Despite a countywide hiring freeze that recently went into effect, the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors could select an in-house economic development director onTuesday at a special meeting.

County Administrator Tracie Riggs said there are four candidates who meet the minimum requirements, and two will be recommended for the board to interview at the meeting.

The interviews will be treated the same as other personnel matters and conducted behind closed doors. The board would make a public announcement if a person is hired.

Riggs said five people initially met the minimum qualifications, but one dropped out. She said all but one of the remaining four come from outside of the county.

The four candidates are scheduled to be interviewed by two panels on Monday who will make a recommendation on the two for the board to consider, which is the standard hiring process for high-ranking positions.

One of the panels will consist of people from the business community, while the other will include Riggs and other county officials.

Whomever the board selects will essentially become the successor of Larry Cope, the former chief executive officer of the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority.

Cope’s contract was terminated in March after the board and Sonora City Council unanimously voted to shut down the TCEDA under a cloud of controversy and public backlash over the way it was being managed and how Cope was spending public funds on business-related travel and expenses.

County supervisors later voted 4-1 to hire an interim economic development director for three months, with Supervisor Ryan Campbell opposed, but two rounds of recruiting failed to yield a candidate due to the temporary nature of the position.

Riggs told the board during a budget hearing on Tuesday that the entire county government needs to be restructured over the next three months. The county is currently facing a deficit of $3.7 million in the operating budget for the next fiscal year that begins July 1.

A countywide hiring freeze went into effect on Monday to help balance the budget for the next three months while the restructuring takes place.

Riggs said filling the position is a top priority in part because there are a number of major commercial projects being proposed for along the Highway 120 corridor that need “hand holding” to get through the permitting process, which she doesn’t have time to provide herself.

“The reason we do this is it’s very clear that the local economy has been doing very well for years,” she said. “We don’t want our economy to stagnate or decline, so this is a focused effort to make sure that continues.”

Making the position a permanent county employee is estimated to cost about $50,000 to $70,000 less than what the county was previously paying to fund the TCEDA in partnership with the city, which was about $343,000 a year.

The new position comes with a base salary that would start at $99,382 per year and top out at $121,306, not including health and retirement benefits, which was determined to be in line with similar positions in other comparable areas.

Cope’s annual base salary at the time he left was $163,625, after starting at $93,594 in 2009.

The Northwest Iowa Review recently reported that Cope was hired as the economic development director for the city of Hawarden, Iowa, which has a population of less than 2,600.

Hawarden officials have not yet responded to multiple inquiries by The Union Democrat regarding Cope’s compensation package, but the city’s budget was recently increased from about $40,000 to $140,000.

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

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