Documenter: Rachel Youdelman

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Despite Board direction at the Aug. 17 meeting for modeling of three types of Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSA) rate studies, the Director of Water and Natural Resources and a consultant contracted with the County presented only one, based on fees per enrolled acre. Critical comments from the public led the Board to request a further “hybrid” model incorporating a volumetric approach in January. Water-use policies are very important to Madera County, where groundwater is currently critically overdrafted.

  • A supervisorial redistricting map (“Map 6”) was approved and will advance to the 14 Dec deadline, over several objections made by public commenters.

  • Local community advocates said that, regarding Senate Bill 552, it is essential that residents are included in groups working to address drought and water scarcity issues, and that there be plans in place for both the short- and long-term and for the prevention of depletion of aquifers. They noted that drinking water should be prioritized and urged the Board to plan beyond emergency situations, adding that groundwater needs to be protected, and cautioned against over-pumping during droughts. A timeline for drought management beyond just mitigation and emergency was called for.

Board of Supervisors 

Brett Frazier, District 1 

David Rogers, District 2 (attended remotely)

Robert L. Poythress, District 3 (Chairman)

Leticia Gonzalez, District 4

Tom Wheeler, District 5

Also Present

Karen Pogue, Chief Clerk

Regina Garza, County Counsel

Jay Varney, Chief Administrative Officer

The Scene 

Meeting was convened at 9:01 a.m. by chairman Poythress, only to go to closed session at 9:04 and resume at 10:03. Supervisor Rogers attended remotely, and Poythress noted that if a disembodied voice was heard, it was “not a specter,” it would be Rogers. The meeting was accessible either in person or via webex; video and audio transmission were clear. Poythress opened the meeting in memory of American service personnel who perished at Pearl Harbor 80 years ago on 7 Dec. The invocation was given by Roger Leach of Valley West Christian Center, but as his microphone was not switched on, what he said was inaudible. Flag salute quickly followed. This meeting was a long one: having begun at 9:00AM, there was a break from 11:45-1:15 p.m., then it continued till about 3:30 p.m.

Agenda Item #1 The agenda was accepted as-is.

Agenda Item #2 Closed session to discuss litigation, labor negotiation, and employee discipline. No reports were made from this session.

Agenda Item #3 Invocation and pledge of allegiance.

Agenda Item #4 Public comment regarding items not appearing on agenda. As often happens, County employees use this time to make their own announcements and comments. First, Madera County Senior Planner Jamie Bax appeared to announce that someone in her department had given birth; applause ensued. Supervisor Wheeler next eagerly attempted to speak but deferred to an actual member of the public, a resident of the small community of La Vina, who spoke in Spanish and talked about urgent and ongoing needs: broadband for children doing homework or attending school remotely, road repair (roads are damaged by large commercial trucks hauling farm produce, leaving roads unsafe for residents), and street lighting. Her translator was Madeline Harris of the Leadership Counsel. Wheeler then enthusiastically took the floor and wished Supervisor Gonzalez and another staff member a happy birthday, leading the room in singing a rousing “Happy Birthday,” loudly and intentionally out of tune. Madeline Harris then appeared at the podium to urge the Board to use American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for the needs described moments before by the La Vina resident. She noted that residents of La Vina have been asking for street lighting and road repair for years, raising the question of why the Board has not addressed the problems. Next another County employee, Andrea Saldate appeared at the podium to  speak about water-bill debt (about $248,000) from the prior tax year; she said that COVID relief funds will go to residents with debt on their accounts so that the debt will not be shifted to property taxes.

Agenda Item #5 Consent calendar. Poythress noted that 5-Y would be held until next week’s meeting. Wheeler asked that items 5-J, -L, -P, -R, and -U be pulled for discussion. 5-J: Authorize the fire chief to sign a grant agreement with California Climate Investments (CCI) regarding acceptance of a $247,841 grant. A fire department representative, identified only as “Matt,” appeared to speak and noted that the grant would cover purchase of vehicles, but he said that prices have increased since the grant application. 5-L: Resolution regarding temporary closure of certain County offices. A human-resources representative, identified only as “Alma,” said that employees would not be required to take vacation time during these closures. 5-P: Agreement with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central California for youth mentoring, two-year term; cost of about $50,000. Chris Childers, chief probation officer for the County, appeared to thank his staff. 5-R: Agreement with Madera County Unified School District for COVID testing and contact-tracing. Health Officer Dr Simon Paul appeared to speak briefly on the matter. He noted that the contact-tracing/testing system implemented in MCUSD has become a model one in California. 5-U: Approval of amendment to the Madera County Code (MCC) to allow for maximum fee for on-call engineering services with a third party. Regarding 5-Z, there were two public comments. 5-Z called for a resolution establishing an alternative process for compliance with Senate Bill 552. Leticia Casillas Luquin from the Leadership Counsel spoke via remote connection and said that regarding this new law, it is essential that local residents are included in groups working to address drought and water-scarcity issues, and that there be plans in place for both the interim and long-term as well as for prevention of depletion of aquifer. Madeline Harris also spoke about this agenda item and said that drinking water should be prioritized and urged the Board to plan beyond emergency situations. She added that groundwater needed to be protected and cautioned against over-pumping during droughts. She called for a timeline for drought management beyond just mitigation and emergency. The consent calendar passed 5-0, with 5-Y being held for the next meeting.

