After spending the past several months grappling with a $4.2 million funding gap, the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors is shifting focus to boosting revenue with some potential new or increased fees for certain services.

The board heard recommendations from county officials Tuesday afternoon after finalizing a balanced budget earlier that morning and seemed receptive to some of the ideas, which included raising the cost to rent public facilities, increasing development fees, and requiring business in the incorporated area to pay for annual fire-code inspections.

Among the recommendations to the board was helping stabilize and enhance fire services that would include requiring business licenses, charging businesses for annual fire inspections, and expanding the county’s current development fees.

Deputy County Administrator Maureen Frank described the suggestions as a “baby step” toward addressing the larger need for more funding to stabilize and enhance the county’s fire services.

“It starts us on that path to be a little more proactive,” she said.

For example, extending the county’s Growth Impact in Government and Expenditures (GIGER) fees to commercial, industrial and multi-family residential development projects could provide an estimated $75,000 in additional funding per year for fire services.

The county’s fire department is facing long-term instability that includes a lack of $7.5 million to replace its fleet of aging fire engines and water tenders, which are 23 years old on average and becoming more unreliable.

Andrew Murphy, assistant chief of the department, said calls for service have increased more than 50 percent since 2006, though the funding for the department has not kept pace to provide adequate staffing and equipment.

“None of those suggestions are groundbreaking or earth shattering,” he said. “They are done in many other jurisdictions.”

Volunteers from two nonprofit organizations spoke out against a proposed fee of $25 per hour to rent the meeting room at the Tuolumne County Library’s main branch building on Greenley Road in Sonora, which they and other nonprofits use for free under the county’s current policies.

Susan Strope, a past president of the nonprofit Tuolumne County Genealogical Society, said her group shouldn’t have to pay because they provide thousands of volunteer hours to the county per year by staffing the Tuolumne County Museum on Bradford Street three days per week.

Strope said her group doesn’t charge for helping people trace their historical roots and couldn’t afford the fee, which would come out to about $1,925 for the average number of hours they use the room for monthly meetings on days when the library isn’t open.

The group raises most of its funds through a yearly Sees’ Candies sales drive that raised about $600 this year, which helps upkeep their computers, pay for subscriptions to online genealogy websites that it allows the public to access for free, publish their newsletter and pay for insurance.

County Supervisor John Gray said he didn’t believe groups like the genealogical society should have to pay to rent facilities.

“It would be counterproductive, in my opinion, to have you work for free to keep the museum open and then charge you to use the library,” he told Strope.

Other county-owned facilities proposed for a $25 hourly rental fee included the community halls in Jamestown, Groveland, and Tuolumne, as well as meeting rooms at the Sonora Youth Center and Pinecrest Community Hall.

The courtyard at the county museum and Courthouse Square were proposed to have a $12 hourly fee.

Currently, the county charges a $50 refundable deposit and $25 daily use fee or $3 per hour fee. The fees are $5 per hour to use the kitchens at the community halls in Jamestown, Groveland and Tuolumne.

Nonprofit groups pay the refundable deposit.

County Supervisor Karl Rodefer suggested creating an exemption for nonprofit groups that directly provide in-kind services that benefit the county.

“If there is some real direct correlation, maybe that would be one objective and consistent way we could have exceptions to whatever fee structure we put in place,” he said. “I’m not interested in the county getting rich on this, I’m just interested in partial recovery of the cost of doing business.”

Eric Aitken, recreation and library manager for the county, said they will have to do a fee study before the board can consider anything.

Aitken said the county is the only organization he could find that doesn’t charge a fee to nonprofit groups for renting facilities.

County Administrator Tracie Riggs said the county’s insurance carrier is also now telling them that any nonprofit groups must have a certificate of insurance on file to rent a county facility.

Liz Peterson, the county emergency services coordinator, said there would also be other benefits by establishing a business license program in the unincorporated area.

“We currently don’t know how many businesses we have or what types of businesses, so this would be good information to use countywide,” she said.

County Supervisor Ryan Campbell said the proposed fees were more about recovering costs for some services the county provides and didn’t sound unreasonable.

Gray said he felt the fees seemed like a starting point, but not the answer to the county’s fiscal challenges. The board has discussed the possibility of floating an increase in sales or lodging taxes to voters in the upcoming March 3 election.

“If we can start with this, we can proceed with some other things that can maybe help solve the problem a bit better,” he said. “We need to start with something.”

County officials were directed by Rodefer to put together a “package” of proposals on fees to bring back to the board for a vote at a future meeting.

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

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