Tuolumne County Supervisor Evan Royce lashed out at critics during a debate over funding for the arts at a public meeting on Tuesday.
Royce aired his frustration with local politics after hearing from supporters of Tuolumne County Arts, who gave impassioned pleas for the Board of Supervisors to give the nonprofit group $35,000 from the $245 million final county budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year.
“I just spent the last two weeks in northern Idaho and it was peaceful and quiet and I want to go back there right now, because people make me sick,” he said, drawing a mixture of gasps and laughs from those in attendance.
In response to a woman in the audience who reminded Royce that he’s an elected supervisor, he said that he loves people and his community but is fed up with enduring the judgment and criticism that inherently goes along with being a politician.
The two-term supervisor who didn’t seek re-election and leaves office at the end of the year became slightly emotional as he talked about how he plays guitar, loves poetry and still has newspaper clippings from drawing contests he won as a child, but he doesn’t believe the organization deserves the money over other pressing needs in the county.
“We’re failing to maintain our damn roads,” Royce said forcefully, slamming his palm on the table. “Our infrastructure is falling apart. We’re so irresponsible with the essential things we need to be doing. Our forests are burning down. It’s ridiculous. This is ridiculous.”
The same woman from the audience said, “Thank you God you’re not running,” to which Royce responded in agreement.
After the meeting, Royce said he had no regrets about his statements and hasn’t appreciated the negative comments he’s received via email and on social media since an Aug. 21 meeting where he said “artists are not business people.”
Tuolumne County Arts was selling T-shirts prior to the meeting on Tuesday with Royce’s previous statement emblazoned on the front but with the “not” crossed out to read “Artists are business people.”
“I’m going to buy one and wear it to support them,” Royce said of the shirts after the meeting.
Lisette Sweetland, executive director of Tuolumne County Arts, joked how Royce had inadvertently inspired a fundraiser when speaking in support of her organization’s request for additional money from the budget.
“We do understand that we’ve never been a line item in the budget,” she said. “However, losing this funding this year … will be detrimental to us.”
The board has urged the organization in recent years to become less reliant on funding from the county as budgets become more narrow and constrained.
From 2012 to 2017, the board provided $45,000 in supplemental funding to the organization each year for hiring staff and other efforts to become more self sustaining. The amount was reduced by $10,000 last year because the board hoped it would motivate them to do more fundraising.
The board approves a preliminary budget in June following by a final budget in late August or September that incorporates things not known earlier the year, like higher than projected fund balances, changes in revenue and state and federal funding.
There’s typically some money left over in the final budget that the board can use to fulfill funding requests from outside groups like Tuolumne County Arts, but this year was so tight that any changes would have required money to be cut from other places.
Several people spoke in support of Tuolumne County Arts’ request and talked about the impact arts has on people’s lives and the community, including survivors of violence and other trauma.
The board ultimately decided that there wasn’t enough money to provide the funding this year at this time, though it directed staff to shave $37,000 from other parts of the budget to hire another legal assistant in the County Counsel’s Office.
County Counsel Sarah Carrillo said the office has one legal assistant and four attorneys, including herself, who have to spend more of their time doing clerical work due to the lack of additional hands.
“They are backlogged, and not because of poor performance, they are working their tails off,” District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer of the County Counsel’s Office. “I think that position will increase productivity beyond the cost we’re putting into it, and every department in the county will get better service.”
That also meant the board had to deny a separate request to increase the annual amount that the county contributes to the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency administrative budget from $24,000 to $50,000 annually.
Tuolumne County’s annual contribution to the agency has never increased since it was created through a joint-powers agreement with Amador County in 1981. The Amador County Board of Supervisors recently approved increasing its annual contribution to ATCAA from $16,000 to $30,000.
The board directed staff to come back midway through the fiscal year to see if there’s any additional money that could provided to Tuolumne County Arts at the suggestion of District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan, who also recommended looking at a possible increase to the annual funding for ATCAA in the next fiscal year.
This year’s final budget was described by Assistant County Administrator Tracie Riggs as likely the largest spending plan ever passed by the board, largely due to $27.6 million in capital improvement projects for the under-construction new jail and infrastructure repairs at Columbia Airport.
County Administrator Craig Pedro warned that the $750,000 set aside for contingencies was “very minimal” considering the high-priced capital projects that could have additional unforeseen costs throughout the year.
This hearing also marked the last time Pedro will present a final budget to the board after 12 years as county administrator. Riggs is set to take his place after he retires at the end of December.
In addition, the possible repeal of an increase in the state’s gas tax and vehicle fees by voters this November and potentially higher-than-projected costs associated with the Ferguson and Donnell fires are something that county officials plan to closely watch.
District 2 Supervisor Randy Hanvelt said that, while the budget was balanced, the best words that could describe it were “uncertainty” and “risk.”
“There’s never been more uncertainty in one of these budgets,” he said. “We’re going to have to look at everything and potentially adjust.”
Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat or (209) 588-4530.