Eight county supervisors send letter to Gavin Newsom asking for more funding, assistance for water, transportation, homelessness and broadband access
TULARE COUNTY – Don’t forget about the Valley. That was the message delivered to Gavin Newsom last month when the sitting chairs of eight county governments penned a joint letter to the governor with a list of priorities for an area often an afterthought in the realm of statewide politics.
The letter was signed by Supervisor Amy Shuklian, immediate past chair of the Tulare County Board of Supervisors, and 2021 chairs of the board of supervisors in Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Merced, San Joaquin, and Stanislaus counties.
“It’s kind of that extra push, like ‘Don’t forget about us’ because we have been forgotten about in the past,” Shuklian said.
The Dec. 22 letter is part of a strengthening coalition between the eight counties to increase their voice at the state level, often drowned out by the political will of the Bay Area and Southern California population centers. Every member of the group of is represented by Paul Yoder, a founding partner in the lobbying firm Shaw, Yoder, Antwih, Schmelzer & Lange, who has been working to bring the Valley counties together on major issues despite the fact they compete for funding on many issues.
The coalition met with Newsom nearly three years ago, in April 2019, to discuss priorities in the Valley. Since that time, Newsom has made at least eight trips to the Valley to discuss vaccines, campaign against the recall, tour areas devastated by drought and wildfires, and introduce legislation regarding schools and high-speed internet. They are now asking to renew their dialogue with the governor and have specific requests in eight high-priority areas for the vast, rural agricultural region centrally located in the state.
Shuklian said water storage was the highest priority for Tulare County. The Valley is home to a $35 billion agricultural economy which feeds millions of people throughout the world and employs thousands of people locally. The group is calling for Newsom to spend state surplus money on water storage projects, both to capture surface water from snowmelt and to replenish groundwater tables below the surface. More specifically, the group is asking for additional funding to repair the Delta-Mendota and Friant-Kern canals.
“We appreciate the State funding that will go towards the Friant-Kern and Delta-Mendota canals and request that the State provide additional funding to expedite necessary repairs,” the letter stated. “The region needs to store more water during wet years so that it can be available in drier years.”
The Friant-Kern Canal supplies 15,000 small farms and a quarter of a million people with water between Fresno and Bakersfield but in the lower third of the canal has had its supply cut by 60% due to subsidence of the gravity-fed canal. Plans have already been developed to begin fixing the sunken portion of the canal between Lindsay and McFarland but only about $300 million of the $500 million price tag has been secured, mostly with federal and local money. After two failed attempts to pass legislation specifically to fix the Friant-Kern Canal, which would have provided as much as $400 million for the project, the state has only earmarked $39.2 million for the project.
“We have rain now and our drought map is looking better but we’re losing a lot of it,” Shuklian said. “So we need storage projects, conveyance projects, like the canal, so that when we do have these good years we can do something with it.”
County leaders also voiced concerns about the affect wildfires will have on water quality. Runoff from scorched areas may pick up chemicals, waste and debris from fighting the fires and wash them into creeks and rivers which replenish mountain community water systems and feed into canals, which eventually make their way into larger water systems, such as Lindsay and Strathmore. The group also asked for funding to improve water treatment facilities and wastewater infrastructure in small, economically disadvantaged communities.
Affordable housing and homelessness
While Tulare County remains one of the most affordable housing markets in the state, monthly rent is still too high due to a lack of inventory and inflation. As pandemic-forced eviction moratoriums fade, more people are becoming at risk of being left without shelter as the number of homeless continues to rise.
The number of homeless in Tulare County has risen 66% in the last decade, according to the 2020 Point In Time survey, the last to be conducted since the onset of the pandemic. The sharpest increase came in 2020, when the number of people experiencing homeless increased by more than 21% to nearly 1,000 people, although experts estimate the number is likely double or triple the headcount.
The state has taken action to provide funding to build non-congregate housing options during the pandemic, such as the Room Key and Homekey programs. Project Room Key used state funding to help the homeless quarantine from COVID and 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, now known as Sequoia Village, and the 99 Palms at Tagus Ranch, now known as Tagus Gardens, 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.
“We’ve gotten so much money for homelessness, but not a lot of money for operations,” Shuklian said. “We can build a shelter with this money, or or buy a hotel, but what about running it over the next five to 10 years?”
The letter goes on to state more emphasis in funding needs to address the needs of and causes of homelessness among those over the age of 50. Those over the age of 55 make up 22% of Tulare County’s unsheltered population. Those over 50 make up the largest age group of homeless people in the county. People over the age of 50 are more likely to be hospitalized, require intensive care or worse, placed on a ventilator, according to the Centers For Disease Control (CDC).
