Here’s what you need to know:

  • An update on Madera County Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSA) presented by Stephanie Anagnoson, Director of Water and Natural Resources, who explained “fixed” and “volumetric” water-use rates, but proposed a choice between “fixed only” and the hybrid “fixed/volumetric.” On March 1, proposals for final rates will be brought before the Board, to be authorized on April 5. Public notice will be on April 15, followed by a 45-day protest period, after which a public hearing will be held on June 7. Fees for fiscal year 2022-2023 are to be implemented on July 1.

  • The five-year economic outlook for Madera County is “neither too hopeful, nor too pessimistic.” The County’s general fund is at a pre-pandemic level, and services for residents have been maintained, thanks to one-time revenue sources such as American Rescue Act (ARPA) and Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) funding. The County’s revenue picture is improving, based on improving economic trends.

Board of Supervisors 

Brett Frazier, District 1 (Chairman)

David Rogers, District 2 (attended remotely)

Robert L. Poythress, District 3

Leticia Gonzalez, District 4

Tom Wheeler, District 5 (attended remotely)

Also Present

Karen Scrivner, Chief Clerk

Scott Cross, Acting County Counsel (Regina Garza, County Counsel, was absent)

Jay Varney, Chief Administrative Officer

The Scene 

Meeting was opened at 9:01AM by Chairman Frazier. Supervisor Wheeler attended remotely as did Supervisor Rogers. Rogers noted that he was “a little on the miserable side” as he had had surgery on the previous Wednesday. After approving the agenda (Agenda Item #1), Acting Counsel Cross read Agenda Item #2, a description of the two items to be discussed in closed session: a conference regarding labor negotiations with Elba Gomez, Director of Human Resources, and Susan Carter, Human Resources Manager; and a matter concerning existing litigation, Anita Ross vs. County of Madera. At 9:03AM, the Board went into closed session, returning at 10:01AM. Roll was called; all present. Acting Counsel Cross noted that there was nothing to report from the closed session. The meeting was opened in memory of several recently deceased people, including one 30-year County employee who died unexpectedly only days after retirement, per Wheeler—“This is so bad,” he said. The meeting was accessible live or via webcast; the video recording can be seen here. The clerk controlled the screen, and at times some content, such as slides shown during presentations, was difficult to see. Audio was clear.

Agenda Item #3 Invocation was given by John Pursell of the Believers Church in Madera. He prayed for the “earthly losses” of the families mentioned above, then prayed that “you” (presumably a god) would “think through our minds.” Flag salute ensued.
Agenda Item #4 Public comment regarding items not on the agenda. Inexplicably, a County employee, Jared Carter of Public Works, used the public-comment time to update the Board on a current project, the rehabilitation of Avenue 26. He noted that Measure T funds had been matched with federal funding to finance the project. Rogers commented that the update was “fantastic.” An actual comment from a member of the public came over the web after the Board had tried to move on to the next agenda item; the commenter was Leticia Casillas Luquin from the Leadership Counsel; she expressed thanks for the Board’s plan to allocate American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for housing where it is urgently needed. Rogers quickly remarked that he wanted oversight reports on ARPA spending, implicitly suggesting that funds would go astray or be misused, to which Joel Bugay, Deputy CAO, replied that tracking of ARPA funds is mandatory.

Agenda Item #5 Consent agenda. Supervisor Gonzalez asked to pull items E and H for comment. She expressed gratitude regarding the appointment of Anita Evans to the Fresno-Madera Agency on Aging (FMAAA) Governing Board. Regarding 5H, an agreement with the Madera Coalition for Community Justice for $1,368,000 to cover rent, mortgage, and utility assistance for needy county residents, Gonzalez requested an update from the Madera Coalition. Consent agenda passed 5-0.

Agenda Item #6a Proclamation recognizing February as Black History Month. Gonzalez introduced Anita Evans, Council Member of the Madera City Council. “I am proud to be Black history,” Evans said, and thanked the Board. Luther Slack of the NAACP was also introduced; he thanked the Board for its recognition of Black History Month. Frazier remarked excitedly that everyone should Google Percy Julian, a Black medical research scientist. “Look it up; it’s great,” he said, apparently by way of introducing an example of a relatively unknown and underappreciated Black American who made significant accomplishments in the medical field which have benefited so many. A group photo was taken. Wheeler, seen onscreen in his house, applauded, causing his dog to bark. “It’s only me,” he admonished the dog.

