Supervisor Steve Worthley leaves behind 20 years of service, institutional knowledge
By Paul Myers @PaulM_SGN
TULARE COUNTY – Tulare County’s most senior board supervisor is poised to make his exit in the coming month. Going with him will be two decades of institutional knowledge.
As a stalwart on the board, and a history major in college, Worthley says he always worked to add context to his decisions.
“As a supervisor I’ve always tried to explain my thought process and I’ve shared with people the context. That is so important. If you are trying to make a decision you should understand the context of your decision. Are you going up, down, forward or backward,” Worthley said.
Over the last year, he has tried to impart as much of his knowledge to other board members. Worthley says it was unusual for him to be chairman of the board in 2018 since the position rotates from member to member, and he served as chairman relatively recently. But he was made chairman strategically in order to make District One board supervisor Kuyler Crocker vice chairman.
Leaving the Supervisors in good hands
Worthley says Crocker has managed to gather as much as he can, and the board is in a good place and heading in a good direction. But Worthley wants to leave the board with as many tools as he can because that is what a previous Board did for him in his early years after he was elected in 1998.
“I did come on to a board that had been there in their second or third terms, and I had the benefit of older men who took me under their wings,” Worthley said about his time coming on to the board for the first time.
In particular was Jim Maples, who served for 15 years. Worthley says Maples was a father type figure in his life, as his own father had passed away just before he was elected.
“I had so many great experiences with Jim. Jim was one that had the, ‘if you were on time you were late, 10 minutes early was on time’ mentality,” Worthley said.
Worthley added Maples may have been punctual to a fault. He recounted a time when the two were scheduled to go on a helicopter ride to look over the scope of a fire in Maple’s district. The ride was scheduled for 10 a.m. but Maples suggested they leave at 6 a.m. and after an hour-and-a-half drive they were more than two hours early.
“We went and had breakfast and came back and we were still an hour early, but that was Jim. He was always 30 minutes early,” Worthley reminisced. Worthley added he had his first collegial relationship when Connie Conway was elected.
His history of the board served Worthley well when it came to tough, and sometimes unpopular decisions.
He said part of being a supervisor is making difficult decisions. And one of the most difficult decisions he made was abandoning CalFire in favor of starting their own fire department in 2007. Worthley says at the time the writing was on the wall that contracting with the actual fire protection services through the state was going to be far too expensive.
“The Board decided, perhaps naively, let’s have our own fire department,” Worthley said. “We had to create this whole thing from scratch. Luckily, we had our own equipment but we had to hire all these new people…it was expensive to do the transition but the outcome has been very successful.”
The decision early on eventually led to a significant uproar as some of the community threatened board members with a recall. But no recall actually occurred.
Despite tough decisions that could sometimes strain the relationship of a board, Worthley says the Board has maintained a tradition of congeniality.
While some lower level councils at the city or committee level have allowed frustrations and emotions to rise to the surface, Worthley says board members don’t mind disagreeing but they do not want to be disagreeable. Before he decided to run his first race, Worthley wanted to know what he was getting himself into, and the conduct from
Fresno City Council was not a great barometer.
He said at the time the Fresno City Council was making headlines for their conduct rather than their policy. If things were bad for the City of Fresno, he could only imagine the problems plaguing the Tulare County Board of Supervisors. So instead of plunging himself into local politics he did his research and attended supervisor meetings for over a year.
“If I’m going to get into this then I need to see what these guys are like because I don’t want any type of [Fresno’s] monkey business,” Worthley said.
Overall the Board had lived up to its tradition, but the public was not always agreeable. Over a mental health facility item being located in Visalia in 2017, the public showed up in force and had no shortage of words for their representatives. At one point Chairman Mike Ennis had to yell over the crowd to call for order.
“In my 20 years on the board I’ve never seen that. That was the most egregious situation I had seen. It was unruly, unprofessional. I don’t remember another one in 20 years that was like that,” Worthley said.
From drought to debt
The time that will define most representative’s tenure in office in the Central Valley is the historic drought. Tulare County was ground zero in California when it came to overdraft and without steady rain for five years wells all over the county went dry. Short term solutions gave residents portable water tanks, bottled water and mobile shower and laundry units. Worthley recalls some not so great solutions as well.
“Along comes the drought of the millennium. So, it became this huge issue, it’s a public health issue and a code issue. And there were people saying ‘we need to throw people out of their house because they don’t have water’…
Oh really?,” Worthley said.
Worthley added that some had even floated the idea of putting a moratorium on wells.
On the opposite side of some potentially terrible short-term solutions came long term solutions funded by the State. Worthley says Monson, a community in his district, had some individual wells on some individual lots and had severe nitrate issue. Now Monson has a brand-new system, and a part of the Sultana community water services district that provides residents with cleaner and more reliable water.
Outside of the impacts of the historic drought that left residents reeling and government looking for answers, Worthley worked throughout his two decades of service to leave the financial state of the County better than when he found it. And one Worthley’s largest contributions to the County was wrangling in County debt.
“I think just before I came on the Board we were spending 5% of our budget to debt service. What we’ve been able to do in the number of years I’ve been on the board is not go further into debt and pay off that debt,” Worthley said.
When the County had purchased Government Plaza on Mooney, Worthley says it was paid for entirely by debt. By contrast, the County purchased the Cigna building on Acres two years ago in cash. The building provided multiple government agencies with ample space to grow and left open the possibility of renting out a few spaces.
“We didn’t have to go into debt to be able to do that. So that just shows you the difference,” Worthley said.
While the County did not have any market place debt they were paying 7.25 percent interest to the retirement board that could have been much lower through obligation bonds. When refinance was brought to the Board for a vote it was a 3-2 decision. As a result the County pays 4.2 percent in interest, saving $7-8 million per year on pension interest.
“It was an interesting process and I pushed really hard for that,” Worthley said.
Retiring to nature
Now that the 65-year-old, soon to be former board supervisor is moving on from governing, Worthley plans to be more active with nature. He says he liked being a part of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control Board and wants to continue to help where he can with the organization. But he also plans to be more involved in forest management.
“If I can be of some help there to push more active management there on our national forest and public lands then I’m interested in trying to pursue that,” Worthley said.
He says he recognizes the problem with management is more complex than it appears, but the need for urgency is now.
“The biggest problem is trying to get the federal government to move expeditiously, or at all,” Worthley joked. “It’s like they are not very responsive and I don’t get the sense there is a sense of urgency…Folks we have to do something. We can’t just sit around. The danger is here and it’s not getting better.”
Nonetheless Worthley says if there is a time to help boost efforts in forest management than it must happen quickly because the political will is there.
“I look at it as an opportunity. If we can’t do it now in light of the drought, tree mortality, the wild fires that have been so devastating and a friendly administration, now is the time to strike,” Worthley said.