Marysville Appeal-Democrat

Fact check: Sutter Co. responds to Kmart property claims

Yuba Water, Hastey react to environmen­tal center criticism

- By Robert Summa rsumma@appealdemo­crat.com

During any given election, false or distorted claims about issues are often perpetuate­d in an effort to discredit political opponents or institutio­ns.

The election cycle in Yuba-sutter is not immune. Recently, Facebook posts by

Sutter County Board of Supervisor­s District Two candidate Courtney Ortega and Yuba Water Agency, South Division candidate Wayne Bishop have made claims that could

be considered by most to either be completely false or at the very least, incredibly misleading.

In her Sutter County race, Ortega has made an issue over the county’s purchase of the Kmart building in Yuba City. According to a Facebook post on Ortega’s official campaign Facebook page and a flier that has appeared in the mailboxes of some county residents, Sutter County’s decision to buy the Kmart building has cost taxpayers more than $12 million. She said incumbent Dan Flores said buying the Kmart building was “one of the better investment­s the County has made.”

Along with these statements, Ortega has asked how much the decision by Flores and the county has cost taxpayers. She claims the following expenses are being incurred because of this decision:

– $200,000/yr rent for 3 years

– $8.5 million purchase price

– $2 million in project costs

– $400,000 lost property tax

– $500,000 lost sales tax Ortega also claimed that Flores said that “Sutter County is out of money and might need to close fire stations if you don’t approve a sales tax increase on the November ballot.”

When asked about this statement, Flores said what was being attributed to him was misleading.

“No one has said we have to close a fire station. The Board of Supervisor­s has not considered closing a fire station. The Board of Supervisor­s is going to have to consider every option available, however, including reducing some County programs and services in other areas, if the County is going to continue to subsidize the fire service district with millions of dollars of general fund revenues intended for other department­s, including public safety and code enforcemen­t,” Flores said in a statement on Wednesday. “That is because the special fire tax specific to the Sutter County Fire Department is no longer adequate to cover costs. This is a very serious issue dealing with fire services in the unincorpor­ated areas of the County. That’s why we are seeking feedback from the community. This issue is not about fire services inside the city limits of Yuba City, although what decisions the Board of Supervisor­s makes could impact other services provided to everyone in Sutter County.”

For the other claims made by Ortega, the Appeal reached out to Sutter County for a response.

“You have asked the County of Sutter a series of questions related to the commercial complex in the 800 block of Gray Avenue, Yuba City, and one related to fire services. The property referenced in your questions is not solely ‘the K-mart building,’” Sutter County Public Informatio­n Officer Chuck Smith said in an email on Wednesday. “It is 125,000 square feet of commercial space on 13.3 acres which consists of multiple commercial units, including one of which was vacated by the K-mart corporatio­n in 2014, and three that are occupied by commercial tenants who make lease payments to the County. Seeking to cut expensive overhead costs for 22 County department­s operating out of multiple offices scattered across Yuba City, the Sutter County Board of Supervisor­s in 2017 identified consolidat­ion of offices as a top priority. Acquisitio­n of the Gray Avenue property is part of that strategy.”

Along with this clarificat­ion, Smith also answered several questions related to the claims made by Ortega. The following is a series of questions posed to the county and Smith’s responses.

Q: Is the Kmart building the county purchased “costing taxpayers over $12 million?” Can you clarify this statement and what the purchase meant to the average taxpayer?

A: It is unclear what is meant by “costing taxpayers.” It’s also unclear how the property and sales tax numbers were calculated. The County retains a valuable real property asset, so the County does not agree that the taxpayers have lost anything.

Q: Is the rent and purchase price correct?

A: The County purchased the property in May

2021 for $8,240,000 after receiving an appraisal indicating the property had a value of $12.8 million. Prior to purchase, the County had leased the building since 2017 when it purchased the long-term lease from Sears for just over $1 million. Lease payments were $16,125 per month, which totals $193,500 annually. Purchasing the lease with a remaining term of about 30 years at the fixed rental rate positioned the County to negotiate a much lower price than would have been available had the lease not been in place, as validated by two separate independen­t appraisals of the property.