Agenda Item #6b Budget review for fiscal year 2021-2022 and five-year outlook, presented by Joel Bugay of the CAO’s office. The County’s general fund was maintained at a pre-pandemic level, and services to residents were maintained, thanks to one-time revenue sources such as ARPA and  Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) funding, which offset labor costs. Bugay called the revenue picture “improving” based on improving economic trends, such as property-tax growth of 3%, and gave projections of general-fund balances. He was “not too hopeful, not too pessimistic.” His chart showing balances and projected total costs was not clearly visible on the webcast, as the clerk controlling the screen did not display it at a large-enough size.

Bugay said that regarding sales tax, a change in state distribution to counties meant that instead of sharing taxes from distribution centers among a state-wide pool of counties, now sales tax revenue would be distributed only to those counties where distribution centers are located, hence sales-tax growth will be limited to about 3%, a “big shift,” he noted. “We are not getting any money from distribution centers?” Wheeler asked. It should go to the county where the purchaser lives, asserted Wheeler; “If Tom Wheeler bought something,” he said, referring to himself in the third person, “Madera County should get that tax,” he opined. Frazier said that sales tax from car purchases go to the county of the purchaser. “But I guess this don’t” [sic] remarked Wheeler. “Was this a bill somebody in the legislature passed?” he wanted to know. Bugay was not aware of any. “Then how’d it change?” demanded Wheeler. CAO Jay Varney said he did not have an exact answer but he thought that it was a policy change by the franchise tax board decision and reflected a return to “the way it used to be.” Rogers said jocularly that counties with warehouses were “lobbying for that.”

Rogers mentioned housing developments, including one in Chowchilla, and asked about impact on revenue projections, which Bugay said would be maintained at about 3%, despite factoring in this housing project. Supervisor Poythress pointed out the need for “continued prudence” in spending. In 2020 a huge deficit was expected, but it didn’t happen, he said. Rogers noted that without reserve funds, there would have been a $10 million deficit, and “that’s not good.” He added that it was “good” the County has been frugal and that “austerity is a must.” Gonzalez, whose voice is rarely heard throughout these meetings, asked if Bugay’s presentation factored increases in the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS), to which he replied that it did. Last, Frazier pointed out that the County had saved money by hiring third-party contractors for work which did not require the investment of full-time staff. No action or vote was required for this agenda item.

Agenda Item #7a The Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) report was scheduled for 10:30AM, so it appeared out of order on the agenda. A presentation was given by Stephanie Anagnoson, Director of Water and Natural Resources, and Kevin Kostiuk of Raftelis, a consulting agency for the County’s GSA rates. Anagnoson explained that they were there to share information regarding “fixed” and “volumetric” water-use rates and “logic,” and that on 1 March choices for final rates would be brought before the Board, to be authorized by the Board on 5 April. Public notice would be made as of 15 April, followed by a 45-day protest period, after which a public hearing would be held on 7 June. Fees for fiscal year 2022-2023 would be implemented on 1 July 2022.

Two rate types were presented: “Fixed” and “Fixed/Volumetric.” “Fixed only” means that water use would be billed per enrolled acre. “Fixed/Volumetric,” a hybrid approach, consists of two components: fixed (cost per acre) and volumetric (cost per acre-foot). The hybrid approach provides for some flexibility for those using less than their allocation. Problems resulting from over-use of allocation would be discussed at the next Board meeting, Kostiuk said.

The conflict between the two main types of billing seem to stem from concerns about (1) fairness in billing for water use and (2) anxiety about revenue generated from the bond market, coming from investors who buy water and utility bonds which finance water and power infrastructure. Anagnoson appeared to be trying to maintain some form of balance. She explained that there were “risks” (apparently financial) with the volumetric component, and said that with this approach, “economists” estimated that many agricultural acres (between 500,000-1,000,000) would be removed from production between “2020 and 2040.” A decrease in irrigated land would mean a decrease in revenue, and hence no money would be available for “projects,” limiting ability to finance capital works. None of these concerns were expressed in terms of conservation of critically limited water availability. Economics, a desire to maintain revenue generated from sale of water bonds, seemed to implicitly determine a significant part of the outcome of the discussion, and it was unclear if the general public understands the connection between water and the bond market, or if matters are presented in this way to farmers.

