The Union Democrat
Group pushes for Sheriff’s Office to get COVID relief funds
Tuolumne County supervisors heard from a group of residents at a special public meeting on Thursday who demanded that they spend one-time federal relief funding for the COVID-19 crisis on more staffing and better salaries for the Sheriff’s Office.
The meeting, which drew one of the largest crowds to the Board of Supervisors’ chambers since the start of the pandemic early last year, was held to hear ideas from the public on ways to use $10.6 million that the county will receive from the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden in March.
Many who attended and spoke at the meeting expressed support for spending the money to hire more Sheriff’s deputies and boost the salaries of existing ones so that they won’t go to agencies elsewhere that pay better.
There have also been six letters to the editor sent to and published in The Union Democrat over the past week advocating for the board to use funds from the American Rescue Plan on staffing in the Sheriff’s Office, five of which were written by people who live in Twain Harte or farther east on the Highway 108 corridor.
Several county supervisors expressed some reservations about using the money, which must be spent by the end of 2024, for ongoing expenses like raises and new positions that the county would still have to pay for somehow long after the $10.6 million is gone.
County Supervisor Kathleen Haff said not having enough revenue to fund government services at a level that the public has come to expect is a systemic problem that won’t be solved by the one-time funding from the federal government, which is aimed at addressing some of the economic damage caused by the pandemic.
Haff, who was an employee of the county for 17 years before she was elected last year, stressed the importance of long-range planning and said she wanted to meet with Sheriff Bill Pooley before making any decisions to hammer out
a plan for better attracting and retaining deputies that would be sustainable after all of the money from the American Rescue Plan is spent.
“I’ve been watching boards for a longtime now … and one of the pitfalls I’ve seen is a shortsightedness in planning,” she said. “I’ve seen the cycles where lots of raises have been given, and increased numbers in staffing, only to several years later have massive layoffs. I don’t want to repeat that cycle.”
While the money has less requirements than funding that typically comes from the federal government, there are some directions on what it can and can’t be spent on.
The county put out a news release on July 14 calling for public input on how to spend the money that said the authorized purposes included direct costs for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic; assistance to households, small businesses and nonprofit organizations; providing premium pay to people performing essential work during the public health emergency; and expanding water, sewer, or broadband internet infrastructure.
More than 40 emails and handwritten letters totaling 53 pages were submitted to the county after the news release and before the meeting on Thursday, which featured a wide range of suggestions that included Sheriff’s Office funding, restoring cuts made over the years to the county library system, paying for fire equipment that would have been purchased through a local property tax that voters shot down in June, and improving roads.
County Supervisor Jaron Brandon said the money would not go entirely to one cause, but would be used to help address a number of issues that have built up over many years. He also said he wanted some of it to be used as direct relief for the community.
As a former career firefighter, County Supervisor David Goldemberg said that public safety is one his top priorities and that the board all wants the county to be on a better financial footing than in the recent past.
County Supervisor Ryan Campbell, who serves as board chairman, spoke last and talked about the board’s role as being responsible stewards of public funds.
“There are lots of other things that we do, there are lots of other responsibilities, but we need to make sure that we have enough money coming in to pay for the money that’s going out,” he said. “That’s the very basic role of a county supervisor, and sometimes it requires you to make tough decisions.”
County Supervisor Anaiah Kirk did not attend the meeting.
Staffing concerns in the Sheriff’s Office are nothing new, with the number of positions remaining mostly the same since the late 1990s despite calls for service per year nearly tripling since that time.
However, filling openings and retaining employees in the Sheriff’s Office has become increasingly difficult in recent years.
Pooley told The Union Democrat in June that the total number of vacancies at the time was more than the minimum needed to staff a full 12-hour shift, which is one sergeant and three deputies. This means the Sheriff’s Office has been requiring overtime from deputies while working at about 75% of its total capacity.
The county has an opportunity to “stop the hemorrhaging” with the COVID-19 money, Pooley said at the meeting on Thursday.
When asked by Haff what plans Pooley had to sustain anyone hired or kept on board after the money runs out, Pooley said there are a number of approved development projects in the works that could provide additional ongoing revenue to the county if they are completed between now and when the money runs out.
Late last year, the board approved upon appeal from neighboring residents two resorts that would be located on Highway 120 between Groveland and the Big Oak Flat entrance to Yosemite National Park.
Haff’s predecessor, retired District 4 Supervisor John Gray, estimated in 2018 that one of the resorts alone could provide as much as $1 million per year in additional Transient Occupancy Tax revenue for the county. That was also before voters approved Measure U in the November 2020 election that increased the TOT rate from 10% to 12% of the rent charged per room at lodging facilities, which was estimated to generate an additional $1.8 million per year at the time.
Other developers also recently submitted an application for another proposed resort along Highway 120 in Big Oak Flat on a property referred to by area residents as “The Scar,” due to environmental damage caused by past failed attempts to develop it.
Pooley warned that a mass exodus from the Sheriff’s Office was imminent if something isn’t done soon, and the ensuing effect that would have on the area’s crime rate could hurt quality of life and drive down existing tax revenues.
“I’m asking you to gamble here, I really am, to be honest,” Pooley said to the board. “I’m asking you to gamble on the fact that hopefully we’ll get some more tax revenue, sales taxes will increase, and those things will increase to pay for this later, but I can tell you for sure that if you do nothing, we have a problem.”
The board was gathering input at the meeting on Thursday and didn’t provide staff with any directions.
A meeting is scheduled for Aug. 3 for the board to take more public comments and provide direction to county staff, who will bring back a proposal to the board at a meeting on Aug. 13 and receive further direction. The final decision will be made with the final budget for the fiscal year, which is typically approved by the board in late August or early September.