1. Please briefly explain the relationship between the state and the county, both legally and functionally.
SS – First, allow me to thank the Prospect for taking an interest in local Sierra County issues, because they effect all of us here in our communities. I appreciate these questions and hope my answers are a good synopsis of the information you’re looking for. I will try to be brief in my answers, and cover as much as I can.
The relationship between the State of California and County of Sierra is very complex in nature. State law, regulations, mandates, taxpayer funds, court case precedents, legislative decisions along with the Governor’s executive actions/recommendations are all aspects of the state’s operations. Our local county elected and non-elected administration must comply in most cases. Simply put, Sierra County must do almost everything the state demands. Local government is intricately woven into the state’s structure.
Several examples include our compliance with jail standards, law enforcement certifications and training, landfill Title 27 California Code of Regulations environmental standards which include State Water Quality, Cal-Recycle, and Hazardous Materials regulations/laws. In other areas of the county government, the State mandates programs, like Welfare, Family Planning, Mental and Behavioral Health, even certain job requirements for positions within the county are listed in State rules. Building codes, budget accounts standards and audits, enterprise account restrictions, reports to various state agencies via county offices, and revenue are additional examples of the strongly connected relationship between the state and county governments. The Courts (run by the state now), AB109 Public Safety Realignment Act, SB678 Community Corrections Performance Incentive Act, and other state laws further mandate the county reconstruct, create plans, and comply with those statutory necessities. In addition, a significant chunk of the county’s funding for mandated and non-mandated actions comes from the state and federal governments. Some of this funding comes through the state via the federal government, and the county is only given certain amounts based on population, or other deductive methods. In other cases, the county draws from state & local funds like gas, recreational, or sales taxes which are jurisdictionally and non-jurisdictionally driven, depending on the where they come from. In reality, the county is mostly acquiescent to the state from the constitution to the welfare & institutions code, and everything in-between. The county could also find itself paying the state in fines for non-compliance, which could get really expensive and effect our county budget in very serious ways.
2. What, in your opinion, are the county’s strengths?
SS – Are you talking about the county government, the local resources, or county population? If you’re asking about the government, one strength would be that our rural nature gives us certain very limited advantages, like in applying for state funds and grants which are set aside for disadvantaged rural, small populated counties in California. We also have a strong association with RCRC (Rural County Representatives), which is a thirty-three county membership organization geared to bring issues to the forefront. RCRC assists Sierra County with political pressure on the state for problems difficult to solve with our limited financial ability. Another strength in local government is public access to elected officials, mail-in elections with the largest voter turnout in the state, and when a project is completed, it is very localized, from bridges on the west side, to the newly completed bicycle plan, and future bike path project in Sierra Brooks, which will be a huge service to those communities with state transportation funds that are normally enjoyed by higher populations in other places within the state.
Sierra County is a beautiful place with a fascinating history. We have many outdoor resources which other counties could only dream of. Our tourism potential is boundless, and our agricultural resources are very important.
3. What challenges do you see in the next four years?
SS – The national, state and local economies are huge challenges to be realized over the next four years. Along with our housing market values, and struggling local businesses, we have larger and larger deficits coming at Sierra County. The politics of Washington D.C. will become more difficult because the unknown of Congressional approval of funds like Secure Rural Schools makes it hard to balance our budget, or know if we are in more serious financial trouble. Foreclosures and the housing crash has caused hardships in our neighborhoods and additionally created a new, lower property tax base, which has reduced county revenue. State funds are drying up in some departments, and it seems the mandates keep on coming without funding. In other areas, like criminal justice realignment, some funding has been realized, so there are a few points of light to be seen, but it’s not enough. Let’s not forget that the federal and state governments own most of the land in Sierra County, and thus there is a forever limited amount of tax base for Sierra County to draw from. With the governments reneging on their agreed upon PILT (Payment in lieu of taxes. Example: Fish & Wildlife not paying their property taxes on lands surrounding Sierra Brooks because the legislature takes those funds out of the state budget year after year), the attitudes in our higher governments make the future harder to predict.
Some other challenges are the illegal fire tax placed on Sierra County residents, and the Governor trying to eliminate Agriculture Education by removing the Incentive Grant Program from the state budget. It seems like time after time, the state punishes us with these types of actions. Let’s not forget the Skilled Nursing Facility issue we had last year. I would not be surprised to see more devastating attacks on our rural county over the next four years, and I will always work hard to counter them.
4. Though at one time Sierra County supplied the silver mines of Nevada with dairy products, beef and even truck crops, currently, very little food is grown in the county, far less than the residents of the county would consume. Do you think it should be a priority of the board to encourage more local food production, and if so, how do you think the board might accomplish this?
SS – The board of supervisors could always encourage private farmers and ranchers to grow more food, but will this advice be based on reality? Ranchers and farmers must consider our harsh winter seasons, growing conditions, soils, water availability, and financial feasibility of these kinds of endeavors. Farming in California’s central valley has taken a major hit due to lack of water, and has become very expensive. Recently, the Prospect reported that the State of California has begun a water study here in our valley. Inevitably, this means more state control and more money out of the pockets of our farmers and ranchers. The state has also recently raised the Water Master fees exponentially, without notice and in my opinion, with no good reason. The days of supply and demand for dairy into the silver mines of Nevada are long gone, but supply and demand principles remain the same. If a product can be put to market at a lower cost than what it can be sold for, the free market works. If the capital required for the business venture is in jeopardy, too expensive, overly regulated, overly taxed, or too difficult to produce, any such profitability is eliminated. Thus, the economy suffers because production is hindered. If profit & loss becomes mostly loss, the economy breaks down.
5. What is your opinion of county participation in RCRC, SEDCO, Sierra Nevada Conservancy, and the other opportunities for multi-county interaction, keeping in mind that participation requires time and travel for supervisors If you find value, are you willing to attend these meetings?
SS – As part of my answer to an above question, I’ve indicated how important RCRC is to Sierra County in its thirty-three member county organization. However, I will re-enforce my support of county participation in this organization, as the assistance in bringing local issues to the forefront via a strong alliance with the other northern rural counties is very important in having our voices heard. The other organizations have advantages and disadvantages, like anything, but I feel it is very important we keep our associations with these entities. Over the course of my time on the Board of Supervisors, I have had many discussions on grant applications and recommendations to the Sierra Nevada Conservancy. During my first two years, I served as the alternate supervisor representative on SEDCORP.
Bonus question. optional: There is a growing effort to have Northern California counties withdraw to form a new state. Efforts to do this have failed in the past, and is unlikely to succeed since the process involves state and federal cooperation Some feel the effort will at least draw attention to the problems of rural counties. Would you support a resolution to join a new state, and why or why not?
SS – As a life-long native Californian, I would like to see a state of Northern California happen, which would be drawn to separate our northern counties from the chaos of the rest of California. I don’t like the six state initiative being discussed right now, but I would support the State of Jefferson movement. I know these types of efforts are most likely improbable, but if I was asked to support a resolution on one of the more reasonable symbolic movements, I would.
The unintended consequences of such a bold state-splitting measure might result in a much poorer state of finances for our counties in the short run, but I think most people would take that chance to separate from the mess of current whole California. In my opinion, a Northern California would be a much freer place to live.
Thanks again for allowing me the opportunity to answer your questions.
Scott A. Schlefstein, Sierra County Supervisor, Fifth District