“We’re very concerned about those who are homeless who are over 50,” Shuklian said.
The Valley has traditionally struggled with high unemployment, high rates of poverty, and low rates of educational attainment and the during the pandemic the problem only got worse. County officials asked for the governor to listen to industry sectors, especially those in agriculture, to craft better COVID safety measures which do not limit the production of food while still keeping workers safe.
They also asked for Newsom to “work expeditiously with the Legislature to ensure that broadband extends to the most rural and poor parts of California. Distance learning has exposed the extent to which parts of this state are being treated unequally, which unfortunately is something our residents and businesses already knew.”
While 8 in 10 Tulare County residents have minimally acceptable speeds of internet access, 1 in 10 residents have no access at all. Less than half of rural residents statewide have access to high-speed internet capable of streaming high-quality video, according to 2020 report by the California Public Utilities Commission.
In July, Newsom traveled to Traver where he signed Senate Bill 156, a $6 billion investment to expand broadband internet access to underserved communities. More than half of the money is earmarked to build, operate and maintain a state-owned, middle-mile network of fiber optic cable to connect these communities over long distances to the nearest hub, such as a larger city. Another $2 billion will be spent to spoke out to homes from a central connection point in the communities.
In November, the California Public Utilities Commission did release a list of the initial middle-mile projects to be funded by SB 156. While the list did include projects in Kern and Fresno Counties, it did not include any in more rural Tulare County.
“I think they did the announcement at the school in Traver and put out there that, ‘here’s where we’re going to start these rural broadband projects’,” Shuklian said. “So, you use us for your photo ops and then you roll it out and we’re not included.”
The state is also allowing utility-scale solar projects to use Tulare County land and then send the generated power elsewhere without any benefit to local government.
California offers a solar tax exclusion allowing property owners to forego paying higher taxes for solar systems located on their land. The law was meant to incentive the solar industry to ramp up its production to create a greener source of energy for the state until the industry could find sustainability. Fast forward two decades and solar boasts some of the fastest growing companies in the nation.
In the last two years alone, Tulare County has seen the largest solar farm in the nation approved south of Porterville and two more projects generating at least 70 megawatts of power, enough to power 500 homes for a year, in the southern portion of the county. Most of the projects are selling the power to cities in Southern California.
“This exclusion prevents the reassessment of the solar equipment resulting in millions of dollars in lost revenue for local government general funds that should be used to enhance the quality of life for the communities that approve these projects,” the letter states. “While we agree the exclusion is appropriate for roof top and behind the meter installations, your Administration cannot deny the fact that it gives large scale solar companies a tax break that no other industry in California enjoys, and all to the detriment of local government services.”
Newsom extended the solar tax exclusion through 2024 but the counties are asking him to work with them to continue generating green power without taking advantage of disadvantaged rural communities who do not benefit from the projects.
“We’re asking you for fair treatment and a seat at the table,” the letter states.
The rest of the priorities mentioned in the letter focus on issues which are either already being funded by the state, primarily fall under federal jurisdiction, or are being better funded by an alternative to state coffers.
Transportation was very high on the list for Shuklian, and more specifically highway improvement projects. Interstate 5 (I5) and State Route 99 (Highway 99) are the two main arteries for people and goods to travel through the central section of the state. Visalia’s industrial park is booming thanks to a growing interest from warehousing and logistical companies wanting a central location with access to the largest freeway hitting the most population bases between the metropolitan areas to the north and south.
“We request funding that would—as quickly as possible—complete the widening (to six lanes) of State Route 99 from Sacramento to its intersection with I-5 in Kern County,” the letter stated. “Additionally, we request the development of streamlined processes for environmental review, permitting, and local project authorization.”
Highway 99 is currently two lanes in each direction from Delano to Tulare and from Fresno to Elk Grove. CalTrans broke ground in October on a project to widen Highway 99 from four to six lanes between Prosperity Avenue and Avenue 280 in Tulare County.
In addition to the arterial thoroughfares, the counties requested more investment from the state in other trade corridors, such as those traversing east and west through the Valley, to tie into the larger freeways to address both economic and air quality concerns.
The pandemic has also shed light on the healthcare crisis in the Valley, where there are not enough nurses, doctors, specialists and surgeons in the midst of a national shortage of healthcare workers. That shortage also includes those who help low-income and vulnerable populations access the healthcare system, such as behavioral health and social services.
“There is an urgency in the provision of prevention-based services in a region with limited resources, hospitals and a lower ratio of healthcare providers per 1,000 residents across the spectrum,” the letter states.
