Tuolumne County says it currently doesn’t have $14,000 in its $78 million General Fund for a popular youth recreation program this summer, but will pay the newly hired public defender $18,283 more per year than the retiring public defender, who's held the position since 2003.

There are 140 children and their parents waiting to hear whether the county will be able to fund the recreation program that was supposed to begin Monday and run through Aug. 1.

“We receive phone calls on a daily basis wondering about the status of the program,” said Daniel Richardson, director of the county General Services Agency, which was created earlier this year and oversees recreation, libraries, information technology, and facilities management.

The program runs two sessions Monday through Thursday. Parents can sign their kids up for the morning or afternoon sessions at a cost of $120 and full day at $240 for the entire seven weeks.

Richardson said he and others in the Recreation Department have been looking since January for an appropriate facility at a cost the county can afford.

It costs the county about $50,000 to provide the program each year, and makes back about $21,000 from the fees because of a board policy to charge youth 30 percent of program costs.

The program was at Twain Harte Elementary School last summer and Soulsbyville Elementary School for three summers prior to that at an average cost of roughly $1,500.

Sonora High School was home to the program each summer for more than 20 years until 2015, when it had to be moved due to construction projects on the campus.

Richardson said the only offer on the table is from the Sonora Union High School District to rent facilities at its Cassina High campus for $13,900. All other elementary or high schools that were contacted couldn’t host the program due to construction projects or competing programs.

The county Board of Supervisors discussed the issue for nearly an hour on Tuesday before unanimously approving a stopgap three-month budget for the next fiscal year that begins July 1 and directing staff to find another way to fund the program in the coming days.

“I think we’ll have to make a call by next Monday,” Richardson said at the meeting. “We need to let parents know that you need to make another plan for your children.”

Richardson said after the meeting that he wasn’t going to comment on whether he believes they will be able to find a place by next week.

Schools are the most appropriate facilities, Richardson said, because it requires space for up to 100 children at time to do crafts, an air-controlled indoor area in case they can’t go outside due to smoke from fire, an outdoor play area, and ideally a gymnasium.

“The county doesn’t have an appropriate facility, so we’re at the mercy of the schools right now,” he said.

The program couldn’t be hosted at Sonora High this year due to construction, though it’s unlikely the county could afford it even if it was available.

It previously cost the county $4,200 to rent facilities on the Sonora High campus, which included classrooms, the gymnasium, and field, but would cost $16,800 now due to fee increases since 2014.

District Superintendent Mark Miller said in an interview on Tuesday that the increased rental costs were based on what other school districts in the area charge, particularly Bret Harte and Calaveras.

“We tried to put ourselves in the middle of that so we weren’t the highest or lowest, but just the average cost of providing facilities in the area,” he said. “We felt looking at our comparables from the other districts that it was fair.”

Debate over budget priorities

County supervisors had mixed opinions on what to do with the recreation program. Some believed it should be funded at least through this summer using money from other parts of the budget, while others said they would oppose that.

The board is planning to restructure the government over the coming months due to a projected $3.7 million budget deficit in the fiscal year that runs July 1 to June 30, 2020, which Auditor-Controller Debi Bautista said is not addressed in the current stopgap budget.

After the restructuring process, the board is expected to consider passing a final budget in September that will likely look much different than the one approved on Tuesday. That could mean cutting back programs, services and possibly laying off employees.

Bautista told the board during previous budget discussions over the past several years that fundamental changes were needed to the way the county was structured.

“I’m really excited that we’re really going to take action and do it differently, but I just want everybody to understand this action is not going to be easy,” Bautista said. “It’s going to be hard, and it’s going to affect people’s lives in a detrimental way.”

The board acknowledged the need for a major overhaul last year due to projected budget deficits, with former District 2 Supervisor Randy Hanvelt saying that “drastic changes” were needed.

County Supervisor Karl Rodefer, who represents District 5, said on Tuesday that he wished they would have gone through the restructuring process two or three years ago. He was also not willing to move money from other departments to pay for the youth recreation program.

“I will not vote to take $14,000 from somewhere else right now,” he said. “We have to be fiscally responsible, and I understand the pain this is going to cause, but if we keep caving everytime we see pain for our constituents, we will never get there.”

District 4 Supervisor John Gray said they’ve looked at unpopular issues like closing the libraries and cutting recreation activities, but the county might be at a point when that has to happen.

County Supervisor Ryan Campbell, who represents District 2, expressed the most frustration at the inability for the county to be able to provide an additional $14,000 for the youth recreation program this summer.

Prioritizing services like recreation and libraries was one of Campbell’s primary campaign issues last year.

“In my mind, what this parks and recreation situation represents is irresponsible budgeting elsewhere within the budget,” he said. “We should absorb a cost like this that’s relatively small, given the size of our total budget.”

The total budget is about $176.2 million, though the board mostly has much say over the $78 million in the General Fund because the rest is earmarked for specific mandated programs and services.

Campbell voted in favor of the stopgap budget with the caveat that all departments will be scrutinized as much as recreation during the process of restructuring.

County Supervisor Sherri Brennan, who represents District 1, said the restructuring would be an “incredibly transparent process” and strongly encouraged the public to participate and provide input.

District 3 Supervisor Anaiah Kirk was also in favor of funding the summer recreation program for youth for this summer at least because he felt that it wasn’t right to the parents on the waiting list to suddenly cut the program.

“I’m completely fine with cutting every single one of these programs, but I want to do that in the right order and not the day after a program was supposed to start,” he said. “I feel like it’s an irresponsible way to make those cuts.”

Public defender contract

Directly after the budget hearing, four out of the five elected county supervisors approved a five-year contract for Sonora attorney Scott Gross to become the next chief public defender on July 1.

Gross will be paid a starting base salary of $150,324 annually that could top out at $166,091 within two years. His compensation package also credits him with 40 hours of personal leave and benefits provided to all management-level county employees.

The contract also stipulates that Gross would receive three months of severance pay if the board terminates the contract early.

Gross beat out eight other applicants who met the minimum qualifications. He has 22 years of law experience, mostly in criminal defense, including public defender offices in Calaveras and Amador counties.

County Administrator Tracie Riggs said the eight candidates were interviewed by two panels that consisted of other attorneys and county officials, including herself, before the board interviewed the top two and selected Gross on May 31.

“What stood out about Scott was his sincerity,” Riggs said at the meeting on Tuesday. “His absolute passion and sincerity about the work that he does and clients he represents.”

Gross is married to County Counsel Sarah Carrillo, the board’s top legal advisor, though she has recused herself from all matters involving his employment to avoid a conflict of interest.

All matters involving Gross, including the negotiations over his contract, have been assigned to Deputy County Counsel Christopher Schmidt — who sat in for Carrillo on Tuesday during the discussions about the budget and contract.

Campbell recused himself from the contract discussion and decision because his wife, Hallie Gorman, works as a deputy public defender for the county. She was interested in the job but the County Counsel’s Office believes she would be ineligible due to her and Campbell’s relationship.

Outgoing Public Defender Robert Price will leave at a base salary of $132,041, which was the previous maximum for the position. The board increased the compensation in April in hopes of attracting a wider pool of talent by being closer to what other areas offer.

The new maximum annual salary for the position is higher than that of District Attorney Laura Krieg, whose office has a larger staff and handles more cases each year.

Krieg’s annual base salary was increased in March from $154,890 to $161,195, because a compensation study in 2015 the pay was lower than comparable counties.

The board was scheduled to consider increasing the salary for Krieg to $178,000 earlier this month, but the item was tabled. It was the same meeting where Riggs explained the county’s financial problems and need for restructuring.

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