Residents of Mariposa County will get another chance to voice their opinions about proposed fee increases that could raise an additional $500,000 a year for the county.
Some of the proposed increases are steep and the Mariposa County Board of Supervisors have said they are needed in order to offset costs.
The topic was discussed during a board meeting last week in which an 18-month long study was presented outlining the various fees charged by the county — and how much those fees should be increased.
The county commissioned the study, which was originally supposed to take six months. It was done by NBS, a consulting firm from Temecula which specializes in this area of expertise. The cost of the study was $48,995.
One of the issues last week was the fact nobody from the public was in attendance. That issue would eventually lead the supervisors to delay implementation of the proposed fees until another meeting is held, likely on Dec. 17.
But before that happened, a lengthy discussion was conducted by the supervisors about the study as well as the proposals.
Leigh Westerlund, assistant county administrative officer, was the lead official handling the study. She was joined by Kevin Gardner, a consultant with NBS, who outlined the study and how it was conducted.
The proposed fee increases would be for the planning, public works, building and environmental health departments in the county. Those departments charge fees for everything from building permits to food service.
Gardner pointed out that because of Proposition 26, local fee increases can only be raised to the point where costs are covered. Government entities are not supposed to be making money off of user fees.
In figuring the fees, Gardner said various information was used, including salaries and benefits of employees as well as services and supplies.
They also established hourly rates from each department. Those area:
• Planning — $185
• Public works — $156
• Building — $97
• Environmental health — $168
In doing comparisons to the current fees collected, Gardner estimated the proposed increases would bring $548,000 in additional revenue to the county. He said that would offset the current costs, a large portion of which is coming out of the general fund.
“It’s been a lot of work trying to find a reasonable level of recovery,” said Mike Healy, public works director.
Westerlund also pointed out there is a Consumer Price Index (CPI) formula as part of the increase. That would mean each year, the county could increase the fees based on the western region CPI.
Supervisor Marshall Long said this would “allow fees to raise gradually so we don’t get too far behind.”
That has been the main motivation of supervisors, who have said some fees have not been raised for 10 years or more while costs continue to go up.
“I’ve been pushing for this for I don’t know how long,” said supervisor Merlin Jones.
He also pointed out in reading the study, he didn’t know “how much we are not charging for.”
The proposal also includes various new fees from the various departments involved.
Jones said he “likes math” and in doing some after reviewing the study, he believes the low fees cost the county at least $500,000 last year and $1.5 million over the past three years or so. That because the county is “not keeping the prices up,” said Jones.
Supervisor Kevin Cann questioned one passage in the proposal that said the CPI would be capped at 3 percent during any given year.
“I’m okay with not having that capped,” said Cann.
Supervisor Miles Menetrey said he focused on “table 1” of the proposal, which outlines the annual losses the county takes by not charging high enough fees.
For example, in the planning department, the study estimates the current annual revenue is $104,000 but the estimated full cost recovery should be $415,000. That means the current cost recovery is just 25 percent. Under the proposal, the fee revenue would be just over $316,000, or a 76 percent cost recovery.
In the public works engineering division, the current estimated annual fee collection is around $46,000 and the proposal would be to increase that to $138,000, or a 70 percent cost recovery rate.
The study concluded that overall, the county is recovering about 50 percent of its costs associated with the various fees. To get full recovery, the study suggested it would mean an additional $931,000 would need to be recovered.
However, county staff provided initial recommendations to the consulting firm with rationale about why not all fees have to be recovered. The staff recommended collecting an additional $514,000 in fees, which is about a 78 percent cost recovery rate.
Menetrey said he received a few emails from concerned bed and breakfast owners who said their annual fees were going to go up.
As it turns out, they probably learned that from Dave Conway from environmental health, who said he sent out a letter to permitted facilities in the county about the “proposed” increases and telling them of the time and date of last week’s hearing.
Conway did tell Menetrey that it is a “benefit to us and the public” to inspect restaurants, bed and breakfasts, vacation rentals and more.
Mariposa County Chief Administrative Officer Dallin Kimble said there are various formulas used to calculate how fees are determined.
For example, he said if someone is building a new home, the people nearby “don’t benefit” from that house, “so why should they” subsidize the fees paid to the county.
Supervisor Rosemarie Smallcombe said she believes “fairness and transparency” are critical when it comes to adjusting fees charged by the county.
And that’s when the discussion turned to exactly what the next steps in the process should be and when those should happen.
Under the proposal discussed last week, there was an option for the supervisors to proceed with a vote to implement the fee increases. Under that proposal, the fee increases would have become effective on Feb. 1, 2020. In addition, the CPI increases would be implemented each Feb. 1 thereafter.
However, because there were various changes proposed during the discussion, the question arose as to whether those should be incorporated into the study and then presented once again to the public.
Cann argued the changes were minor and it gave a path for the supervisors to proceed with a vote.
But Mariposa County Counsel Steve Dahlem said he would not choose that path. Dahlem advised an “abundance of caution” when it comes to passing the increases. He suggested the county “go back out” with another public notice in the Mariposa Gazette.
Westerlund said that would require several weeks as well as a waiting period of 60 days, meaning the fee increases would not take effect until March 1, 2020.
“Those (changes) are tiny,” countered Cann.
“I’ve given my opinion out of an abundance of caution,” said Dahlem.
Menetrey agreed with Dahlem, saying “it would be good to give folks a second chance to weigh in.”
Cann said if the board “decides these relative minor changes are big enough,” then the county could change the dates.
“It’s not just the changes, it’s public input,” said Menetrey.
Though the changes were in a legal advertisement, other publicity has been limited to the letter Conway sent out as well as word of mouth. County administration did not put out any advanced publicity about what is almost certainly going to be an issue that is contested by at least some residents of the county.
Supervisors also discussed what impact this story might have on public input, with Smallcombe saying she felt more people would be interested in the issue.
“There’s nothing like a Gazette article to get people’s attention,” said Smallcombe.
In the end, the board decided not to take action on the fee proposal, instead opting to run another legal advertisement and then to likely have the discussion at its Dec. 17 meeting.
Menetrey also encouraged members of the public to read the entire report “for themselves.”
That report is on the county website. Go to mariposacounty.org, click on “meetings and agendas” on the bottom of the home page and the clock on “agenda packet” for the board of supervisor meeting of Nov. 19. The report begins on page 135 of the packet.