District 4 Supervisor Lori Simpson didn’t mince words during last week’s candidate forum.
“You need to elect me again. No bones about it,” Simpson said. “I admire these two (challengers Barry Gossett and James Huffmon) and I will appoint them to some commissions and let them get up to speed. I’m already up to speed.”
Simpson’s closing remarks before a group of about 35 people at the Quincy library were the most emphatic of the one-hour forum.
They were a contrast to the rest of the evening’s dialogue that saw the three candidates agree on many of the issues facing the county.
Gossett and Huffmon, both local businessmen, emphasized their experience in many of their answers to questions prepared by the audience. About a dozen questions were read by moderator Norberta Schmidt from the League of Woman Voters, who sponsored the forum.
Gossett and Huffmon were critical of Simpson and the current supervisors for not paying enough attention to tourism and economic development. They said they wanted to see a portion of the transient occupancy tax (TOT) used to advertise tourism.
“As a business owner, I know that when things slow down, the first tendency is — like the county — to cut your advertising expenses,” Huffmon said. “As soon as you do that, there goes your revenue and you fall further. In business we’ve learned that the slower it gets, the more money we spend on advertising.”
Gossett said that if he were elected, he would try to make sure the fairgrounds, visitors bureau and chambers of commerce received adequate funding from the county.
“It’s an important part of our community,” Gossett said. “And we are going to have to figure out how to fund it. And I will work hard on that.”
The three candidates agreed on the importance of making sure the county had good funding for law enforcement. They agreed that modernizing the Plumas District Hospital should be a priority.
While the challengers outlined changes they would make if elected, Simpson spent most of her allotted time highlighting her accomplishments and defending her record.
She said being a county supervisor isn’t as easy as people might think. She said she hasn’t had a vacation during her four years in office.
“You think you know everything when you become a supervisor, but you find out you don’t know anything,” said Simpson, who has worked 20 years for the county. “I thought I knew everything, until I became a supervisor and had to learn even more.”
Simpson said the institutional knowledge she’s gained is important, “because we have a fairly new board.
“And I need another term to get stuff done. Quincy doesn’t need — with all due respect — a new training team.”
Several of the questions from the audience concerned the recent firing of County Administrative Officer Jack Ingstad. Following are some of the questions and answers from the forum:
What are the three top issues you would address if elected or re-elected?
GOSSETT: I’m concerned with how the TOT is being used.
The visitors bureau is closed. I feel like everything that is related to tourism and economic development has been cut.
We need to revisit that so we can get our economy headed in the right direction and attract tourism.
I would like to see a board of tourism and commerce that oversees the museum, the fairgrounds, chambers, economic development and possibly have someone to recruit new business to our county.
It could possibly be funded through a business license tax and the TOT tax. But we have to use the TOT responsibly.
HUFFMON: Economic development is definitely where a big part of my focus is.
The first thing I would work on is developing what our economic development strategy is. A lot of that is going to have to deal with the TOT and how it is spent and how it is collected.
I believe we need to audit the TOT to see if we are actually receiving all the money that is there.
The other issue that is vital is the expansion of the hospital. The hospital is vital to the region.
We need to figure out how to come up with the money and funding to expand that and attract new doctors. It’s a vital part of this community.
SIMPSON: The hospital has its own governing board. It’s a special district. The Board of Supervisors has no authority over it.
The first issue that came up when I took office was the (county’s) general plan.
We had the most amended general plan in the state of California. And we were getting sued left and right.
When I got in office I wanted to stop all lawsuits, so I got to work. Updating the general plan has been in the process for the last two years. And it will be done in August. I’m proud of that accomplishment. I worked with all the supervisors on that.
Public safety is very important. We’ve had AB 109 thrown on us. The (formerly state prison) inmates are coming back to the county.
So I’m working with the sheriff. He needs a new jail. I’m going to try to find a new jail with him, and find the money to do it.
