The Calaveras County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 Tuesday to spend most of their government’s $20.25 million in Pacific Gas and Electric Butte Fire settlement funds in District 2 and the 3.5-year-old, 110-square-mile burn scar that lies entirely in District 2.
Supervisors and county staff discussed multiple ways to spend the one-time settlement from the utility giant, which was found at fault by Cal Fire for sparking the costliest disaster in Calaveras County history.
Upgrading antiquated Sheriff’s Office radio communications and fixing aging sewer infrastructure and other facilities at Frogtown, the Calaveras County Fairgrounds outside Angels Camp, were part of those talks.
The final breakdown on how to spend $20.25 million was approved by supervisors Gary Tofanelli, District 1, Jack Garamendi, District 2, Dennis Mills, District 4, and Ben Stopper, District 5.
Merita Callaway, the District 3 supervisor, said she opposed the measure because it cut about $1.15 million from road repairs in the Butte Fire burn zone, and it included $250,000 in funds for improving Jenny Lind Veterans Hall and San Andreas Town Hall — public facilities that were needed during the Butte Fire but were not damaged by the fire itself in September 2015.
“We’re here today to rebuild a community, that’s we’re here for,” Callaway said before the board’s vote. “I would cut Jenny Lind and San Andreas. I’m comfortable with that.”
The final breakdown covered two pages and part of a third. It included $13,450,636 in road repairs in the Butte Fire burn, down from $14.6 million originally proposed by county staff. Final fund designations decided Tuesday included:
$2.35 million for a county disaster preparedness fund for 10 local fire districts and departments to upgrade fire engines and other fire suppression apparatus; the total includes $250,000 each for Consolidated Fire District, San Andreas Fire Department, Altaville Melones FPD, Ebbetts Pass FD, Copperopolis FPD, Angels Camp FD, and Murphys FPD, and $200,000 each for Central Calaveras Fire & Rescue, Mokelumne Hill FPD, and West Point FD.
$1 million set aside for unreimbursed Butte Fire labor and expenses due to the county general fund — the total unreimbursed amount due to county general fund is $1.15 million
$1 million for the county reserve fund, which could be used by Calaveras County to repay the Federal Emergency Management Agency $1 million or more in disaster recovery grant funding for the 2015 Butte Fire due to bad record-keeping.
$1 million to repair sewer infrastructure and other facilities at Frogtown, the Calaveras County Fairgrounds outside Angels Camp, which serves as a countywide evacuation center
$101,398 for lost property tax revenue to be reimbursed to the county general fund. That’s a drop in the bucket, according to Rebecca Callen, the county auditor-controller. Callen said Tuesday property tax losses are ongoing and countywide. Asked how much in property taxes Calaveras County has lost since the 2015 Butte Fire, Callen estimated it was probably $600,000 in the first year and half a million each year since. She was talking about property tax revenues in Calaveras County for the years 2016, 2017 and 2018.
$1.1 million in additional fire preparedness funding for Sheep Ranch Fire, West Point Town Hall, Central Fire water supply, Central Fire emergency recovery and preparedness, West Point Fire, Mokelumne Hill Fire, Mountain Ranch Community Club, Mokelumne Hill Veterans District, and Rail Road Flat Town Hall.
$250,000 for community resilience improvements at Jenny Lind Veterans Hall and San Andreas Town Hall.
Sheriff Rick DiBasilio got up to speak Tuesday afternoon before the Board of Supervisors began debating line items on the proposed settlement spending, and before their vote.
“Some people, their public comments have resonated with me,” DiBasilio said. “The money’s given to the county for the lawsuit for the Butte Fire, for damages due to the Butte Fire. This is not the sheriff speaking, this is Rick speaking. The money should be spent for damages done to the county for the Butte Fire. The radio infrastructure is an old problem. Spend the money for damages done. That’s Rick’s opinion. The fire departments should get some money. We need to fix the roads. I didn’t realize, because I don’t get out a lot sometimes, that some roads that used to be paved are now dirt. As a citizen of the county, those moneys should be spent on repairs.”
Immediately following the Board of Supervisors’ vote, Joshua Pack, the county director of public works and transportation, summarized a Butte Fire roads restoration plan that included the updated $13.450 million to fix 85 linear miles of county roads impacted by the 2015 Butte Fire.
The board voted 5-0 to approve that plan to deal with drainages, potholes and broken pavement, roadside trees, vegetation and brush, unpaved roads and hillside slope stability. The three-year restoration plan stretches through Fall 2020.
Later near the end of Tuesday’s meeting, former registered cannabis growers Beth Wittke, Neil McKeown, and Tom Griffing, who each separately own property in District 2, told the Board of Supervisors they were hurting the county by staying with the ban on commercial cannabis activities, and by continuing a moratorium on industrial hemp cultivation, which the board voted 5-0 to extend Tuesday afternoon.
The lion’s share of county funds remaining come from $9 million in Measure C taxes collected from registered growers last year and the year before the ban was approved by a split board vote in January 2018.
The Butte Fire broke out Sept. 9, 2015, and it destroyed 548 residential structures, 368 non-residential structures, four commercial structures, and damaged an additional 22 structures in Calaveras County. Two civilians died. A total of 70,868 acres burned and much of that land was private property.
In February 2018, Calaveras County filed a complaint against PG&E in Superior Court. In November 2018, Calaveras County and PG&E made a settlement agreement in which PG&E paid the county $25.4 million in exchange for dismissal of the complaint. In addition, the county and PG&E released each other from any other claims or liability stemming from the Butte Fire.
In December 2018, after payment of attorneys’ fees and legal fees and expenses incurred in connection with the settlement, the county received $20,252,034.98 from PG&E. In effect, according to Manuel Lopez, Calaveras County’s interim county administrator, the settlement funds can be considered General Purpose Revenue.
Contact Guy McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.