Public meetings will begin next week to restructure Tuolumne County’s government organization from the ground up, a process that County Administrator Tracie Riggs says is going to be “very emotional, very difficult and very painful.”
Riggs said in an interview with The Union Democrat on Tuesday that “everything is on the table” when the county Board of Supervisors holds back-to-back special meetings on Wednesday and Thursday to start the process in an open, public setting.
“I’m passionate about living within our means, making it transparent, and having our community involved in that,” she said. “It’s important.”
The board agreed to go through the process of restructuring when they approved a stopgap budget in June that covered a three-month period from the start of the current fiscal year on July 1 through Sept. 30.
Riggs and other top officials recommended the reorganization after being unable to close a $3.7 million shortfall in the $78 million General Fund, which is the county’s largest operations budget.
Similarly sized shortfalls in the past have been covered largely with money budgeted but not spent during the previous fiscal year. However, that’s no longer an option as county departments have become more precise with the amount of funding they request.
Most of the potential cutbacks to services and staffing will be in departments funded directly by the General Fund, which include the sheriff, district attorney, probation, libraries, recreation, veterans services, and the Community Resources Agency that oversees planning and development, code enforcement, and environmental health.
Examples of departments funded by sources outside the General Fund, such as state and federal reimbursements, include behavioral health, social services, fire protection, and roads.
Recommendations from department heads on the funding they will need through June 30 were supposed to be on Riggs’ desk by the end of Tuesday.
While the actual deficit is $3.7 million, Riggs said she’s looking for $6 million in savings to get a jump on additional costs known to be coming.
“We also need to be putting money in contingencies and reserves,” she said.
Among those anticipated costs are the county’s required contributions into the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or CalPERS, which are expected to rise by more than $1 million per year.
A decision by CalPERS in 2018 reduced the amount of time for public agencies in the system to pay down their unfunded pension obligations from 30 to 20 years, thus requiring higher contributions.
The entire system, which includes 36 counties and more than 400 cities, is underfunded by more than $150 billion. Tuolumne County’s pension obligations are underfunded by about $104 million.
Another anticipated cost is the additional amount to operate the new $40 million jail when it opens next year.
Riggs said the total additional cost is still being calculated, but the county anticipates having to pay close to $1 million more just for state-mandated medical and dental services because of the increased number of inmates it will be able to hold.
The county currently pays an average of $10,000 in medical and dental services per inmate for an entire year, Riggs said. The current jail can hold a maximum of 147 inmates at a time, while the new jail will be able to hold 230.
“The requirements for people committing crimes becomes more and more, which decreases the ability to provide services for victims or people not committing crimes,” Riggs said of the state mandates on inmate care. “It’s frustrating to all of us.”
Riggs said they’ve also discussed options for the Mother Lode Regional Juvenile Detention Facility, including what would happen if the county shut it down.
The juvenile hall costs the county about $1.4 million to operate each year, about $900,000 more than what it previously paid annually on average to house kids in facilities elsewhere. That amount is also at half capacity, with only 16 of the total 30 beds able to be filled.
Shutting down the facility isn’t a viable option, Riggs said, because doing so would require the county pay back the $16 million it received from the state for construction.
“The board signed an agreement to receive the $16 million in grant funds,” she said. “If we closed it, we would have to pay it back.”
Another idea that’s been discussed is using the facility for something other than juvenile incarceration or incorporating other services into it, but Riggs said that would require approval from the Board of State and Community Corrections.
The county would also have to pay for legal fees to evaluate the risk to bond investors by offering different services at the facility, which Riggs estimated could cost $50,000 or more.
Riggs said they plan to have a meeting with the Board of State and Community Corrections to discuss their options, but first she would like to sit down with the sheriff, chief probation officer, district attorney and presiding judge to determine what other uses would make sense.
“I don’t know if there are any alternatives for that building because it’s built for a very specific use,” she said. “Anything you do will come at a cost, because nothing is fully funded.”
The special meeting on Wednesday will be for departments in the General Fund that aren’t related to public safety, such as economic development, recreation, and the Community Resources Agency, while the meeting on Thursday will be for safety-related departments, such as the sheriff, district attorney and probation.
Department heads at each meeting will give presentations about their department and the services they offer. Riggs said she’s also asked them to present the minimum services they are required to provide and associated costs, in addition to their recommended budgets.
Riggs said their overarching goal is transparency.
“Here it is, we’re not hiding anything,” she said. “My goal is that people can participate. I’m open to listening to any suggestions.”
Another special meeting is scheduled on Aug. 13, which Riggs said is the day she’ll ask the board to make some decisions and provide direction on the final budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year.
Riggs said they could hold meetings every week after the Aug. 13 if necessary to finalize the budget, which she aiming to have the board consider at a regular meeting on Sept. 17.
All of the upcoming meetings are scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. and be held in the board’s chambers on the fourth floor of the County Administration Center, at 2 S. Green St. in Sonora.
The board and Riggs have talked about the potential need for layoffs at recent public meetings, though she won’t know how many or which ones specifically until she gets all of the information from department heads.
Employees at all levels are nervous about what the restructuring could mean for them, Riggs said, though she’s heard some are also glad they are going through the process so they don’t have to do it every year.
“Honestly, how could they not be? I’m very anxious,” Riggs said. “I feel like someone is sitting on my chest going through this.”
This isn’t the first time Riggs has been faced with difficult decisions in the process of retooling an organization, however.
Riggs began working for the county in 2006 as a contractor who was brought in to facilitate the closure of the former county-operated Tuolumne General Hospital.
After closing the hospital, Riggs was hired as a full-time employee and worked for a time as director of the Behavioral Health Department. She later worked in the County Administrative Office and took over the top job as county administrator at the beginning of this year.
“This is certainly not something I wanted to do in my first months as county administrator, but I definitely think it’s the right thing to do,” Riggs said.
Meanwhile, county officials are also working to lobby lawmakers in Sacramento about the issues rural counties face with the help of organizations like the California State Association of Counties (CSAC) and Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC).
Riggs said many of her counterparts in other rural counties say they are struggling to provide basic services and meet the requirements handed down by the state government, at the same time that the state is boasting a $21 billion budget surplus.
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 588-4530.