Restoring the alcohol and drug department is important.
When I was the chair, I put that back on the table because I knew it had to be done. I listened to the community. And I’m going to get that done.
The judge, the sheriff, the district attorney … we are all working on it and it is going to happen.
Is a county CAO necessary? If so, why?
GOSSETT: If it were put up to a poll of the people, they would say, no, we don’t need a CAO.
But when you talk to people, maybe more on the inside (of county government), I’m leaning toward, yes, some type of position is needed there — a budget officer or a CAO.
If you read the California budget guide, it mentions the administrative officer or the auditor shall make these decisions.
So there is a need for a CAO in my opinion. It’s how we used the CAO that bothered the community. They want to know who’s in charge. Is it the Board of Supervisors or the CAO?
SIMPSON: I’ve worked for the county for 18 years. I’ve been through all the CAOs. I worked personally with Jack Ingstad.
I’m not sure if we need a CAO, because I’m more of a hands-on person. You can ask any department head in this county about my communication with them. They talk to me freely.
We (supervisors) are at a stage where we are asking our department heads about how they feel about a CAO. It’s a very high-profile, tough position.
Right now I would like to try it for a while without a CAO and save money.
HUFFMON: I have reached out to the county department heads. It became apparent very quickly that there was a communication breakdown between the department heads and the Board of Supervisors.
What I found out was this barrier to communications was coming directly from the CAO.
I believe that some of the supervisors knew about these barriers in communication.
If we go back to a CAO, I think that we need to put a mechanism in place that would prevent any one person from having that much control — especially over the communication.
Assuming county revenues are down significantly again next fiscal year, what areas of the budget would you look to cut first?
HUFFMON: As business owners, we have to justify our existence every day.
If we are not providing a service or a product that people are willing to spend money on, we have two choices: We can either change and adapt, or we can go out of business.
I realize at the public level things are a little bit different. But I think that there are some sectors and departments that we can look at in similar ways to see if we are providing the services that people want and need.
And if we are not, can we change and adapt to do that, or do those services need to go away or be diminished?
We just need to go in and analyze every part and see if we can make those cuts, if that’s what needs to be done.
GOSSETT: Naturally I would like to try to find money wherever we could find it and avoid cuts.
But I know the health insurance program, it’s possible to make some savings there, if we could get the employees unions to agree to it. They kind of have Cadillac health insurance.
It could be debated whether we could save some money by avoiding paying for the highest level of health care insurance that is offered through the union on the county employees.
I would like to make cuts across the board. If department heads have to take a cut, I would feel like, as a supervisor, I would have to take a cut.
But it’s easy to sit back on the outside and say what needs to be cut. The important thing is that you negotiate it right and fair so the cuts are equal and fair to everyone concerned. And they make sense to everybody.
SIMPSON: Since I’ve been in office it has been cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, all the way down.
This has been the worst time in the history of Plumas County to be a supervisor. I’ve had to make the tough decisions.
I was an employee negotiator. I wanted benefits. I wanted to keep the health insurance.
And now I’ve had to cut everybody’s benefits because we had to do it. There’s no revenues.
We cut the county lobbyist. Supervisors all had community funds. We cut those out. We’ve been cutting and cutting and cutting. We just cut our own benefits this last time.
My philosophy is, I live in this county and I want to keep everything open. I want to keep the libraries open, the museum open, the fairgrounds open.
Because we don’t have much. And these things are important to our lifestyle.
We are probably all going to have to take more cuts. The general fund is where the revenues are down. You have to negotiate with the labor unions; you can’t just do what you want. It’s a hard process. And we are probably going to go to four nine-hour days in the next round.
HUFFMON (rebuttal): I know where we can find some money. We have general fund employees and we have grant (funded) employees.
And out of “fairness,” even the grant employees — who were fully funded — have taken cuts. And we’ve sent that money back, because it’s not fair to the general fund employees.
