State of the County: Tulare County has record year, unprecedented struggles

Reggie Ellis

Board of Supervisors Chair Amy Shuklian recounts success stories from departments as staff helped the county survive the pandemic, wildfires 

Tulare County has always been an epic place. It boasts the world’s largest living things, some of the world’s most fertile agriculture land all in the shadow of the nation’s tallest mountain. And in the last year, it has had some epic hurdles to overcome.

“Well, 2020 didn’t go as we had planned,” Tulare County Board of Supervisor Chair Amy Shuklian said the State of the County address on March 9. “Without a doubt it was an extraordinary year as we face unprecedented challenges with COVID-19, making its unwelcome arrival into Tulare County.”

Shuklian’s comments came just two days before the one-year anniversary of the first COVID-19 positive case in the county. The District 3 supervisor said the virus still remains the county’s immediate priority. To date, there have been 48,399 total cases and 776 casualties.

“We mourn the Tulare County residents who lost their battle with COVID-19,” said Shuklian who led a moment of silence in their memory and for their families.

In response to the unprecedented public health crisis, Shuklian noted the county unprecedented financial authorizations, including $8.6 million for COVID-19 testing and financial assistance to local hospitals, $5.2 million in small business grants, $3.4 million in food support programs and $1.1 million for rental and housing support. To date, the county has vaccinated more than 80,000 people and has received triple the number of vaccines over the last month.

“Now is not the time to become complacent,” Shuklian warned. “As our county begins to see improvement, we must remain steadfast in following CDC guidelines to prevent further spread, which means mask up, avoid high risk situations social distance and wash your hands.”

The pandemic did help the county make inroads to end homelessness. While Project Room Key used state funding to help the homeless quarantine from COVID, Project Home Key actually provided the county funding to purchase long-term housing options. Tulare County was awarded $5.2 million which it used to purchase the Sequoia Lodge motel in Visalia, and the 99 Palms at Tagus Ranch through a partnership with the Housing Authority of Tulare County. The county now has over 100 rooms that will be converted into permanent supportive housing.

“While we consider these victories, there are still many more people who remain unsheltered and who are coming into homelessness, even as we speak,” she said.

Similarly, the pandemic also increased access to the supervisor meetings and meetings across the county. Shuklian said limiting the amount of people who can attend the meeting forced the county to find new ways for residents to engage in their meetings by calling into the meetings while listening to its live feed online.

The two-term supervisor credited the county’s 5,000 employees with helping the county’s navigate through the worst pandemic in the nation’s history. She said local public health staff began implementing protocols and limited international exhibitors at the World Ag Expo in January 2020. The county’s Emergency Operations Center coordinated a county wide response to the pandemic, and a joint information command center was created so messaging was concise and consistent, including interpreting state guidelines for schools, healthcare partners, businesses and community partners. Every department helped secure and distribute highly limited supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) to local healthcare facilities.

“Many of you placed the safety and well being of the public over yourselves and your families,” Shuklian said. “When things didn’t go the way someone thought they should. You took the hits, and you took the criticism. But through it all you never lost sight of your mission.”

Shuklian went on to detail the record milestones of county staff in nearly every department. As if a global pandemic wasn’t enough, 2020 saw the largest wildfire in Tulare County history. The Sequoia Complex Fire burned more than 175,000 acres and destroyed 232 structures.

“Firefighters from throughout the United States along with our own Tulare County Fire Department personnel bravely and successfully defended the communities of Camp Nelson and Ponderosa thankfully and miraculously, there were zero firefighters or civilian fatalities,” she said.

The Fire Department also built its first fire station since 1996, which will increase response times to Exeter, Visalia and Tulare thanks to its strategic location south of Visalia. The county also committed $1.8 million in funding for a new ladder truck. Also in public safety, the Sheriff’s Department’s gang and narcotics tasks force seized hundreds of pounds of illegal drugs and more than a million dollars used in drug trafficking.

The District Attorney’s Office completed its most notable case in history, the trial and conviction of the Golden State Killer. Last June, Joseph James DeAngelo, a former Exeter police officer, pleaded guilty to the murder of Claude Snelling of Visalia in 1975 and a dozen other murders, 62 rapes and nearly 100 other crimes up and down the state between 1975 and 1986. The DA’s office also filed more than 40 felony accounts of white collar crimes last August against three former executives for the healthcare management company which bankrupted the Tulare hospital district.

The Registrar of Voters processed a record high 148,677 votes in the November general election, County parks got some much needed upgrades, and the county passed a record $1.45 billion budget. The county’s planning and infrastructure department, Resource Management Agency, saw its biggest construction and permitting year ever. On the public work side, there were over 53 miles of roadway rehabilitated county wide along with major sidewalk projects in Ivanhoe and Pixley, and the first Starbucks and Subway in an unincorporated community, Goshen, thanks to a major overhaul of the Highway 99 interchange at Betty Drive. RMA also completed its transit facility which will become headquarters for a new countywide busing system which will include every city in the county except for Visalia and began upgrading the Highway 99 interchange at Commercial Avenue in Tulare.

Looking to this year, Shuklian said the county will see the completion of its new state of the art co-located center for Sheriff and Fire Department dispatch, and ground has already broken on the Sequoia Gateway commercial highway project at Caldwell and Highway 99. The project will be the site for a Valley Children’s Hospital medical specialty clinic, Kaweah Delta Surgery Center and various highway commercial businesses contributing to the county’s tax base.

“I can say with confidence that the state of our county is strong,” Shuklian said. 

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