Near the conclusion of a nearly 11-hour meeting Tuesday, the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on a poll to bring back an action item on spending priorities for its $25.4 million Butte Fire settlement from Pacific Gas & Electric Co. Tuesday.
PG&E was found to be responsible for starting the 2015 Butte Fire by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in April of 2016.
The 70,000-plus-acre wildland blaze ignited off of Butte Mountain Road in Amador County in early September of 2015, destroying 921 buildings and damaging several miles of road in District 2. In February of 2018, county supervisors voted unanimously to initiate litigation against PG&E to recover losses from the devastating 2015 Butte Fire, seeking more than $167 million in damages. The claim included costs for “infrastructure damage, erosion control, and other costs related to the Butte fire,” according to PG&E’s SEC filing for the first quarter of 2018.
Before the study session began, District 2 Supervisor Jack Garamendi handed out 50 copies of his proposal to the public and fellow board members detailing how he feels the settlement should be spent.
With more than $20.2 million (after subtracting attorneys fees) at the board’s disposal, Garamendi proposed that nearly three-quarters of the settlement be allocated to Public Works for repairs on Butte Fire-damaged roads.
Public Works has been developing a three-year plan for spending $14.6 million to “repave, improve and restore every road within the Butte Fire scarr to a condition at or better than it was prior to the fire,” Public Works Director Josh Pack told supervisors at the meeting.
In part, the work would be repairing ditches and culverts that became clogged with debris as a result of tree mortality and erosion from the Butte Fire, Pack said.
District 4 Supervisor Dennis Mills expressed concern about the department’s capacity to fully utilize the $14 million allocation.
Pack is slated to present next week on the roads in District 2 he is considering for repair with money from the settlement.
As for the other designated funds under Garamendi’s suggestions, $2 million would be designated County Disaster Preparedness Funds to be used for equipment purchases by designated fire agencies, $1 million would be allocated to the County Evacuation Center (Calaveras County Fairgrounds) to improve the septic system on the site and $573,398 would be placed in the county General Fund to reimburse lost property taxes.
County Facilities, such as the West Point Community Hall and Sheep Ranch Fire Department would receive $150,000, and non-county agencies would be able to apply for funds from a pool of $950,000 for reimbursing expenses. Community organizations would be required to submit work proposals to the chief administrative officer.
Additionally, $1 million would be held in reserve in anticipation of an audit on the county’s spending of federal monies during the 2015 Butte Fire.
Auditor-Controller Rebecca Callen told the board in a meeting earlier this month that the county lacked proper documentation on how at least $1 million in disaster recovery grant funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency was spent on tree and debris removals after the fire.
She anticipates the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General to audit those expenditures within a year to five years after disaster recovery wraps up.
Supervisors agreed with the majority of Garamendi’s recommendations “conceptually,” but were apprehensive to break down numbers too specifically as part of the study session.
While largely in favor of the plan, District 5 Supervisor Ben Stopper suggested that instead of allocating $573,000 back to the General Fund that those monies instead be allocated to the seven fire districts outside the Butte Fire scar, which Garamendi was in agreement with.
“I do support everything here in one way or another,” Stopper said. “They’re all the right thing to do.”
District 3 Supervisor Merita Callaway was in favor of the plan as well, with minor recommended changes, including reducing the limit for unused funds to return to the General Fund from five years to three. The board later voted 4 to 1 in a poll to make that change.
“In concept I really approve of this,” Callaway said. “I’ve been evacuated twice. Mr. Garamendi, you did do a good job. (The Butte Fire) happened in District 2, and the settlement was for District 2, so I think that’s where we should put the funds.”
Mills said the only two suggestions on Garamendi’s proposal he’d be “prepared to say yes or no to” during the study session were the allocations to Public Works and the Fairgrounds. The others, Mills said, should be brought up as separate agenda items at a later date.
“Those are two that I think would be fairly simple to move forward considering the amount of effort that’s been put into them. This entire county was affected by the Butte Fire. To do it in this manner, I’m not happy with it at all,” Mills said.
Multiple District 2 community members and Butte Fire victims expressed approval of Garamendi’s proposal in public comment, especially with regard to the allocations to Public Works for road repairs.
District 2 resident Pat McGreevy suggested leaving a portion of the money in a rainy day fund for matching Federal Emergency Management Agency distributions for emergency preparedness work.
While in favor of the proposal, District 2 resident Marti Crane mentioned reforesting burnt areas with fire-resistant trees as another potential use of settlement funds.
Jodine Mills, a local real estate broker in District 2, said restoring the roads in the fire zone would help encourage people back into the area to look at buying a home.
The board will vote on an action item in April to determine allocations based on Garamendi’s proposal, Garamendi told the Enterprise in a phone interview after the meeting Tuesday.
“We will come back (in April) and we will negotiate,” Garamendi said. “My suggestions were a starting point for a conversation to help guide us forward, and we will use that framework to cut a deal.”