By Carolyn Barbre
Wearing his "special suit," a handsome pinstriped affair, Tulare County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Sanders looked over the packed chamber with a Cheshire cat grin.
"There are so many important people here today, I am just excited to see them," he said, acknowledging several retired county supervisors. Present were judges, representatives of cities, of city employees, of the California Highway Patrol and many other agencies.
The tone was definitely upbeat despite budget woes, as Sanders gave the State of the County address at the March 30 Board of Supervisors meeting.
"I am proud to report that the condition of our county is strong in the midst of great challenges and change," he told the assemblage, noting that two of Tulare County's "best and brightest," Tom Johnson and Mike Chrisman, have been appointed to the Governor's cabinet. Sanders expressed great confidence in Gov. Schwarzenegger's leadership since the passage of Propositions 57 and 58 earlier in March.
At the state level:
Sanders said the county is seeking a reform in property tax administration, to create equitable sharing of these costs with the state for a possible savings of $3 to $4 million. They will also try and get changes in state transportation funding and regulations that limit local control. Sanders declared that despite hardships from Sacramento, "We have consistently maintained vital county services. The people we serve expect Tulare County to work for them."
At the county level:
However, not everything has worked, notably the Pre-Trail Facility, a $21 million investment of taxpayer dollars according to Lt. Keethley with the Tulare County Sheriff's Department, that was only open three years.
The Pre-Trial Facility took three years to build, with concrete, steel and high-tech video cameras making up 141,000 square feet of jail space. Sheriff's deputies booked the first inmate there in November 1999. But the jail never reached its capacity of 384 inmates. Sheriff Bill Wittman decided in 2001 to close it while wrestling with a $5 million budget cut, which he did in October 2002.
Sanders said the effort to reopen the facility is focused on sharing the costs of operation with state and federal programs.
A March 1 article in The Fresno Bee quotes Undersheriff David Whaley as saying his department has been in talks with state and federal prison officials for deals that would help pay to reopen the jail, but estimates put the cost at $500,000 to clean it and check all the doors and security cameras.
The same article said it would take 28 more people and a budget of $1.4 million to operate the facility.
"I am determined that we will secure commitments that will bring the Pre-Trail Facility back on line this year," Sanders said in his address. He said this takes thinking outside the box, such as the creation of a regional partnership with Fresno, Kings and Madera counties to upgrade emergency medical services that was recently enacted. They are also exploring the feasibility of multi-agency fire special districts because of lack of state or federal sources of fire protection funds.
Sanders mentioned that there needs to be a permanent solution to the county's motor pool site problems. In the Sept. 24, 2003 issue of the Gazette we ran a story about parking problems at the Tulare County Courthouse titled "Parking problems unjustifiable." It turned out that many vehicles parked at the courthouse were from the county motor pool, which was using courthouse parking for storage and an auto parts salvage yard, creating an impossible mess. After the article appeared, much of this problem was cleared up, but a final solution has still not been reached. Sanders suggested examining alternative locations, possibly a joint use facility with other agencies or privatization.
Right about then someone's cell phone rang and rang and rang again. "Your time is up Mr. Sanders," said District 5 Supervisor Jim Maples, turning a moment of slight tension into titters of laughter.
Sanders next introduced Henry Hash as the incoming director of the Resource Management Agency. He said with Hash the board looks forward to a new commitment to customer service, an innovative approach to the county's infrastructure needs and fresh ideas for permitting and code enforcement.
At the city level:
Sanders said the partnerships with the cities of Lindsay and Visalia to build new libraries was a win-win situation where the cities are enriched from having new community assets and the county gets libraries at half the cost. "And most important of all, our mutual constituents benefit from having new libraries to use," he said.
It is the Millennium Fund that is being used for capital projects such as the libraries, including the new animal control facility, security upgrades at detention facilities and plans for a new sheriff's substation in Cutler-Orosi.
At the federal level:
Sanders said there are three concerns regarding keeping the county's preeminent position in agriculture: federal funding for county roads called "Farm-to-Market Roads"; federal support for the eight counties in the Valley to work together as a law enforcement network to combat rural crime, or ag crime; and Homeland Security assistance to protect the safe production and distribution of agricultural products from the threat of bio-terrorism.
Local, state and federal:
Sanders thanked all of the agencies at every level that contributed to the enlargement projects at Lake Success and Lake Kaweah. There was a big groundbreaking ceremony last August for the Lake Success project which is enlarging the lake from an 82,300 acre feet capacity to a 110,300 acre feet. An acre foot is 325,000 gallons of water. The dedication of the Lake Kaweah enlargement will take place on June 7.
Sanders said during his 12 years on the board, "We have endured almost every kind of calamity - be it budgetary shortfalls or natural disasters. Through it all, we have maintained vital county services, balanced our budgets and earned a triple-A credit rating." He credited his board colleagues, past and present, "people of great integrity and talent." Of course he also thanked the CAO, department heads and the nearly 4,000 employees for their hard work and dedication.
At a time when the federal deficit has reached record heights and the state is dealing with a phenomenal budget crunch Sanders called this a "year of promise and a year of success" for Tulare County.
In the frontier pioneer tradition he said, "We are not going to sit around and let others decide our fate. We are taking the initiative now to better manage those things within our control by converting unused assets to revenue-producers and service producers."
Each supervisor gave a brief response with Maples closing, saying Sanders has been an anchor of this board. District 4 Supervisor Steve Worthley had remarked that Sanders wouldn't be kicking back in his final months with the board, but would be "more engaged than ever." Speaking directly to the chairman, Maples said in mock seriousness, "On your last day you will be figuring out some way to do something devious for your district," which brought a lot of appreciative laughter.