Aging fire engines, reductions in state and federal funding for law enforcement and increasing costs for employee pensions are among the reasons Tuolumne County supervisors will be looking for ways to get more revenue in the coming years, which could include asking voters to approve raising taxes.
The county Board of Supervisors held a special meeting on Friday in an executive conference room on the fourth floor of the Hotel at Black Oak Casino in Tuolumne, where they discussed the need for more revenue to keep up with the rising costs of providing government services.
“We will be coming forward, if we don’t do something soon, to look at significant reductions in services,” said County Administrator Tracie Riggs.
The board sat in large black leather chairs at one end of a long wooden conference table surrounded by other county officials.
There was a break at noon for lunch that was catered by the hotel and included a platter of sandwiches with multiple types of meats, fruit and small bags of chips.
Supervisors typically meet in the board’s chambers on the fourth floor of the County Administration Center in downtown Sonora, but Riggs said there was a desire to get the board off site for the meeting on Friday.
The total cost for renting the room and ordering the food was $887, according to Christina Cunha, executive assistant in the County Administrator’s Office.
Riggs told the board during the meeting that county staff is still determining exactly how much additional revenue will be needed to avoid significant cuts, but there will be at least $4 million in increased costs that she and other officials have already identified.
Additional costs include $1.5 million in compensation adjustments for employees as part of labor agreements that the board approved two years ago, $1 million more in payments to the California Public Employee Retirement System, and $500,000 to $750,000 for operating the new county jail when it’s completed.
Sheriff cuts drug unit
Some county departments are already having to make cutbacks because of reductions in state and federal funding.
Tuolumne County Sheriff Bill Pooley revealed that he recently had to close his department’s drug unit, known as the Tuolumne Narcotics Team, because of a loss of federal and state funding over the past 10 years.
The sergeant and two detectives from the drug unit will be reassigned to patrol.
“No one’s investigating drugs at a major level in our county right now,” he said.
Pooley said state and federal funding for the unit has dwindled from a high of more than $800,000 annually to $48,000 in the current year. One of the reasons is changing laws that have reduced some former felony drug crimes to misdemeanors.
Grants that used to be automatic have also become competitive as a result of the changes. For example, Pooley said the office recently sought a $220,000 grant and was awarded $48,000.
However, the loss of the unit doesn’t mean the office is no longer investigating drug crimes. Pooley said there will be more focus on investigating such crimes at the “street level” through community policing, such as what the office did in Jamestown two years ago to combat property crimes and issues related to homelessness.
Pooley also said the staffing in his department has remained the same since 1997 despite calls for service increasing from about 18,000 to 52,000 a year since that time.
Law enforcement is one of the core services that are funded by revenue in the county’s General Fund, which is about $70 million a year.
The vast majority of the county’s overall budget, which is more than $245 million in the current fiscal year, can only be used for certain services and programs that are mandated by the state. It also includes one-time funding through things like grants for capital projects, such as the new county jail that’s being constructed with $33 million in state grants.
Officials talk tax increases, business license fees
One way to boost funding for services that was discussed would be an increase to the county’s Transient Occupancy Tax, which is 10 percent of the nightly rent at short-term lodging businesses like hotels, bed and breakfasts, and Airbnbs.
The county received about $4.5 million from the tax in the previous fiscal year, up about 13 percent from the year before that. Twenty-five percent of the revenue goes to the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau for promoting tourism.
Estimates provided at the meeting showed that raising the tax to 11 percent would generate an additional $360,000 annually for the county’s General Fund, 12 percent would be about $720,000 and 13 percent would be just over $1 million.
County Supervisor John Gray noted that getting the support of lodging operators would be important for getting the tax approved by voters.
Gray represents District 4, which includes the Highway 120 corridor that leads to the Big Oak Flat entrance of Yosemite National Park. The corridor is one of the biggest providers of Transient Occupancy Tax revenue for the county.
It was also noted at the meeting that both Mariposa and Calaveras counties recently raised their TOT rate to 12 percent.
County Supervisor Anaiah Kirk, who represents District 3, expressed concern about raising the TOT rate because he believed that having a lower one makes it more attractive for a company to book a large number of rooms for a conference or some other type of corporate event.
Several other supervisors said they see the TOT as a way for visitors to help shoulder some of the burden. Pooley noted how there’s an influx of more than 15,000 people on holiday weekends.
“Our citizens are paying for them to come here and use our services,” Pooley said.
There was also talk of possibly raising the county’s sales tax, which is at the statewide minimum rate of 7.25 percent. Six percent of the sales tax revenues go to the state’s General Fund.
Slightly less than half of all 58 counties in the state have a 7.25 percent sales tax.
The board talked about any potential sales tax increase not exceeding the city’s rate, which is 7.75 percent. More than a two-thirds majority of voters in the city approved a half-cent increase in 2004 specifically for providing more money to the city’s police, fire and public works departments.
Tax measures in California must be approved by a two-thirds majority of voters if the revenue is dedicated to a specific purpose, but only a simple majority is needed when the revenue isn’t earmarked.