Agenda Item #7-B Supervisorial redistricting. Matt Treber, Chief of Developmental Services, and others appeared to present the current draft maps for redrawing the supervisors’ districts. He noted that all draft maps and other data were posted to the County website for public inspection and that Map 6 is the one currently recommended by staff for approval by the Board. Treber asserted that Map 6 has a .03% deviation from largest to smallest district in population, four out of five minority majority citizen voting age population, two out of five districts with majority Hispanic registered voters, and two out of five districts with majority Hispanic actual voters. He further asserted that this map gives “the greatest opportunity for minority populations to elect representatives.” Wheeler expressed the feeling that “we went over, above, and beyond what the law requires,” but did not address issues of fairness. He cited the many hours of unpaid overtime which staff worked conducting public workshops and the like to meet the map deadlines. “You went out and did all this on your own time” [sic], he said. Public commenters on this item included Santos Garcia who said he supported a different map, the Madera County Coalition for Equity; he said that Map 6 was gerrymandered and cited a critical letter about it from the ACLU. Madeline Harris again spoke and asked about the Latino majorities in two of five districts—why were not more districts with Latino majorities addressed in the map? Treber defended Map 6, noting that he had “failed to mention the ACLU letter” but that it was posted on the County website. Another commenter, Susan Rowe, who spoke remotely, said she was a Coarsegold resident and that she preferred Map 11, pointing out that communities of interest were more “cohesive” in it than in Map 6. Supervisor Gonzalez noted that “we’ve provided several opportunities for people to participate,” implying that offering participation, while perhaps declining to consider the resulting public suggestions, was enough. “I do support Map 6,” she said. Supervisor Frazier said he “can tell” that community input was “listened to,” though he didn’t provide any evidence to support his hunch. Rogers moved to approve Map 6; Wheeler seconded it. Passed 5-0. The map will advance for the final approval at the 14 Dec meeting.

Agenda Item #7-A Application for license to sell beer-wine at a shop on Riverwalk Blvd. Passed 5-0.

Agenda Item #7-C Andrea Saldate from Public Works made a brief presentation regarding a rise in sewer rates, effective Jan 2022. Passed 5-0.

Agenda Item #7-D Andrea Saldate from Public Works made a brief presentation regarding an assessment for street-light repair in the Parksdale area. Ballots had been cast by residents, and Saldate and Treber said that they would count the ballots and report back later in the meeting. Gonzalez noted that the proposed repairs were a priority for this community, which is in her district. Saldate said that majority approval of ballots received was necessary to implement the assessment, or the lights would simply not be fixed. Later in the meeting, Saldate returned to announce that the Parksdale ballots had been tabulated: 19 were in favor and 40 were opposed to the assessment, hence it was defeated. Treber said that they would “reach out” to the community but that there would be no street-light repairs in the area.

Agenda Item #7-E Andrea Saldate again appeared to present this item regarding a rate increase for water and sewer in Chukchansi. The increase was to alleviate debt of $109,000, a result of delinquencies. Gary Gara, a resident of Chukchansi, appeared at the podium to protest the increase and present protest signatures of 17 other residents. He felt that the increase was too high for the community of people with low or fixed incomes and that “it’s not right, it’s not just.” He said that “we don’t have the support of anybody” and asked the Board to “have some compassion.” Treber asked that the Board keep the item open while the protest signatures were tabulated, similar to the procedure for item 7-D. Later in the meeting, Frazier suggested taking another week to confirm the votes. The public hearing was kept open by a 5-0 vote.