There is little the state can do to address student loan forgiveness as the federal government holds 92% of all school loans. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program already incentives public service for non-licensed staff by forgiving the remaining balance on federally owned direct student loans for government employees who have made 120 (10 years) monthly payments under a repayment plan, while working full-time for a qualifying employer. Yet only 6.7% of eligible workers apply for loan forgiveness, 2.16% of applicants have been accepted since November 2020 and more than one-third have applications which have yet to be processed, as of Jan. 1, 2022, according to Education Data Initiative.
The California State Loan Repayment program offers to forgive up to $50,000 in loans to health professionals, who in turn must commit to practice in medically underserved areas for at least two years. Most of Tulare County is considered a medically underserved area, according to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). The Steven M. Thompson Physician Corp Loan Repayment offers to pay up to $105,000 for physicians and surgeons who agree to practice in Health Professional Shortage Areas or Primary Care Shortage Areas in California. The HRSA designates most of Tulare County as having a shortage of both health professionals and physicians.
The counties are asking the governor to do more to incentive individuals to enter the behavioral health and social services fields, for which the federal incentives are not identifying enough qualified applicants to address the shortage.
Similar to the healthcare shortage, there is little the state can do to move the needle on forest management. More than half (57%) of California’s 33 million acres of forest is owned by the federal government and 40% is owned by private families, Native American tribes or timber companies, according to the University of California’s Agriculture and Natural Resources department. That leaves just 3% owned by the state.
California spent over $3 billion fighting wildfires in 2020 and 2021, including the largest wildfire in Tulare County history. The SQF Complex Fire scorched more than 175,000 acres in the Sequoia National Forest, which is the epicenter for the tree mortality issue in California’s forests, and destroyed nearly 300 structures. The counties are asking the state to instead spend more of its budget on forest management and to give money to the counties to assist local communities impacted by wildfires.
“[W]hat we need is an extraordinary financial commitment to assist local governments in protecting against massive firestorms and to assist with recovery and restoration,” the letter states. “Please prioritize moving this money quickly and directly to the counties to be administered locally in the most efficient manner.”
Over the last two years, the Tulare County Fire Department has used state grants to remove more than 30,000 dead or dying trees along roads winding through and around mountain communities. The idea of the program is to maintain an evacuation path for those fleeing their homes in the event of a forest fire.
The most peculiar item on the list is a request by the counties to reinstate Williamson Act subvention payments to counties for ag land preservation contracts.
Enacted in 1965, the Williamson Act became a popular tool to preserve prime agriculture land when the state began offering landowners tax breaks in 1971. Under the act, landowners pay lower property taxes if they agree not to develop their property for a 10-year term. If they attempt to pull out of the contract early, the landowners would pay hefty fines. The state keeps the property tax collected and then reimburses the county for the loss in property tax revenue in order to maintain ag production and the rural character of the county.
“If there is any area in which you could propose ongoing funding for our counties in your proposed 2022-23 State Budget it would be to reinstate this program,” the letter stated.
Those reimbursements ended in 2008 and Tulare County issued a moratorium on any new contracts in 2009. Two years later, the state passed Assembly Bill 1265, which allowed Tulare County to shorten contract terms to nine years, increase the property tax by 10% and retain all of the property tax instead of sending it to the state. In July 2020, the Supervisors voted to lift the moratorium on new contracts and now have more than one million acres across 14,000 parcels under Williamson Act contracts. Under the new system, Tulare County anticipates it will collect $4.6 million this fiscal year, more than the $3.4 million it collected through the old system of state reimbursements.
This item is on the list for those counties who have yet to avail themselves of the more profitable, shorter-termed contracts because they are hoping to recoup previous years of unfunded state reimbursements.
In other news
The letter from Valley counties was followed up last week by a letter from State Senate Republican Caucus. The Jan. 5 letter asked the governor to use the $31 billion surplus to address similar needs mentioned by the counties, including:
- Building the sites reservoir for more water storage;
- Adding shelter beds and mental health treatment beds to address homelessness;
- Send more money to local government to address homelessness;
- Reducing the cost of living by expanding the renter’s tax credit, lowering gas prices, and offering more tax incentives to businesses.
- Improving air quality by taking forest management more seriously;
- Using surplus funding to pay off the $21 billion debt in the state’s unemployment system due to pandemic related shutdowns.
“We should use the current surplus to create a better California through improved affordability and safer communities,” the caucus wrote. “It does not matter where you live in California; far too many hardworking, everyday Californians can barely afford to pay for rent, food, and other bills. They worry about practical needs like water and safe communities. We have a chance to change this trajectory in 2022.”
Led by Senate Republican Leader Scott Wilk (R-Santa Clarita), the letter was signed by nine state senators including Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) who represents the 16th District including portions of Tulare County.