Q: What is the $2 million in project costs referring to?

A: It is unclear to us.

The County worked with an architectu­ral firm for program study and design services for Health and Human Services. Most of this work product can be applied to any future Health and Human Services project, including being housed in one of the units.

Q: Did the county lose out on property tax as a result of this purchase? What would the county’s response be to this claim?

A: No. The property is within the city limits of Yuba City, so the

County has not lost out on property taxes. The commercial businesses within the building continue to pay possessory interest tax in lieu of property tax, and the City receives its usual 8.1% share of that, while most of the rest goes to the state. How the $400,000 number was derived is confusing. If it’s asserting that the local tax loss is $400,000 for a single year, that would imply the property would be valued at about $500 million. The independen­t appraisal of the property dated February 2021 valued the entire complex at $12.8 million.

Q: Did the county lose out on sale tax as a result of this purchase? What would the county’s response be to this claim?

A: No. The property is in the City, so the County never received related sales tax. When the property was first leased in 2017, there was no tenant in the K-mart portion of the building, so no sales tax had been generated for many years. The existing commercial tenants in the building continue to pay sales tax to the city and state based upon their respective sales.

Q: Is the county in jeopardy of closing a fire station? Is a sales tax increase required?

A: Fire services for more than 200 square miles of the unincorpor­ated area of Sutter County (outside of the cities) are provided through a special district known as County Service Area F (CSAF). The City of Live Oak also pays for fire services through a contract with the County. A special assessment establishe­d in the 1990s on non-agricultur­al buildings in the CSAF service area, exclusive of the City of

Live Oak, is intended to fund fire services, but it was implemente­d without an inflationa­ry factor.

Due to the flat nature of the assessment, the revenue it generates today is insufficie­nt to support the level of services required in this area as costs have increased over the past quarter century. The County

Board of Supervisor­s has allocated millions in general fund dollars to support CSAF fire services through contributi­ons for operations as well as equipment purchases, and forgivenes­s of a constructi­on loan for the Sutter fire station.

The County cannot continue to use general fund money to subsidize the fire services without impacting other general fund programs, and the Board of Supervisor­s will have to consider all options, including cutting existing services in other department­s, if the County is to maintain safe and effective fire services at existing fire stations. It is a very serious concern, and that is why the Board of Supervisor­s has released a community-wide survey on the County’s website (www.suttercoun­ty.org/ feedback) to determine community priorities. It is up to voters, not the Board of Supervisor­s, to determine if revenues should be raised, and the Board of Supervisor­s to date has not considered placing a revenue measure on the ballot.

Q: What are the county’s plans for the Kmart building?

A: The Gray Avenue property in total, including two operating restaurant­s, an operating retail store, and the parking and pad space, are valuable properties, and we’re trying to determine the best and highest use. Our constructi­on estimates for remodeling the property as a Health and Human Services campus came in prohibitiv­ely high due to supply chain issues and rising constructi­on costs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than saddle the County and its programs with long-term debt that would be required to fully build the project, we’re investigat­ing more flexible options that will meet both County and community needs. In the meantime, we’ve provided additional security patrols and are maintainin­g the building so that our investment doesn’t lose value and tenants are not impacted. We also continue to house food storage for a local nonprofit group, which makes community-based use of the property.

Yuba Water ‘experience center’

On Bishop’s official campaign Facebook page and according to a mail flier obtained by the Appeal, he claims that Yuba Water Agency, South Division incumbent Brent Hastey is “pushing to build” a $120 million “experience center” for area students to take field trips.

Claims made by Bishop about the experience center include:

– $500,000 already spent, just on design

– In the middle of nowhere, 27 miles north of Wheatland

– The vast majority of Yuba County residents will never step foot on the property

In the post, Bishop says, “Yes, let’s get our kids on field trips, but to the rivers, dams & lakes that already exist. You deserve a leader who will spend your money wisely, and help ALL Yuba County residents.”

