The Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors began a series of public meetings on Wednesday that will reshape how the government serves the community.

Officials in charge of the various county departments gave presentations to explain the services they provide, the minimum services they are required by the state to provide, and give options on what could be cut to save money.

It was the first step to address a fiscal crisis that includes a $3.7 million budget shortfall in the General Fund, which pays for most basic services.

County Administrator Tracie Riggs began the meeting explaining the need for the reorganization and reasons behind the current financial situation.

Riggs largely blamed reductions in state and federal funding, while at the same time local governments are being required to do more than they had in the past.

An example cited by Riggs was the state’s prison realignment under Assembly Bill 109, which diverted more offenders to county jails who would have previously gone to prison.

“That’s why we see the majority of the discretionary revenues directed at public safety,” she said.

The meeting on Wednesday was for all of the county departments and divisions that aren’t related to public safety, such as planning, environmental health, facilities management, veterans services, libraries, recreation, county counsel and administration.

Public safety departments will give presentations on Thursday, including the sheriff, district attorney, probation, and animal control.

No decisions will be made until a special meeting on Tuesday, when Riggs hopes to present a balanced budget with her recommended cuts.

Riggs said in an interview prior to the meeting that the recommended budgets given to her by department heads accounted for less than half of the $3.7 million deficit, in addition to a $500,000 shortfall in the budget for the county fire department.

She had set a target to reduce annual spending by $6 million to prepare for additional costs next year, such as at least $1 million more in medical costs for inmates when the new county jail opens.

Most of the interest from people in attendance on Wednesday was for divisions in the General Services Agency, which was created earlier this year.

The agency oversees facilities management, libraries, recreation, veterans services, parks, and youth centers, most of which is not mandated by the state.

Daniel Richardson, director of the agency, said the only required service it provides is maintaining certain parks and facilities that were constructed with grant money.

Although they aren’t mandated, Richardson said the services provided by the various divisions create community and improve the quality of life in the county.

“These are the agencies that bring together the young, the old, the rich, and the poor,” he said.

Most comments from the public came after the presentation on the county library system, which people pleaded for the board to support.

“Our community needs access to information in all forms,” said Mary Anne Schmidt, of Tuolumne. “When we have a community that’s informed, we have a community that’s educated and involved.”

The library system consists of the main branch on Greenley Road in Sonora and satellite branches in Groveland, Tuolumne and Twain Harte.

There are about 29,000 active library cardholders, representing more than half of the county’s population of 54,000.

A portion of the residents who check out materials from the library are also below the poverty level, according to the presentation.

Library Director Deborah Samson said there’s the equivalent of 12.5 full-time library employees, while other counties of similar size have more than twice that.

The library’s recommended budget for the next fiscal year is $1.1 million, close to the same it’s been for the past several years.

Some options for cuts included eliminating branches, reducing services such as storytime programs for children, taking the bookmobile off the road that delivers books to the elderly and people with disabilities, or privatizing the whole system.

Richardson said closing the Twain Harte branch would achieve the most immediate cost savings, because it’s the only one in a building that the county doesn’t own.

Closing the branch would save an estimated $81,644 a year.

During public comment about the libraries, the meeting had to be suspended for about two hours after a man in the audience had a medical emergency.

County Supervisor Karl Rodefer, who serves as board chairman, announced when the meeting restarted at 1 p.m. that they were informed the man was in stable condition and had been medi-flighted to a hospital in Modesto.

Rodefer also thanked the fast actions of some county officials and people in attendance who were able to resuscitate the man while waiting for paramedics.

The General Services Agency also oversees Standard Park Sports Complex that hosts adult softball leagues, youth sports, community events and the Tuolumne County Special Olympics.

Most of the programs offered at the park operate at a net cost to the county, despite fees that are charged to rent the facilities.

Eric Aitken, county recreation supervisor, explained that increasing fees to recover the full costs of maintaining the facilities would put the county well above the rates charged in the other counties and lead to a significant drop in usage.

Some recommendations included increasing fees for youth programs to half of the cost to the county, which would increase them from $7.75 to $52.50 per hour, and increasing the cost for other events from $18 to $105 per hour.

“Even though we’re recommending this fee, I’m really hesitant,” Aitken said. “Can these groups afford that fee? We don’t know. They might stop using the park.”

Likewise, recommendations for the recreation division included increasing fees for the various summer camps, public pools, and community hall rentals.

They could also eliminate some programs that operate at a net cost to the county, such as the summer recreation camp for youth that was almost cancelled this year due to the lack of $14,000 needed for renting a facility to host it.

Eliminating the program would save $34,067 per year, no longer running swimming programs at the Sonora Pool would save $19,554 per year and eliminating Aitken’s position would save $73,253.

Other departments provided more mandatory services, such as the Community Resources Agency, which includes building, planning, housing, surveying, GIS, and environmental health.

Under the agency’s recommended cuts, people would have to wait longer for things like building permits and approval of development projects.

There would also be health and safety risks due to understaffing in environmental health, as well as limited code compliance enforcement that could lead to more zoning violations.

The agency’s original proposed budget was $4.3 million, but doing only the tasks that are mandated by the state would cost $3.4 million. The recommended budget is $3.7 million.

People applying for permits would also have to hire their own consultants to write documents required under the California Environmental Quality Act, a service that’s currently provided by county staff.

Quincy Yaley, assistant director of development at the agency, said it could cost as much as $25,000 to hire a consultant for the work.

Several people involved with agriculture also took issue with an option suggested by the county Agricultural Commissioner’s Office that would eliminate the county’s wildlife services specialist.

Jim Maddox, a former wildlife biologist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the specialist provides invaluable assistance in resolving many incidents involving wildlife, such as mountain lion sightings on school campuses.

At the end of the meeting, county supervisors thanked everyone who participated throughout the day and reflected on the difficult decisions that lie ahead of them.

“This is going to be tougher than I thought,” said County Supervisor Anaiah Kirk.

County Supervisor Sherri Brennan urged the public and county employees who are worried about being laid off not to make any assumptions about what will be cut because the board is in the midst of the process and has yet to make any decisions.

Rodefer said he doesn’t believe anyone on the board has any predetermined notions about what they’re going to do. He noted how the presentations showed that every department in the county is operating with less staff and resources than most others.

“We’re trying to do this with as minimal impacts to the community as we can, but the reality is there will be impacts,” he said.

The presentations from departments concerned with public safety begin at 9 a.m. Thursday in the board’s chambers on the fourth floor of the County Administration Center at 2 S. Green St. in Sonora.

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

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