Many of California’s special districts have been financially crippled by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Calaveras County is no exception.
More than 30% of special districts statewide have had staff cutbacks and over 40% have had to significantly reduce services, according to Dane Wadle, senior public affairs field coordinator for the California Special Districts Association’s Sierra network.
“Special districts, which provide vital services that many cities and counties cannot, such as fire protection and access to reliable water and electricity, are struggling under the burden of a $1.92 billion in unmet need, with that number growing every day,” Wadle said.
The revenue losses, which have been most substantial among fire protection, healthcare/emergency services, recreation and park, port and harbor/transit and utility districts, were in many cases fueled by pandemic response operations redirecting funds and “skyrocketing” expenses due to mandated health and safety protocols.
Calaveras County has 42 independent special districts, some of which have been heavily impacted.
The Mokelumne Hill Veterans Memorial District, responsible for facilities including the Town Hall, Shutter Tree Town Park and DK Horse Arena, had their budget reduced by 20% due to COVID-related revenue losses, according to Wadle.
The San Andreas Recreation and Park District, which manages the Town Hall as well as park used by softball leagues and other special events, lost roughly 40% of revenues from renting out the Hall.
The Mark Twain Health Care District recorded $275,000 in operating losses, as the district provided a significant portion of care for free.
“While the district has been providing uninterrupted health care service to the county, the impacts remain,” Wadle said.
For the Calaveras County Water District (CCWD), which serves roughly 13,000 water and 5,000 wastewater customers, revenue losses from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order prohibiting water shutoffs and suspended late water fees have been substantial.
“Between loss of fees and delinquencies to date, it is estimated to be approximately $200,000-$350,000,” Director of Administrative Services for CCWD Rebecca Callen said. “The delinquencies are still slated to be recovered in some form, whether it be through legislative assistance funding or through payback solutions with customers.”
Despite these losses, special districts have not received access to COVID-19 relief federal funding programs, unlike other government entities including the state, schools, cities and counties.
“Federal and state governments funding for local government has been directed solely to the city and county levels, and yet as special districts are public entities they also have not benefited from the COVID relief programs for businesses and nonprofits, such as PPP, tax credits or grants,” Wadle said.
At CCWD, staff is actively working with legislators to ensure that future funding includes special districts.
“Access to COVID Relief funding has been limited to FEMA Public Assistance Act funding from the 2020 declaration. Due to the high volume of respondents (every local agency in the country), CCWD is awaiting review by FEMA and the ability to submit a reimbursement claim of approximately $50,000,” Callen said. “The other forms of relief were limited to cities and counties. Unfortunately, special districts were not included as approved respondents in the initial relief packages.”
However, Wadle says that the $57.95 billion in COVID-19 relief funds allocated by Congress to California should be enough to aid the state’s special districts.
“Of this the state will have received a total $36.14 billion in discretionary dollars to address COVID-19 impacts,” he said. “Through the American Rescue Plan Act, Congress has provided a flexible solution by explicitly empowering states with authority to transfer Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery monies to special districts. We urge California to use this authority to its fullest extent and distribute a portion of (it) to California’s special districts for the benefit of the millions of Californians we serve statewide.”
Wadle added there is precedent for this use of relief funds in Colorado and Oregon, and that Colorado has indicated a plan to share their Rescue Act funds as well.
“Special districts would utilize funding allocated by the state to benefit their residents, stabilize services, and boost the local economy,” he said. “They would do this through reimbursing expenditures related to the pandemic response, assisting their residents with utility arrearages, restoring service levels following a year’s worth of revenue losses, rehiring or boosting frontline workers with premium pay, (and) investing in critical water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure after a year of delayed, deferred and canceled projects.”