Board comments included Rogers, who said that he didn’t see “a lack of equity” regarding the conflict between basing rates on usage per acre rather than volume used; instead, he foresaw “problems” with monitoring and metering volume and felt, presumably intuitively, that disputes about cheating and meter administration will offset any benefit of the volumetric component. He didn’t want to “punish” farmers; “we want them to survive,” he said, and asserted that “farmers are adept at creative mitigations,” suggesting that the government, of which he himself is an employee charged with managing this matter, is not as capable. He suggested that Friant Dam was built as a result of such “creative mitigation” by local farmers, but it was a federal project. He made no mention of the critical need to conserve water or manage its limited availability.

Anagsoson said that the volumetric component would add to administrative costs. Rogers responded by saying that he didn’t want to create a “bureaucracy” and that he wants “farmers to control their own futures,” without noting how that would address the issue of critical water shortages. Poythress noted that the primary method of monitoring water-volume use is IrriWatch, but that meters can also be used. He felt that the hybrid approach was one farmers would “buy into” and that the bond market “likes” a fixed rate but with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), growers feel “their rights are taken away.” A hybrid approach gives them discretion, Poythress said, while a fully volumetric approach takes it away. A purely volumetric approach is a “no-go,” he continued, because of the bond market. Dan Cox of KNN Public Finance, attending remotely, spoke about bond issues. He said that rates don’t have to be totally “fixed” because of bond-market issues and that a volumetric component was acceptable. Wheeler asked if any other counties had a similar situation with results which could be examined; Anagnoson said no. Wheeler felt that “farmers will keep pumping water” which is needed to grow their crops, and concluded inexplicably that “volumetric, or however you say it”—was too problematic an approach to even consider, though the Board specifically asked Anagnoson for more information after farmers appeared at Board meetings to request it as well.

Frazier asked to see modeling for a 100-acre plot, with a fixed rate and with a hybrid rate. He reminded everyone that the “goal is to save water” and that a metered, volumetric component would do that, just as residential water is metered. Public comment on the item was opened, and Leticia Casillas Luquin again spoke. She emphasized the need for potable drinking water, not just water for agricultural use, and said that a volumetric approach would provide an incentive for not over-drafting.

No vote was required on this agenda item, and Anagnoson said she would be back before the Board to continue the matter in one month.

Agenda Item #6c Elba Gomez, Director of Human Resources, spoke remotely about setting salary for a new Systems Engineer position. Passed 5-0.

Agenda Item #6d Elba Gomez, Director of Human Resources, spoke remotely about setting salary for a new Senior Systems Engineer position. Passed 5-0.

Agenda Item #6e Appointment of David Richstone as Madera County Auditor-Controller. Richstone took the oath of office. “When you are sworn in, you are sworn at,” quipped Varney. Wheeler noted, “The fun begins.” Passed 5-0.

Agenda Item #8a Authorize letter of support for Assembly Bill 1154, which would “expedite” fire-safety improvements, including adding secondary egress routes, to houses which lack them and are located in high fire-risk areas. Passed 5-0. Before the vote, Frazier asked “Is there any public comment?” then added jocularly, “Is there any public?” appearing to become punchy as the meeting wound down.

Agenda Item #9a. Authorization to send a letter of complaint to the California Department of Managed Health Care regarding selection decisions for the Madera County’s Managed Care Plans (MCP) healthcare delivery partner. Board members who spoke did not like the decision and discussed how competing agencies, as opposed to the single delivery partner, would lead to “lower rates.” Competition was better, but “the State doesn’t understand that,” Rogers complained, widening his grievance. Passed 5-0.

Agenda Item #9 Supervisor reports.

Rogers: None

Wheeler: “Nothing, except my operation got canceled. I came down with COVID,” said Wheeler, who, aside from attending remotely, appeared as usual.

Gonzalez: Wished all a good upcoming Valentine’s Day. “Spread love, not COVID,” she said.

Poythress: Mentioned his involvement with “Finish the 99,” a project whose goal is to widen Highway 99 to facilitate trucking of agricultural goods from Madera County. Frazier quipped, not without anxiety, “We’ll call you Gavin Nuisance now.” Wheeler then interjected, “Can I get one more, buddy?” eager to talk more about his doings outside of Board meetings. A groan and an “Ach, Tom” were heard sotto voce, likely from someone participating remotely and unwittingly unmuted. Wheeler was undeterred, however, and talked about a town-hall event he recently held (“It was great.”)

Adjournment was at 11:52AM.

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