Agenda Item #8-A Presentation and update on Madera County Groundwater Sustainability Agencies Rate Study. Very important to Madera County, where groundwater is critically overdrafted. Detailed presentation, a follow-up to the presentation made on 17 Aug, made by Stephanie Anagnoson, Director of Water and Natural Resources, and Kevin Kostiuk of Raftelis, a consulting agency for the County’s GSA rates. Anagnoson said that some rates would be introduced at this meeting, and she summarized the 2021 public workshops and meetings at which rates had been discussed for groundwater recharge, Sites Reservoir, domestic well mitigation, and sustainable agricultural land conservation (SALC). Madera, Chowchilla, Delta Mendota sub-basins each have a Prop 26 GSA fee of about $23 per irrigated acre; under discussion were fees to pay for projects and management actions, or GSP Projects fee. Since this is new territory, there are no existing rate structures which can be cited for guidance, Anagnoson said. But “we know enough now to quantify costs,” she noted. The rate study entailed many elements, such as water purchase costs, domestic well mitigation, land repurposing, etc—Kostiuk explained these in detail. Preliminary fees were presented for each sub-basin: per enrolled acre, Madera was $145, Chowchilla $165, and Delta-Mendota $85, all for fiscal year 2022-23 with rates increasing subsequently up to five years. Beyond five years, the rate study would need to be updated, per Prop 218. Fees would be implemented in July 2022, following further presentations to the Board in January and February, public noticing, a protest period, and a public hearing. At this point (about 11:45AM), the meeting broke for lunch until about 1:15PM.

Public comments included a question from a County resident, a farmer who did not identify herself; she asked what the term “enrolled acre” meant. She said she had 100 acres, 20 of which were irrigated; how many were considered “enrolled”? Anagnoson said that an “enrolled” acre was an irrigated one, and that a non-irrigated acre would not be subject to a fee. Next a farmer named Wayne Cedarcrest expressed concerns with the plan. He approved of the dollar amount but urged the Board to consider volumetric rather than acre-based fees, so that farmers pay for water actually used. He pointed out that some crops require far more water than others; as a pistachio farmer, he uses more water than someone who grows row crops—he asked if it was fair to charge them the same rate when they use so much less water. Since the goal is to conserve water, those who use more should pay for it, he added. 

Next Madeline Harris again spoke, this time remotely, saying that what would most help La Vina residents is to retire more acres of agricultural land and repurpose it. She noted that at the 17 Aug meeting, Anagnoson’s group was directed by the Board to present rates both acre- and volumetric-based (as well as a hybrid model), but today’s presentation included only an acre-based proposal. Residents are charged by volume, she said; why not farmers? An acre-based system benefits those who use the most water, she added. She also said that domestic-well mitigation should be prioritized and that more than 20 wells per year should be funded, because “way more” than 20 wells are going dry in Madera annually. Next Noah Lopez of Madera Agricultural Water Association (MAWA) spoke remotely; he said that the SALC incentive should be removed and that volumetric rates should be considered.

Poythress then asked Anagnoson why the proposal entailed only per-acre rates and not volumetric, and he asked what the penalty fee would be for over-pumping. Anagnoson said that they had hoped to present three rate scenarios to the Board: acre-based, volumetric, and a hybrid acre-volumetric rate. After consulting with the County’s municipal advisors who “urged caution” regarding understanding how money is coming in and establishing a stream of funds to repay bonds, Anagnoson concluded that a per-acre-based fee would generate a much more “stable” flow of money. A volumetric rate “might be stable and it might not,” she added. She added, without identifying where it came from, she said that “there is a strong voice of support” for the “simplest” rate structure, implying that the acre-based rate was the simplest. To promote fairness, the rate is kept low and calculated per enrolled acre, she asserted, though other commenters found this rate structure pointedly unfair.

Kostiuk added that the goal in choosing the per-acre formula was to “generate a stable revenue source” and that a volumetric fee could be variable or unstable. Because costs are fixed, a variable revenue source creates a “potential instability.” Despite that, he said, there was no reason why they could not “evaluate” a volumetric or hybrid option. Addressing Poythress’ second question, Anagnoson said that penalties are codified per acre-foot over allocation or a civil penalty. The combined total is $1500 per acre-foot over allocation.

Frazier emphasized the need for fairness and said that a hybrid model is needed. Rogers commented defensively that “farmers are not the enemy” and repeated the reactionary falsehood that the state of California “allows water to flow out into the ocean.” He added that “We are the buffer between farmers and the state,” as though the matter was a battle to be won and not a common problem which all parties need to work toward resolving fairly. Anagnoson said that a hybrid rate study would be forthcoming. Poythress said that as a former banker, he “gets it” regarding having stable funds, but he wanted to see more regarding a volumetric-based rate. Anagsoson said that she would be back in January with a follow-up presentation.

