As chair for 2015 it is my privilege to share with my colleagues, county staff and county residents a vision for Tulare County in the coming year which I sincerely hope will become a vision shared by one and all.
The finances and employee base of the county have never been stronger. As of August, 2015, the county will have only a $4 million outstanding long term financial obligation other than our defined benefit retirement plan which at 89% is the highest funded 37 Act retirement system in the state. This is a far cry from where we have come in the last 15 years when 5% of our annual budget was dedicated to servicing the debts of the county.
But more important to the health of our county than a strong financial position are our employees. We have, in my opinion, a team from management to line staff, of unparalleled abilities and work ethic benefiting the residents of Tulare County and providing great services. Without our employees and their commitment to service, nothing could be or would be accomplished and to them I say, thank you.
Now as to short term goals, most of which are already in progress, mention of some of the highlights is appropriate. My apologies to departments that go unmentioned. Even a cursory review of each department’s plans would take up the entire morning. The following are representative of ongoing improvements which are occurring throughout the county.
In the sheriff’s department, newly elected sheriff, Mike Boudreaux continues the transformation using civilians where appropriate while strategically increasing the numbers of sworn officers to benefit our residents and their property. Progress continues on the planning, design and beginning construction of a new jail facility in Porterville and the demolition and reconstruction of training and housing facilities at Sequoia Field.
The county library systems new county librarian, Darla Wegener, will soon be on board and charged with continuing the work already underway to re-open the Farmersville Branch. Beginning with the vision of one individual the unincorporated community of London will soon have its own library branch. With no public school or county public facilities of any kind, the library represents a renewed county commitment to the residents of our disadvantaged communities, and to Mr. Robert Isquierdo, raised in London, goes a sincere thanks for remembering his heritage.
Child Support Services director, Roger Dixon, has recently come on board and is charged with working with our employees in that department to transform the work environment and improve service delivery.
The district attorney’s office under the newly elected district attorney, Tim Ward will be planning on moving its investigative unit into the court house consolidating its operations and improving communication within the department.
Health and Human Services is moving forward on several fronts expanding its workforce to deal with expanded state and federal programs and constructing and staffing a new mental health facility in Porterville.
Resource Management Agency under the recent leadership change to Director Michael Spata and assistant director Michael Washam will continue expedited community plans for Goshen, Pixley, Tipton, Earlimart, Strathmore and Tera Bella/ Ducor, consistent with the county’s general plan of development opportunities along major transportation corridors. Also, starting January 30, the permit center will be open on Friday mornings from 9-11 a.m. and a state of the art GIS-based permit system will be operational during the coming year.
After an exemplary career as the head of the UC Ag extension services in Tulare County, the number one agricultural county in the nation, Jim Sullins will be retiring later this year. Jim’s retirement continues the trend of baby boomers exiting the work force and leaving the county with the challenge of hiring qualified replacements.
Solid waste is expected to reach franchise agreements with the county’s solid waste haulers and complete negotiations with cities over the hauling of their waste stream to county landfills.
Purchasing is nearly ready to move into new quarters located under the old Ag Commissioner’s office escaping the old courthouse and its time consuming security system.
Planning will begin to move Human Resources into the former Ag Commissioner’s office providing a highly visible location for prospective and current employees.
Planning will also occur to relocate Risk Management into the offices currently occupied by Human Resources putting them in closer proximity to County Counsel and allowing County Counsel to also expand beyond its current quarters.
Tulare County Information and Communications Technology will be moving from the basement of the old courthouse and government plaza into the facilities vacated by the Office of Education allowing for consolidation of staff under one roof and increasing efficiencies thereby. Planning and improvements will commence after the premises are vacated this fall.
Capital projects will complete office improvements to the offices of the Assessor, Auditor, and Public Defender.
Shifting to the county as a whole, we need to take advantage of our improving financial position as reflected by increasing property value assessments and sales tax revenues to review county operations.
To deal with the past difficult financial times, a number of positions were frozen to conserve labor costs. The time has come to strategically examine those positions and look at rebuilding our work force to meet the public’s expectation for services. We are also aware that many employees personally sacrificed putting in long hours to accomplish workloads increased by those unfilled positions. The time has come for management to evaluate those situations and devise plans to restore positions where needed.
The county historically maintained a very modest reserve even as our budget has grown significantly.
We need to establish a more robust reserve in keeping with our larger overall budget and protect the county from future downturns in the economy. While it will take time to accomplish, it would seem reasonable to set a goal of $50 million as a prudent reserve based upon our current budget which exceeds $1 Billion.
We need to continue to encourage and support our employees to gain new skills and tools to accomplish their job responsibilities. Outside expertise to evaluate our current operational systems together with harnessing the expertise of our own staff should be ongoing and measured to achieve goals set by our own departments and this board. This is an area where we have made great strides, as in the current transition of real property assessments to a new state of the art computer system. But continuing improvement really has no ending point. Improving technology, streamlined processes and improved skills are ongoing. We need to encourage our staff to take reasonable risks and strategize and explore opportunities to continually improve performance.
On a longer time horizon we are well positioned to look at future office and operations needs of the county. Removing staff from the courthouse so that the public and employees can avoid unnecessary security searches to other facilities can dramatically improve services with less aggravation. No one can seriously suggest that getting a marriage license requires security screening. Or can they?
The recent termination by the Office of Education of leases to two large buildings in the heart of our government complex and possible opportunities to purchase additional property at costs well below today’s construction costs provides a catalyst to examine yesterday’s plans and determine whether a new direction is warranted. At the end of the day, we must review all options from sale of obsolete or unneeded properties to the purchase or construction of facilities to meet the needs of a growing county and our staffing levels.
I would be remiss if I did not make mention of the severe drought which the entire state has endured and the county’s role going forward. While we pray and hope for above average rain and snowfall for the remainder of the year, the impact to our groundwater will not be alleviated for some time. Tulare County will continue to seek funding opportunities and work with non-profit and faith based entities to help meet our residents’ critical water supply needs. The County will continue to work with local partners and State and Federal legislators to bridge funding gaps and remove obstacles to move projects forward.
In closing, I truly look forward to working with my colleagues, CAO Jean Rousseau and his able department, and the rest of our county department heads and staff in the coming year. Looking back to my three previous chairmanships I believe the opportunities this year may easily eclipse all the others. Our employee strength and financial soundness provides a sound base from which to spring into action. Tulare County stands ready to meet the needs of its residents and lead the state as an example of local government which is compassionate, effective and efficient.