compared to other counties in the state.

“We need to get in the driver’s seat of this PERS issue and not be sitting at the back of the bus,” she said. “We’re going to need all the funds we can to start paying down.”

Tax measures

The county’s financial woes have been blamed primarily on costs that board has little control over, such as CalPERS, that are outpacing growth in revenues.

To address the disparity, the county has started to look at additional ways of raising revenue like a potential ballot measure to increase or expand the existing Transient Occupancy Tax that’s currently 10 percent of the price charged to stay at area hotels and other short-term rentals.

The board reviewed its options for potentially placing a tax measure on the ballot that would either increase the TOT rate to 12 percent, expand the tax to include private campgrounds and RV parks, or both.

Voters rejected a measure in the June 2012 primary election to expand the tax to private campgrounds, RV parks and houseboats by a margin of about 56 percent to 44 percent.

Rodefer, who campaigned that year for his first election, said he voiced opposition to the previous measure because he believed it was poorly written. For example, it was later determined that levying the tax on houseboats would be illegal.

The way the tax works is that 25 percent of revenues goes to the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau’s in hopes of increasing tourism that will in turn help the businesses being taxed, while the remaining amount goes to the county’s General Fund to be used how the board sees fit.

Lisa Mayo, executive director of the visitor’s bureau, said she polled some of the local hospitality businesses she works with and many are not supportive of increasing or expanding the tax out of concern it will make the county less competitive than others where the tax is lower.

Raising the tax to 12 percent put it among the highest in the state behind only Orange, Los Angeles and San Francisco counties that have higher rates. However, it would be equal to the rate of both Mono and Inyo counties that have less than half the population.

The county estimates that the increase would provide an additional $740,000 a year in revenue, while expanding the tax to campgrounds and RV parks would provide an additional $250,000.

District 2 Supervisor Randy Hanvelt said the tax helps the county fund emergency services that visitors require in a disproportionate amount than local residents.

District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan said she believed that proposed expansion of the tax in 2012 contained too many exemptions that need to be looked at in any future measure that would be placed on the ballot.

Ultimately, the board directed staff to develop three separate options for a proposed ballot measure to only increase the TOT tax, only expand the tax to campgrounds and RV park, and another to do both.

The board will have to decide whether to approve the measure for the Nov. 6 general election ballot at a later date.

Later in the meeting, the board also approved introducing an ordinance that would put a measure on the Nov. 6 ballot to establish a business-license tax on cannabis businesses that would be up to 15 percent of gross receipts. The board would have the authority to determine the rate if approved by voters.

Commercial cannabis activity is currently banned by county ordinance, though the measure is intended to put a tax structure in place if any future boards decide to reverse the ban or other changes to state law.

The measure is likely to face opposition from people who are against allowing commercial cannabis, as some have already said that voting yes on the measure could be construed as tacit approval of such activity.

Also on Tuesday, the board approved refinancing a $6 million bond the county sold in 2006 as part of settlement with the state to cleanup a former gold mine property west of Jamestown that’s partially owned by the county.

Refinancing the bond is expected to save the county up to about $500,000 when the bond matures in 19 years.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.

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