Thursday, November 8, 2018

[Tuolumne County] Citizens urge City of Sonora to leave TCEDA

Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
Several people want the City of Sonora to depart from the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority before ongoing financial and management audits of the agency are completed.
The comments were made to the Sonora City Council at a public meeting on Monday night, during which the council also approved what will be the city’s first officially permitted medical cannabis dispensary.
“The Sonora City Council should put this issue on the agenda to vote now to separate from the TCEDA and insist on higher standards for future use of taxpayer funds,” said Barbara Dresslar, of Sonora.
If the council wants to stop funding the TCEDA, it must notify the county by Dec. 31 because the agreement between the city and county that created the agency in 2008 requires one of the parties to give the other notice at least six months before the start of the next fiscal year.
Fiscal years start on July 1 and run through June 30 the following calendar year.
The controversy stems from a Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury report released at the end of June that detailed a monthslong investigation of the TCEDA’s practices and effectiveness.
One of the recommendations made by the jury was to conduct a management audit based on potential problems identified in the report related to a lack of transparency, accountability, budget control, and effective oversight.
Among the findings were that the TCEDA Governing Board had allowed its executive director, Larry Cope, to sign his own expense reports, spend a month in England while claiming most of the time as remote working and comp time, and purchase meals for TCEDA board members and elected county supervisors with money from the agency’s budgets that’s intended for entertaining clients and business prospects.
The jury also reported that the TCEDA’s unique policies as a joint-powers authority don’t necessarily follow the best practices of either the city or county.
Dresslar noted that the county’s General Plan stated that it had the second-lowest rate of growth of the surrounding six counties between 2009 and 2013.
Dresslar also cited a 2017 Caltrans socio-economic assessment that the population has declined at an average rate of 0.3 percent between 2011 and 2016, and projected that it would continue to decline through 2022.
“Over the forecast period, the population of Tuolumne County is expected to continue to decline, placing the county at serious risk of economic stagnation,” the Caltrans assessment stated. ”Average salaries in Tuolumne County are not expected to keep pace with the statewide average, and the local economy will become increasingly reliant on the government sector to provide new jobs.”
Some said they didn’t believe the city was getting a good return on investment for the amount of funding it provides to the agency, which has been $103,000 annually for the past two fiscal years.
The agency’s annual budget is about $460,000, 77 percent of which comes from the county.
David Morgan, of Sonora, said the city’s sales tax increased about $47,000 per year over the period Cope has been at the helm of TCEDA from 2009 to 2017.
Marvin Keshner, of Sonora, said he’s worked for major companies that would decide whether to invest in an area by looking at things like the conditions of roads, schools and recreational opportunities, such as arts and entertainment.
Keshner said the city should focus on improving those types of things before spending taxpayer money to fund an economic development authority.
Ken Perkins, of Sonora, also spoke to the council about his lawsuit against the TCEDA that was recently settled after the agency released redacted versions of public records it had initially claimed were confidential.
The TCEDA agreed to pay Perkins’ attorney’s fees amounting to about $7,000 as part of the settlement, in addition to about $16,500 in fees to an outside law firm that was hired to defend the agency.
Perkins said his lawsuit was no longer an issue, but the findings of the grand jury report still loomed large. He also urged the council to vote to exit the TCEDA before Dec. 31 and the findings of the audit are released.
“Remember that the citizens of that grand jury took an oath to the court system and said they would be honest and true to their investigation and report,” he said. “To think that an outside financial audit would find anything different than that grand jury achieved, I just think the results will be the same.”
The council did not respond to the comments made during a time set aside in the meeting for people to address the council on matters not on the meeting agenda.
November 5, 2018
The Union Democrat
By Alex MacLean

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