Town Hall meeting provides updates

Carmen GeorgeAugust 30, 2012 

District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler covered a variety of topics at his last Town Hall meeting Aug. 23 in Bass Lake, including an update on the Crane Valley Dam retrofit project, county budget, impact fees, rural fire fees, a new bus route from Fresno to Yosemite, reverse 911 system, and 311 county information number.

County budget update

Supervisor Wheeler discussed the county's 2012-13 budget, passed in record time two weeks ago, outlining new plans to reduce the $6.2 million shortfall.

In 2007-08, the county had 1,333 employees and now it has 1,051, Wheeler said -- almost 300 less. He said the county has saved $2.4 million in continued furloughs, including the supervisors.

The county is exploring possible privatization of some water and sewer and is taking bids from private companies, Wheeler said.

"All of the districts are 20 to 50 years old, so they could have greater buying power if they consolidate," Wheeler said. "I'm in support to see if it will help the county."

Along with layoffs, some departments have been eliminated, combined, or restructured, including a $60,000 to $80,000 a year savings by consolidating the engineering department, he said. Cross-training is also anticipated for the planning department staff, enabling them to do a wider range of tasks, he said.

Madera city now also pays more for animal control, as most county shelter animals come from within city limits, he said. Wheeler added there is hope that in the future, county sheriff deputies will no longer be dispatched to calls within the city of Madera, which has its own police force.

In December, 2013, contracts with the county's 13 unions are also up for re-negotiation, where more savings will be sought, he said.

In response to a question about library funding, Wheeler said no more cuts are planned for 2012-13.

Bass Lake dam update

Construction on Bass Lake's Crane Valley Dam retrofit project is ahead of schedule, with anticipated completion the end of this year, said Michael Palmer, supervising project manager for Pacific Gas and Electric Company.

The $100 million dam retrofit, required to meet new state requirements to withstand larger earthquakes, began in the fall of 2010.

Two of four major construction phases have been completed, including dredging, the downstream buttress and reinforced core wall, he said. Remaining work includes placing the rest of the rock on the sides of the dam -- 95% done last week -- and raising the crest of the dam six feet, he said.

In response to a question citing concern that the fish population in Bass Lake has decreased, Palmer said there shouldn't be a problem.

"We installed two silk curtains that ran the length of the dam to keep silt from construction from getting inside the rest of the lake," Palmer said. "Some very fine particulate matter got out. However, the turbidity levels should not have been harmful to fish and were fairly localized. Our belief is the fish there before are there now, just maybe not in the same place.

"We've been working with Fish and Game and are open to fish planting or anything else. It'll be six months to a year to determine that ... We are looking at what the impacts (of the dam construction) might have been."

The 150-foot deep Wishon rock quarry, about five acres in size, has been backfilled to the elevation of its lower section, with landscaping and replanting to continue for another six months, followed by a couple years of erosion monitoring, he said.

"Over the next month or so we'll be wrapping up trucking materials from the dam to the quarry, so some road controls will remain in effect," Palmer said. "We'll also be trucking rock from the Raymond Quarry for another three weeks. The intersection of Road 222 and the dam, and the parking area, will be rebuilt. By the first of the year, the dam will be back open for foot and bike traffic."

Reduced impact fees to expire Sept. 1

The impact fees Supervisor Wheeler was instrumental in implementing -- reducing fees associated with building by 66.7% for one year -- will expire Sept. 1, with the second year slated for a 33.3% reduction. Wheeler said the 66.7% reduction has been so successful in generating new construction in the county that he will push for another year at the same rate -- what he will propose at the Sept. 11 board meeting.

Rural fire fees

The first bills went out Aug. 3 for a controversial state rural fire fee, $115 for most in Madera County, Wheeler said. There are 830 lots in the "State Responsibility Area," and Madera County's bills should be mailed towards the end of August, he said.

Wheeler stressed that fire fee dollars are slated for fire prevention -- things like brushing and fire prevention education -- and will not help with fire suppression, fighting fires.

While Wheeler is against the fee, he stated he plans to pay it to avoid the 10% penalty every 30 days for not paying, plus interest. More information about the fee is available online at firepreventionfee.org.

The Howard Jarvis Tax Payers Association reported it has prepared a lawsuit. Oakhurst resident Lou Aceto said more information is available online at firetaxprotest.org.

"A couple weeks ago I would have said the rural fire fee was slated to go to the state's general fund (which funds Cal Fire), but there's been enough of an outcry that they are now looking at a collection point outside of the general fund," said Don Stein, new Cal Fire and Madera County Fire Division Chief.

Fresno-Yosemite bus route update

"Fresno Council of Governments is starting a bus line from the Fresno airport to Yosemite," Wheeler said, also chairman of the county's transportation committee. "If they're going to come through (Eastern Madera County), I want to be part of it."

The Madera County Board of Supervisors approved $15,000 last month from Fresno COG to do public surveys and outreach in Eastern Madera County.

"I'm looking at what we can do to take advantage of this ... They are coming through either way," Wheeler said, whose interested in getting things going in Eastern Madera County such as package-hotel deals with the purchase of a ticket, and alternative routes through communities like North Fork and Bass Lake. Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino has already signed up to be a stopping point along the way to Yosemite, he said.

County jail update

In response to a question, Madera County District Attorney Michael Keitz addressed the status of the Madera County jail, including an extra 144 beds to be added by next June, funded with $30 million from the state.

Since the state implemented a new prison realignment system, which took effect October, 2011 -- sending lower level criminal offenders to county jail instead of state prison -- Keitz said the county has received many more post-release offenders to supervise than it was told it would. The current county jail is also usually maxed out -- on average 430 inmates with a 419 capacity, said Manuel Perez, director of corrections for the Madera County Department of Corrections.

"The state has given us more inmates and less money," Keitz said.

New phone numbers

Wheeler again announced the county's new 311 phone number for all county questions, which took effect Aug. 1. The new line ensures residents will always reach a person when they call the county, he said. The 311 number averages about 275 calls a day, he said.

"I've always stressed that it's so important to be nice to our constituents," Wheeler said. "They (county employees) work for us, and they are there to help you."

Madera County's website was also recently redone.

Wheeler also announced that when a resident submits a project to the county for approval, the name of the employee working on it will now be written on the project paperwork so residents can check up on its status more easily, Wheeler said.

The county's reverse 911 system now includes cell phones, Wheeler said. To add a cell phone to the list of updates in the case of an emergency near a resident's home, the cell phone number needs to be listed with the property. To sign up, residents can call the county's 311 number or the Madera County Sheriff's Department for more information, Wheeler said.

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