Agenda Item #8-B Presentation and update on Madera County Groundwater Sustainability

Agencies. Anagnoson gave a brief presentation. She said that 

  • GSA was fully staffed

  • Public workshops had been held

  • Allocation amounts had been established for a five-year period

  • Grants had been received

Agenda Item #6-A The Board approved 5-0 an agreement with a third party for design and construction of a new Oakhurst sheriff’s facility.

Agenda Item #6-B The Board approved 5-0 a minimum-wage agreement for County Service Unit, which will be effective Jan 2022.

Agenda Item #6-C The Board approved 5-0 an ordinance levying a special tax within the County of Madera Community Facilities District No. 2021-1 (Tesoro Viejo II).

Agenda Item #6-D COVID update, Health Officer Dr Simon Paul. Dr Paul reported that vaccination rates are up and are now at about 4,000 per week, including boosters. Infection rates could climb post-winter travel, but generally he had an optimistic perspective.

Agenda Item #6-E Jacqueline Torres, Chief Deputy Tax Collector appeared to make a brief presentation about the transient occupancy tax (TOT), or the hotel tax. She said that the TOT tax rate was not changing. Revenues will be for new business applications and application renewal fees, she said. A public comment came remotely from resident Kris Hamilton; she said that an attorney letter (from attorney Leah Zabel) was sent to the Board that day regarding some issues related to this matter. She said that the agenda item had not been noticed properly and that Madera County had been collecting an illegal tax from tourists on “vacation-rental properties,” more commonly known as “Airbnb.” “Residential zoning is residential zoning,” she noted, expressing opposition to renting residential-zone housing to transient occupants, citing increased risks such as fire and noting that residents “don’t know their own neighbors,” schools don’t enroll neighborhood children, and the housing shortage is exacerbated. She said the matter went beyond raising tax revenue and urged the Board to take these issues into consideration. Not addressing these concerns, the Board voted 5-0 to pass the measure.

Agenda Item #6-F Stephanie Anagnoson again appeared at the podium to give a brief presentation and year-end update on the Madera County Flood Control and Water Conservation Agency. The Agency, created in 1969, is responsible for reducing flood risk and damage. Anagnoson outlined 2021 Agency accomplishments, including filling staff positions, management of project levee inspections, project partnerships with the Dept of Public Works, and establishing a farmland maintenance program administration, among other projects. She said that the state government has given 79% of the Agency’s funding to schools, and that is a reason the Agency has insufficient funds, a puzzling statement which seemed to require explanation, but she did not elaborate. Briefly framing several future plans in terms of projects to “pursue” and “explore,” Anagnoson mentioned grant applications, funding alternatives, and continuation of current projects. Frazier and Wheeler made comments praising the staff for the work done, but no questions were asked. Wheeler interjected that “it’s been a long day.”

Agenda Item #9 Pending legislation. Poythress asked CAO Varney if there was anything to discuss. There was none.

Agenda Item #10 Supervisor and staff reports.

  • Frazier said that he attended the California State Association of Counties (CSAC).

  • Gonzalez noted that Dec. 1 was World Aids Day, a “taboo” subject but wanted the community to be aware of the Health Department’s mobile testing unit.

  • Rogers attended a new-employee orientation meeting.

  • Wheeler attended CSAC and a fund-raiser in North Fork, the annual Xmas-tree auction which benefits the Boys and Girls Club of Oakhurst. He said there was a movement to establish a branch of the Club in North Fork.

  • Poythress attended the opening of the 52-unit Sugar Pine Village, an affordable-housing development; he effusively praised the participants who were responsible for bringing this project to fruition. Then Wheeler broke in again, seemingly unable to restrain himself, saying he “had to brag” about the Regional Water Management Group (RWMG) having hired a bus to do a Creek Fire tour and give a talk on forest management on the previous Saturday. Wheeler continued talking and said that on Saturday evening he attended a Xmas-tree lighting which was so well attended, it was almost impossible to find a parking spot anywhere in Oakhurst. It was a “crazy weekend,” he concluded.

  • Varney attended Chowchilla’s Xmas-tree lighting.

  • Garza had no report.

  • Rogers attended the Chowchilla Xmas-tree lighting.

  • Pogue attended CSAC.

At 2:49 p.m. Poythress recessed the meeting for a continuation of the earlier closed session and promised to be back “later on.” About 40 minutes later, Poythress resumed the meeting to say that there were no items to report from the closed session. He adjourned the meeting at about 3:30 p.m.

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