Three top-level officials and six other employees in Tuolumne County government will receive layoff notices as part of a proposed plan to balance the budget for the current fiscal year.

The county Board of Supervisors “reluctantly” approved the notices at a public meeting on Tuesday, while noting that a final decision won’t come until the complete proposal is considered on Sept. 17.

“This is not an easy process,” said County Administrator Tracie Riggs, who recommended the layoffs. “Anytime you have to look at making reductions, it’s never easy, and weighing those priorities is never easy.”

Approving the notices was the first official action taken by the board in the process of restructuring the county government due to a projected budget shortfall of $4,2 million, which includes a $500,000 deficit for the county fire department.

The highest ranking officials who will receive layoff notices are: Daniel Richardson, director of the General Services Agency; David Gonzalves, director of the Community Resources Agency; and Deborah Samson, library director.

Most of the other layoff notices approved by the board were employees in the county Community Resources Agency, which would be split into two different departments under Riggs’ recommended plan for balancing the budget.

Employees of the agency who will receive layoff notices are: Heather Ryan, assistant to the director; Quincy Yaley, assistant director of development; planners Natalie Rizzi and Renee Hendry; and Kim MacFarlane, assistant director of public works.

Michael Gunter, a legal assistant in the county Probation Department, will also receive a notice.

Riggs said both Richardson and Gonzalves must receive 90 days notice under the terms of the contracts that were directly approved by the board, but the county is only required to give the other employees 10 days notice.

Laying off all nine employees would save the county close to $1 million in the current fiscal year and $1.2 million annually in the future, according to Riggs’ calculations.

Richardson, who has worked in county government for 22 years, formerly served as a deputy county administrator before the board appointed him to become the director of the newly created General Services Agency in January.

The agency consists of departments that were previously managed by Richardson as a deputy county administrator, including facilities management, recreation, parks, libraries, veterans services, youth centers, and purchasing.

Riggs recommendation is to eliminate the agency and move the departments back under the purview of the County Administrator’s Office, but Richardson’s former position would not be reinstated.

Richardson advocated both for the agency and his job in a speech to the board. He said the departments in the agency are better served than they were previously, while his institutional knowledge and expertise can’t be replaced.

“I understand the salary you pay me is a tempting target in times of fiscal shortfalls, but that salary reflects years of county service that carries with it great value to this board and the county you supervise,” he said.

The county would save an estimated $217,557 annually in salary and other benefits by eliminating Richardson’s position. His base salary is about $138,000 per year.

Riggs said that she believed creating the agency, which was one of the first things she did after becoming county administrator in January, was the right decision at the time because her office shouldn’t be managing departments.

In addition to the layoff notices, Riggs has recommended freezing some vacant positions, eliminating others, and adding several as part of the broader reshaping the county government structure.

All six of the frozen positions are in departments related to public safety, which the board directed staff to find funding for in the final budget that will be presented on Sept. 17. The frozen positions are one deputy district attorney, three sheriff’s deputies, a probation officer and animal control officer.

Reinstating the deputy district attorney position was given the top priority, considering that the office has nearly half the staffing of some counties that are smaller in population.

The Community Resources Agency would also be eliminated and split into a public works department and community development department for planning, each of which would be overseen by a director.

Riggs noted that employees in the agency proposed for being laid off will get an opportunity to apply for the new director positions or others that will be created, including a land use coordinator, two land-use technicians, and an administrative assistant.

“We will do everything in our power through all those restructuring of vacant positions to get those individuals into positions that would keep them employed,” she said, adding that they would have to meet the minimum qualifications for the new positions.

The agency was established in 2011 to bring a dozen separate county departments under a single umbrella, including building and safety, environmental health, planning, solid waste, housing, roads, engineering, land survey, GIS and public works.

Gonzalves was hired by the board to lead the agency in November 2016. He previously worked in planning and development for 26 years in Merced County.

While the library system would lose Samson as its director, two part-time employees who already qualify for benefits would be boosted to full time in order to help provide more staffing and maintain the current level of service.

The branches in Tuolumne, Groveland and Twain Harte would all remain open as well, despite some talk early on about the possibility of closing the Twain Harte branch due to the cost of renting the facility.