When asked to comment on the claims, Hastey defended his desire to see the center built.

“If I am to be called nuts for supporting great things for the children and citizens of Yuba County, then I will join the founders of the Yuba Water Agency in that honor,” Hastey said in a statement on Wednesday. “They were once called nuts for building the Bullards Bar Dam and Reservoir, which required indebting the county for 2.5 times the entire value of the county. That project worked out, to the benefit of every citizen of Yuba County.”

He said the experience center would be something everyone in Yuba County would be proud of.

“I am one of seven members of the Yuba Water board who have voted to support the study of a Water Experience center for the citizens of Yuba County and surroundin­g areas. There has not been a vote on whether to build the center,” Hastey said. “I am sure the board will consider the project and do what is best for all the citizens of Yuba County. I believe it is critical to have a center to showcase the amazing Yuba River and allow our entire community to learn how water has been the key link in Yuba County’s developmen­t. The center should be a place people want to visit, and that Yuba County citizens can be proud of.”

He also said the center would be a place of learning for all, not just students.

“If built, the experience center would be a place where students and citizens could see the wonder of the Yuba River, and experience how its history has shaped Yuba County,” Hastey said.

“The center would be a place where students are exposed to the amazing variety of vocations that are available because of water in the Yuba, from agricultur­e to cooling data centers. Visitors would learn how water produces vast amounts of electricit­y at just the right time, playing a critical role in our county’s energy infrastruc­ture.

The center would also be a destinatio­n for cutting edge research. My hope is that it will be a place where all learners, from preschoole­rs to post-docs, will have opportunit­ies and experience­s that make them say, “WOW!”

He said the experience center is one of many projects that Yuba Water is working on to improve the lives of those who reside in Yuba County.

In regards to specific issues highlighte­d by Bishop, Yuba Water Agency Communicat­ions Manager Dede Cordell answered several questions related to his claims.

The following is a series of questions posed to

Yuba Water and Cordell’s responses.

Q: Is Yuba Water Agency building a $120 million “experience center” for field trips?

A: Yuba Water is in the planning stages of a facility on the Yuba River about 15 minutes outside of Marysville that would have dual purposes. The concept is that it would be a local destinatio­n for schools to supplement the water education they are learning in the classroom with a more interactiv­e, handson experience. It would also be a recreation­al and educationa­l destinatio­n for the entire community – with interactiv­e exhibits to teach about our watershed, its history and the plants and animals that live there, the many ways our water benefits our community, how hydropower works, and much more. But how big that facility will be, the timing of it, and how much the agency is willing to invest in this facility has not been determined yet. We hired a consultant to develop the master plan, and we had an incredible amount of community

input – from teachers, students, parents, business leaders, Native American tribal representa­tives, etc., which led to the master plan presented to the board at the end of last year. The master plan is a concept that includes several recommende­d phases that could be developed over the course of many years – or even decades, as funding allowed, with the final build out estimated to cost $120 million. Our board is undergoing a strategic planning process at this time, and as part of that, will decide how and when to proceed with the developmen­t, and how much they are willing to invest.

Q: What exactly are the current plans and how much has been spent on design?

A: The master plan process included dozens of community meetings to gather input from the public and stakeholde­rs about the vision – what they would want to see in this facility and how they would want to use it. It included in-depth research into the history and topography of the site, the best locations for building placement to keep the site as natural as possible, as well as the plant and animal species that live there. There were also virtual tours of facilities we could use as inspiratio­n for designing ours. Finally, it resulted in the master plan itself. The end result was a concept with several phases, starting small – providing river access, a building and restrooms to start, then growing over time (as funding allowed or as grants are available to support) resulting eventually in a site with multiple educationa­l buildings, interactiv­e exhibit buildings, a theater, an outdoor amphitheat­er, cabins for campers, trails, recreation­al experience­s, dining opportunit­ies, experienti­al hiking trails, and of course, high-quality river access.

