In his first town hall of 2017, Madera County District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler hosted a panel of experts on both tree mortality and health care issues facing the Mountain Area, as well as an updated presentation on Measure L, a proposed sales tax increase facing voter approval March 7.
A crowd of around 50 listened as Frank Bigelow, Jr., a pre-fire engineer with Cal Fire, began the first panel on continued issues with dying trees.
Bigelow started with numbers, noting 61,112 acres of Madera County forests have been affected by drought and the bark beetle, alongside 76,878 such acres in Mariposa County, and 80,451 in Fresno County.
“We’re surrounded by it, and we’re in the middle of it,” Bigelow said. “And we’re doing everything we can to help mitigate the problem.”
One such mitigation - for which Bigelow expressed excitement - was the availability of burners for use by the public at the North Fork Mill Site, where anyone can bring organic materials such as logs or trimmings.
“This is for logs or trimmings, not couches or whatever else,” Bigelow joked to the crowd.
For hours and availability, call the Rancheria Fire Station at (559) 877-2322.
Other speakers on the tree mortality panel included Denise Tolmie, District Ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, Pat Danning of Pacific Gas and Electric Company, Marco Sanchez, manager for Caltrans District 6, and Roger Kendle of the Madera County Sheriff’s Office.
As part of the panel on public health, several professionals offered updates on medical services in the Mountain Area.
Beacky Morris of Oakhurst Medical Group said it’s been difficult to find replacements for three doctors who departed for various reasons last year.
“We’ve been trying to recruit physicians for the last four years,” Morris said. “The Oakhurst area is a manpower shortage area, where it’s 3,000 patients for one physician. We know there’s a need but trying to recruit has been virtually impossible.”
Despite that, several speakers said they’d continue work to make the Mountain Area more attractive to physicians and other doctors. The panel included Debbie Hayes of Adventist Health, Nicole Mosqueda of Camarena Health, and Theresa Lopez of Madera County’s Veterans Service Office.
After the panels, Wheeler and consultant Georgiena Vivian gave an updated presentation on Measure L, a 1% sales tax increase to increase funding to firefighters and the Madera County Sheriff’s Office if approved March 7.
If the measure is approved, it would increase the sales tax in unincorporated areas of Madera County from 7.75% to 8.75%, an extra cent per dollar. That would generate around $8 million a year during its 20-year lifespan to September of 2037, with 80% going to firefighting services and 20% to the Madera County Sheriff’s Office.
For comparison, Mariposa County’s sales tax is 8%, Merced’s is 7.25%, the same as the state, and Fresno County is 8.225%.
Wheeler and Vivian said if Measure L is approved, in its first year it will add firefighters and equipment at stations in Bass Lake, North Fork, and Fairmead, and be the first step towards potentially lowering fire insurance rates in the Mountain Area.
Some critics have said instead of a tax increase, the county should rearrange how it uses its general fund, claiming too much is spent on things like welfare services when the money should instead go towards fire protection.
But Wheeler fired back, saying such claims were examples of misinformation.
“Out of our $266 million budget, we can control $63 million,” Wheeler said. “We have no say in things like welfare except for what the state and feds say. So 65% of $63 million goes into public safety right off the bat. And when people say we haven’t kept up with it or aren’t using the money right, they don’t realize what little control we have over these discretionary dollars.”
No critics of Measure L spoke during the town hall or asked questions, despite the portion of the meeting set aside for public comment.
Wheeler’s next town hall is scheduled for 6 p.m., March 9, inside the cafeteria at Raymond-Knowles Elementary School.
Correction: Madera County’s sales tax is 7.75%, not 8% as first reported. The state sales tax decreased on Jan. 1 from 7.5% to 7.25% due to the expiration of Proposition 30.