Samson was hired in November 2017 to fill a position that the county had left empty for eight years.

Several supporters of the library system spoke of the organization and professionalism that Samson has brought to the role while pleading for the board to keep her.

“We’ve had accountability, new equipment, new programs, she’s written grants and just done a fantastic job,” said Marilyn Wachner, of Twain Harte. “I’m worried that if she goes away, it will go back to floating because there’s no one in the library that can lead us in a positive manner.”

The proposal would also eliminate the bookmobile, which delivers to people who can’t leave the house or don’t live near a library branch.

Another recommendation is to increase the fees for programs and rental facilities under the Recreation Department, including Standard Park Sports Complex.

The amount of the increases will have to be decided at a later date, but an earlier analysis determined the fee for youth programs to rent the park would go from $18 to $105 in order to fully recover the cost of maintaining the park.

Marc Spurrier, of Tuolumne, advocated against a steep fee hike that he believes would prevent some children in the county from participating. He suggested the county should sell it to the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians, who run Black Oak Casino Resort.

“I think they’ll take care of our youth if we’re not going to,” he said.

Despite all of the recommended cuts, the county will still have to find an additional $2.5 million in the next fiscal year due to additional costs.

The county’s fixed payment to the California Public Employees Retirement System, or CalPERS, will increase by $1 million in the 2020-21 fiscal year. There will also be $1.5 million in pre-approved salary and benefits increases for employees and $1.5 million in higher costs to operate the new jail.

About $1.5 million of the additional costs will be offset by paying off an internal loan for work at the Law and Justice Center with one-time money this year, as well as savings from new IT software.

Riggs said the county will likely only open an additional 20 to 25 beds at the new jail once it opens in the spring of next year. Part of the reason for building the new jail, which will have 230 beds, was because the 147 beds at the current jail are consistently full.

The county is only required open one additional bed under the state grants that provided $33 million for constructing the jail.

Five additional jail deputies and four jail clerks would be hired under the proposed budget plan, which would provide enough staffing to fill all 230 beds. Riggs said the reason they aren’t planning to open all beds is due to the increased cost of inmate medical care, which is on average about $10,000 annually per inmate.

There was also much discussion on Tuesday about what to do with the Mother Lode Regional Juvenile Detention Facility, which opened in April 2017. The facility costs about $1.3 million a year to operate.

Riggs said county staff is working with the state to explore all possibilities, which includes reducing costs, changes to the services provided, and even shutting it down.

However, shutting down the facility could put the county on the hook for the $16 million provided by the state to construct the facility.

Some proposed changes to operations include eliminating the facility superintendent position, currently held by Mike Arndt, and adding a supervising correctional officer. Also, the juvenile division manager would supervise the facility and programs from the outside.

County Supervisor Anaiah Kirk recommended telling the state that the county is shutting the facility down.

“We need to start playing offense and stop playing defense,” he said. “I think we need to notify the state that we’re closing down our juvenile hall and force them to come to the table instead of waiting for them to come to the table.”

The other supervisors didn’t agree with the strategy.

County Supervisor Karl Rodefer said they are already playing offense through pushing for changes that would regionalize the costs of housing youth from other counties at the hall, which currently doesn’t come close to covering the full cost due to other facilities undercutting their prices.

Many of the 100-plus people who attended the meeting on Tuesday were wearing stickers in support of the county Animal Control Department.

Rumors swirled on social media for weeks that the board was planning or had already decided to reduce the time before impounded animals are euthanized to three days, which is the minimum amount of time required by the state.

County Supervisor Sherri Brennan mentioned that employees had received serious threats due to the misinformation.

People said they were relieved after Riggs made it clear that the county “would never” recommend reducing the time. The recommendation to freeze the vacant officer position will reduce the ability for the department to do proactive patrols.

Dog trainer Joe Riva, of Sonora, suggested an increase to the county’s sales tax as a way of getting more revenue for services like animal control, fire protection and law enforcement.

“If we don’t pay for it one way, we’ll pay for it another,” he said of the possible negative consequences from the reductions in services.

Rodefer said the board is looking at possible tax increases to generate revenue, but that it wouldn’t benefit the current budget because voters would have to approve that in the March or November elections.

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

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