In final budget hearings Tuesday and Wednesday, the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors approved a $2.6 million commitment to issue a loan to fire districts to take over ambulance services in the county.
Earlier in the meeting, the county received their second presentation in recent weeks from the fire chiefs joint powers authority (JPA) regarding their intent to bid on the county’s ambulance contract for its north and south corridors.
The districts are estimating they’d be able to generate about $1.5 million in reserve funds by the second year, since they would be eligible for higher Medicare and Medi-Cal reimbursement rates than the existing private nonprofit provider, American Legion Ambulance. The additional funding could be reinvested to add new ambulances and paramedics, which could reduce response times and ultimately save lives, Altaville-New Melones Fire Protection District Chief and JPA spokesperson John Rohrabaugh told supervisors.
The fire districts are asking the county for a commitment of about $2.6 million in seed funding to get the program up and running, should they win the bid, which they would have to submit by late October. They estimate this could be repaid within two years.
Calaveras Consolidated Fire Protection District Chief Rich Dickinson told supervisors, “if you can find the money, we will pay you back in a timely manner. We believe we have good forward thinking. We have a roadmap for success.”
Rohrabaugh and other fire chiefs in the meeting said they’d continue moving forward with their bid and pursue alternative funding if supervisors opted to not commit funds.
Supervisors said they were in favor of the concept of the fire districts reducing call response times by taking over ambulance services, but disagreed on where the funds should come from and whether it would be worth the risk.
After several hours of deliberating, supervisors voted 3-2 to direct staff to issue a loan of $2.6 million dollars to the JPA, contingent on a bond agreement and committal sign-off from the nine districts’ boards of directors.
Funding for the loan will come from the following budgets: $500,000 from the Valley Springs benefit basin, $500,000 from the Copperopolis benefit basin, $1 million from the Butte Fire settlement from Pacific Gas & Electric and $600,000 in road impact mitigation study (RIMS) funds, which normally pay for transportation improvements.
The budget transfer only required three votes from the board because it was done in final budget hearings, Deputy County Administrative Officer (CAO) Christa Von Latta told the Enterprise.
District 4 Supervisor Dennis Mills made the motion, and District 1 Supervisor Gary Tofanelli made the second.
Tofanelli, who sits on the Mountain Valley Emergency Medical Services board for Calaveras County, said the fire districts’ proposal “behooves us to do us anything we possibly can to help them get this thing going.”
“I’m uncomfortable going into this with the exception that I believe in our fire districts,” said Chairwoman Merita Callaway, who also voted in favor.
Dissenting votes came from District 5 Supervisor Ben Stopper and District 2 Supervisor Jack Garamendi, who both argued the funding should come from the General Fund.
Butte settlement funds were being saved to cover the expenses of a potential audit of Butte Fire clean-up, Garamendi said.
“We are turning ourselves into a pretzel to make this thing happen,” Garamendi said. "There’s got to be a better way for our fire districts to do this. We’re putting at risk county employees’ jobs. We don’t know what’s going to happen in a few months ... and we’re taking ($2.6 million) off the table. And I haven’t seen a formal opinion on whether this is even legal. I think it may be, but these are big risks.”
CAO Al Alt said it would take significant staff time to vet the loan, and will require input from the county auditor and treasurer.
“We’re more than happy to do it, especially when it comes to fire chiefs, but I want … to be clear that this isn’t a week’s worth of work,” Alt said. “This is all hands on deck. Other priorities are going to suffer in the short term, and we need to be aware of that in the context of COVID and a potential power safety shutoff.”
The rest of the budget hearing
The board also made allocations for federal COVID-19 relief funding.
The county expects to receive a total $4.59 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act between now and December. Coming into the meeting, the board had already allocated $200,000 to learning hubs for children of essential employees of the county, school district and healthcare industry.
The county has received $1.53 million from that pot to date.
Meeting policy minimums for the General Fund Reserve and contingencies was of priority to supervisors.
“We need to be able to carry from this budget significant reserves,” said Mills, with reference to pending reimbursements to disaster recovery budgets. “We’re not going to know what comes down the road.”
Supervisors opted to reduce the General Fund Reserve to $4.1 million – the policy minimum of 8% of the General Fund – to replenish the empty Teeter Fund, tapped into to balance the budget, back up to $1.3 million.
The rest of the CARES funding was allocated to contingencies for the board to make determinations for at a later date. Callaway told the Enterprise in recent weeks that the board will likely allocate much of the rest of the CARES funding to cover a laundry list of public safety payroll expenses incurred due to COVID-19.
The board passed a preliminary budget in June that included 5.3% cuts across departments due to a number of projected revenue shortfalls due to the COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic fallout. Staff were also directed to chill open positions, meaning they would have to go through the administrative office to determine how critical a particular hire may be.
Talk of a “structural deficit” surfaced again during budget discussions.
Year over year, the county’s closing General Fund balance has declined, according to Von Latta.
The balance for the new fiscal year was $2.24 million – down $6.5 million from the previous year. The 2019-20 budget for that year was down $3.3 million from the 2018-19 fiscal year.
“We are trending in a negative direction,” Von Latta said.
The Environmental Management Agency requested funding to help replace a boom truck for weights and measures. The truck is 33 years old, and its crane will be out of compliance with the California Air Resource Board by the end of the year if it’s not replaced, Interim Agricultural Commissioner Mike Boitano told supervisors. He said the crane was red-tagged in its last safety inspection.
The board asked county staff to come back with a funding recommendation on a 3-2 vote, with Callaway and Garamendi dissenting.
“I think this truck is vital for what we’re mandated to do,” said Tofanelli.
As part of the cuts, the sheriff’s office lost about $165,000 in monies previously approved for shift differential.
In the hearing, the board granted the sheriff’s office one additional corporal position.
Sheriff Rick DiBasilio thanked supervisors for “allowing the sheriff’s office to move forward.”
The final budget will be brought back to supervisors for approval Sept. 22.