Raising the sales tax in the unincorporated area of the county by a half of a cent would provide an additional $2.4 million a year in funding for local services, according to Bautista’s estimate.
The board also directed staff to prepare recommendations for potentially implementing an annual business license fee like the city, which Riggs said would provide useful data about businesses in the unincorporated area.
People doing business within the city limits are required to pay a license fee every year that varies based on the number of employees from about $100 to more than $1,800. The city uses part of the money to pay for the costs of organizing and hosting several annual events, such as the Christmas parade, Magic of the Night and the new Old West Fest that debuts in May.
“We’re one of the few counties that doesn’t have some kind of business licensing,” said County Supervisor Ryan Campbell, who represents District 2. “You have to get a permit to put a water heater in your house, and so you ought to have to have something on the books that shows you have a business in the county.”
Fire districts, departments look at property assessment fee
Andrew Murphy, assistant chief of the Tuolumne County Fire Department, said that 14 of the department’s 22 fire engines are more than 20 years old and five more will exceed 20 years by 2023.
The National Fire Protection Association recommends replacing fire engines every 15 years.
Murphy said some of the higher end models of engines in the department’s fleet can cost as much as $750,000 to replace.
Other fire districts are dealing with additional money to replace equipment as well, such as breathing equipment that the state requires to keep up to date. Mark Ferrieria, chief of the Columbia Fire Protection District, said replacing all of his district’s breathing apparatuses would deplete its budget for an entire year.
Almost all of the seats in the conference room where the meeting was held on Friday were filled by officials from local fire districts and departments, Groveland Community Services District, and many elected and appointed county officials.
One of the ways to raise additional revenue for fire services that the board discussed would be through a local property assessment fee.
Auditor-Controller Debi Bautista, who also serves as registrar of voters, said the board and districts could place the measure on a ballot for a special election as opposed to waiting for 2020 to get more revenue sooner.
Bautista suggested a uniform fee that would be the same amount across all fire districts in the county could have a better chance of getting approved by voters.
Despite all of the talk about taxes and fees, County Supervisor and Board Chairman Karl Rodefer said it’s still early and there’s no guarantee that they will move forward with any increases.
“If there was a personality for this board, I would say it’s tax averse,” he said.
Rodefer said the cost of providing county services and programs is rising faster than increases in revenues, but the public’s expectation is for the county to do more, specifically on issues such as homelessness, improving roads, and making communities more resilient to fire.
Without additional revenue to cover the costs, however, Rodefer said the county will have to eventually shed vacant positions or lay off employees.
“You can’t do more with less for everything,” Rodefer said. “At some time, you reach a breaking point, and we’re getting close to that breaking point.”
Rodefer said the need for more revenue is also one of the reasons the board sees economic development as a high priority and is looking to hire an interim director after voting last month to shut down the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority.
The board met privately in closed session before going to lunch on Friday to talk about recruitment for the new position, but didn’t take any action. Rodefer declined to comment. An undisclosed number of candidates were interviewed by the board behind closed doors last Tuesday.
Law and Justice Center
At the end of the meeting that lasted from 9 a.m. to about 3 p.m., the board directed county staff to move forward with planning for office buildings at the county’s Law and Justice Center off Old Wards Ferry Road in Sonora.
The county is building a $40 million jail at the center after building a $20 million juvenile hall there two years ago, while the state is working on a $65 million new Tuolumne County Superior Court building at the same site.
Maureen Frank, deputy county administrator, said the new jail is slated to open sometime in the winter of 2020, followed by the new courthouse a year after that.
Part of the plan for the center, which has been in development since 2004, was to include offices for other entities that are part of the justice system, including the county Sheriff’s Office, District Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office and Probation Department.
Assistant District Attorney Eric Hovatter said the move to the new courthouse will hurt productivity in the DA’s Office because the travel time will be greatly increased. The office is a half-mile from the existing courthouses in downtown Sonora, but will be more than two miles from the new one.
The board encouraged county staff to explore opportunities for partnerships with private entities to build the offices, as opposed to going into more debt.
The county recently borrowed about $22 million through a lease-revenue bond, with about $18 million being spent on building the new jail and the rest on upgrading the county’s technology.
“We may have to, but I sure don’t want to sign up for much more public debt,” Rodefer said. “Let’s look for opportunities to leverage the private enterprise side of our community.”
The proposed project would be designed to have space for the District Attorney’s Office, Grand Jury, Probation Department, Sheriff’s Office, Public Defender’s Office, Tuolumne County Transit Agency, private attorney offices and a food court.
Campbell said he could see the urgency for Sheriff’s Office needing to relocate because of the jail, but asked if the county has analyzed whether the cost to build the new offices outweighs the cost for the increased travel time of the other agencies.
“We have to weigh whether the cost of these facilities are going to offset the resources and time to travel back and forth,” he said. “Everybody would like a shorter commute.”
County staff expects to present a proposed contract for an architect to develop plans for the project in about three months. The work is expected to take four months to complete and cost about $150,000, which will come from interest on the county’s lease-revenue bond.
The whole process through construction would take about four years if the board decides to move forward with the project.
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 588-4530.