Wheeler to focus on safety, tourism during fourth term

Supervisor Tom Wheeler won first in the Political Division.
Supervisor Tom Wheeler won first in the Political Division. Sierra Star

Madera County District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler says he has seen and heard the criticism surrounding his third reelection.

Most recently, a pair of letters were published in the Sierra Star in response to Wheeler’s victory in June, which he won by approximately 400 votes. Both letters were very critical of the supervisor, accusing him of inactivity on some of the community’s most pressing issues.

But Wheeler says he remains confident that he is is doing all he can for this community: “I take my job very seriously.”

Wheeler says he hopes to address some of the concerns expressed in those letters. Especially those relating to the safety and well-being of the residents in his district.

Fire safety is always a concern for citizens in Oakhurst, with the School Fire on July 10 further accentuating the danger. Wheeler says he hopes to find a way to get fuel breaks around all of the communities in District 5.

But the focus for the supervisor is attracting more volunteer firemen by giving prospective volunteers more of an incentive to enroll.

Wheeler says that even with last year’s pay increase from minimum wage to a minimum of $15.50 an hour, volunteer firemen still are not paid for their work on medical aid calls. Those calls make up the bulk of volunteers’ workdays, says Christopher Reneau, Madera County fire captain in training.

Reneau says the balancing of a job and volunteer firefighter work becomes too much for many volunteers. He cites this as one of the main reasons why interest in the volunteer program has dwindled over the past few years.

Wheeler says, “These people, these younger people, why would they take off from work and go save somebody’s life if they’re not getting paid for it?”

Wheeler says one of the goals for the coming budget will be to generate money to pay for the volunteers’ medical aid calls. He says this could take approximately $500,000.

“Every extra dollar we can get, we’re going to put towards” the county fire department, Wheeler says.

Last year, Measure L, which would have raised the sales tax by 1 percent to generate funds for the fire and sheriff’s departments, was rejected by District 5 voters.

Wheeler is also looking for a way in which to have more money allocated for medical facilities in the community. This has proven a daunting task, with it being in the works for what he says has been four or five years now.

He expressed interest in the County Medical Services Program that Mariposa County uses to fund some of its medical facilities and services. This would mean an increase in taxes for the people of District 5, as it did for the people of Mariposa.

The vote on Measure L and its sales tax increase led Wheeler to believe there needs to be further communication between him and the community about what kind of tax increase, if any, the community would be open to.

“If we were getting close to the [County Medical Services Program], so we could see if people would be willing to vote for that, then we would make a public deal out of it,” he says.

Money is crucial to Wheeler’s ideas for his district. He hopes to generate more through tourism.

Tourists spent $36.75 million on lodging in eastern Madera County last year, according to a Madera County Travel Impacts report. A nine percent tax on those expenditures goes to the county, says Rhonda Salisbury, Visit Yosemite chief executive officer.

Wheeler says he wants to continue working to get events planned that may draw tourists to the seven communities within District 5.

Regarding improvements on Highway 41, the supervisor cannot give a direct answer. Wheeler says he simply does not have much control over the highway.

“We have a very good relationship with CalTrans and we communicate our needs with them. We are constantly working with them on areas that need improvement,” Wheeler says.

Wheeler also wanted to clear up the perception that the money being used for the roundabout in North Fork can be used for something else. The roundabout is being paid for with federal and county Measure T money, as reported by the Sierra Star last year.

“If we try and use that money for anything else, the money would immediately be taken back,” the supervisor said.

Wheeler may not always have the answer to everyone’s problems, but he encourages the people in District 5 to approach him about any concerns they may have. He says he also is always willing to discuss disagreements with those who have a different viewpoint than he does.

“If you don’t tell me your problem, I can’t try and fix it.”

Wheeler has been hosting town halls every other month to give the community a space to come and voice their opinions and grievances. He said this transparency has created a sense of trust between him and the people.