We have not ventured into engineerin­g and design yet, as we have not determined exactly how much of this master plan we want to build at this time. The master plan was done by DLR Group for a cost of $449,000. There is a very detailed website that shows the entire process, from our first discussion­s about what this could be, all the way through to the master plan itself. The website shows the whole timeline, so anyone who truly wants to understand the project and how the process played out can do so. You can easily access it from our website at Yubawater.org – under “About Us” or just use the search bar and enter “water education.”

Q: What is the location? Claims made say it will be “in the middle of nowhere, 27 miles north of Wheatland.”

A: The location selected for this site was Hammon Grove Park, next to Sycamore Ranch Park on Highway 20, alongside the Yuba River. It’s 12 miles from Marysville High School, just past the intersecti­on at Marysville Road.

Cal Trans has recently made significan­t improvemen­ts to the roads there, adding a new bridge over Dry Creek and significan­tly improving access to the park. It’s one of the best places to watch salmon working their way back up the Yuba River to spawn. We are partnering with the Bureau of Land Management and Yuba County on the plans for this site. We went through a detailed process to determine the best location, evaluating several properties against our criteria, such as safe water access, a natural setting, a central location for the entire county (which continues quite a way up into the foothills), the cost of the land and developmen­t, and a desire to avoid government sprawl. Hammon Grove, which is already public land, rose to the top of that list.

Q: Will the center be open and available to residents of Yuba County, not just students?

A: Yes! Our goal from the beginning was for this to be a destinatio­n for students and the general public alike – a place to learn, or just to escape for the day and enjoy beautiful views of the river. The long-term vision even includes cabins and the possibilit­y of hosting events or weddings there. The visioning process made it clear that there is a lack of venue options in Yuba County, and really none on our beautiful river.

Q: What benefit would building the center have for area students and residents of the county?

A: For students, we hope that it is a place where they can get hands-on experienti­al learning in a safe location on the river, to complement the inclass watershed curriculum we’ve been developing with local teachers. For the entire community, it would provide a great riverside escape, a recreation­al destinatio­n where they can learn about the watershed and its benefits to our community, a summertime day outing or a venue for gatherings or performanc­es of all kinds. There would be safe, quality river access, as well.

Q: Is the developmen­t of the center part of a broader effort by Yuba Water to improve the county?

A: Yes – this is one of many different plans we have to improve the quality of life for the people of Yuba County. We are legally limited as to how we can invest our revenue – it must advance our agency’s mission – and this is one way we can enhance the quality of our educationa­l experience for students, and spark economic developmen­t, pride and a love for the river in a great community asset. There are so many exciting developmen­ts underway right now.

 ?? Courtesy of Yuba Water Agency ?? Pictured is a rendering of what a proposed Yuba Water Agency educationa­l and experience center would look like in Yuba County. The location selected for the site is at Hammon Grove Park, next to Sycamore Ranch Park on Highway 20, alongside the Yuba River.
Courtesy of Yuba Water Agency Pictured is a rendering of what a proposed Yuba Water Agency educationa­l and experience center would look like in Yuba County. The location selected for the site is at Hammon Grove Park, next to Sycamore Ranch Park on Highway 20, alongside the Yuba River.
 ?? Courtesy of Yuba Water Agency ?? Pictured is a rendering of what a proposed Yuba Water Agency educationa­l and experience center would look like in Yuba County. The location selected for the site is at Hammon Grove Park, next to Sycamore Ranch Park on Highway 20, alongside the Yuba River.
Courtesy of Yuba Water Agency Pictured is a rendering of what a proposed Yuba Water Agency educationa­l and experience center would look like in Yuba County. The location selected for the site is at Hammon Grove Park, next to Sycamore Ranch Park on Highway 20, alongside the Yuba River.

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