But those non-general fund employees (who were grant funded), if they hadn’t taken cuts, that money would still be in the community, and the private businesses would be doing a little better.
SIMPSON (rebuttal): We have about 300 employees. Some are grant funded, some are general fund. So you have to do the whole body when you are negotiating with these employees.
You can’t just cut some and don’t cut the others. And that’s a fact.
Because of low county revenues and things getting worse, would you argue to raise taxes?
SIMPSON: We are in a downturn, but I believe we are going to get out of it. It’s going to take a few more years.
We just approved a large development in Lake Almanor that has been in the works for years. I asked the question of the developers: Why are you going forward with this? There’s a glut of houses. And they said the Bay Area is turning around and they are looking to the future.
Soper Wheeler is going through with a project on Chandler Road.
Raising taxes? No, I would not raise taxes. Tax is a four-letter word in Plumas County.
TOT tax, we could maybe look at that. I’m not against that. That is paid by the visitor who comes into this town. Not anybody who lives here.
HUFFMON: I’m not interested in raising taxes at all.
The last time we raised the TOT tax from 6 to 9 percent, the justification was because the county was broke and didn’t have any money to invest in tourism and recreation marketing in the county.
So it was this great thing. If we could just add 3 percent to the tax the out-of-town people are paying here, then we could have this money to promote our county, to promote tourism and to promote businesses.
And now, even though we are at that 9 percent, we are back to the same place. Needing money.
So, is raising taxes the answer? I don’t think so.
GOSSETT: As a supervisor, you don’t have a lot of power to raise taxes.
Your options are to build the economy and get property values up. But we can’t raise property tax.
I was told by the fair manager that the fair is going to need about $200,000 to keep the fairgrounds open.
How are we going to raise that money? I’m not sure. But I’ve talked to a couple of business owners. I would float the idea of possibly having a business license tax.
But I would want to make sure it was invested properly and wisely. And it would have to go to the people to vote on it.
If it was like 50 bucks a year to fund tourism and the fairgrounds, maybe chambers, economic development … that would be the only way we could possibly raise taxes.
The other way would be a quarter percent sales tax. But I wouldn’t support that.
We should spend the TOT tax the way it was designed for.
SIMPSON (rebuttal): Years ago we had one chamber of commerce for the whole county. Now we’ve morphed to a chamber in every town. We had a visitors bureau. We are a county of only 20,000 people.
So we were paying every chamber. We were paying them $30,000 a year for four chambers, plus a visitors bureau at $250,000 or more per year.
As the money got tight, we had to cut back. And I’ll tell ya, the squabbling and fighting began. My motto is: When money’s tight, people will fight.
I think we’ve got to re-evaluate everything and see if we can still fund tourism.
What has the current District 4 supervisor done or not done that has stimulated you to run for office?
HUFFMON: I think we need to start focusing on where we go from here. A huge part of that is economic development — which involves retaining the jobs that we have, as well as attracting new ones. Business start-ups, promoting tourism and things like that.
GOSSETT: When I debated running for office, somebody asked me if I thought Lori was beatable. And that is what delayed my decision quite a while.
But I think there hasn’t been a lot of strong decisions regarding our budget. There are a lot of people in the community that are concerned about the budget.
As for economic development, we lost the visitors bureau. The TOT tax is being basically spent in the general fund. I think we need to spend that TOT tax more on economic development and back on tourism.
SIMPSON: I really admire these two guys for stepping up to the plate. It takes a lot of guts to run for office. And it gives everybody a chance to evaluate my record.
About economic development: My job, I feel as supervisor, is to provide services for the people. That’s my main priority.
Economic development, the funding has gone downhill since I’ve been in office because our revenues have gone down. But we did fund Plumas Corp. with tons of money.
Our TOT tax is funding our libraries. Do you want to keep those open? Do you want to keep the museum open? Do you want to keep our sheriff’s office fully funded?
The revenues are down and we are trying to do the best we can.
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