By Jim Nielsen
How would you like the money you lost gambling to be gambled by elected officials in a manner that might short-change schools, roads, police and fire protection and even hit you in the pocketbook again through taxes or fees?
Public records disclose that Yolo County supervisors are considering using tribal gaming mitigation money to pay for the eminent domain acquisition of the Conaway Ranch. It appears other financing options such as bank loans and Proposition 50 funds have not panned out and self-imposed deadlines to have financing in place are not attainable. The county appears desperate to find money for land speculation.
Documents titled "Project Financing and Financial Issues" contain entries for the Pomona Fund and the Tribal Fund as sources of financing for the Conaway Ranch. The Pomona Fund accrues around $1 million a year and the Tribal Fund accrues around $1.2 million a year, increasing to $2 million in four years.
These funds are negotiated between local governments and sovereign tribes for the purpose of helping with the financial and other impacts of locating casinos in counties and cities. Tribal funds are used to pay for public needs such as schools, roads, public protection and environmental impacts.
Under the Yolo County agreement with the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians the county received $3.5 million of tribal mitigation funds in 2004-05. Forty percent of the funds are directed into the general fund and 60 percent to specific programs or projects.
A tribal advisory committee makes recommendations to the county as to the distribution of the general fund allocation. Funds are recommended for things like a sheriff's patrol in the Capay Valley, community enhancement projects, and for non-county entities and county departments to pay for the impact of having a casino located here. I would be surprised if the advisory committee found that county land speculation on the Conaway Ranch is a worthy expenditure.
A total of $2.2 million annually (increasing to $4.2 million by the fourth year) is proposed as a source of Conaway financing. Public documents report a total of "ongoing annual payments" of tribal funds of up to $1.6 million to the general fund by 2005-06 and up to $2.4 million to specific projects or programs. So much for the county promise that no general funds would be used for the Conaway Ranch. If these funds are spent to buy the Conaway Ranch they won't go to any public projects or programs.
It is no stretch to conclude the county may attempt a re-negotiation with the Rumsey Tribe to provide that these annual distributions are paid lump sum, up front giving the county cash for the cost of the Conaway. It is also interesting that more recent documents indicate a Conaway Ranch purchase price of $80 million - up considerably from an earlier projection.
It is alarming that the county would have the temerity to consider such a significant general fund diversion while projecting annual budget shortfalls that range from $10.8 million to $15 million from 2003-2004 through 2007-2008. Last week the board voted to oppose a state special election. Board Chairwoman Helen Thomson bemoaned the $300,000 cost to the county for a special election observing, "$300,000 is nothing to sniff at." Guess not, but then why has the county expended considerably more than that on consultants and attorneys attempting to take the Conaway Ranch off the tax rolls while exposing the county to an $80 million liability and legal risks?
One budget document discusses strategies to deal with the county's budget shortfall. Savings are suggested from salaries and benefits, services and supplies, contracted services, fixed assets and capital improvements. County employees have already endured a furlough. The counties feeble rationale for acquiring the Conaway Ranch cannot justify ignoring more critical needs for tribal funds.
The proposed tribal fund raid was disclosed only through a pubic records request not in open meetings. For more than a year probably the most significant financial obligation in the history of the county has been veiled in secrecy. There has been little opportunity for the public to be a part of Board meetings and the only other venue, the Joint Powers Authority meetings, were discontinued when the public started showing up.
Based on conversations with many people over time I question whether even the supervisors have been availed all information about this Conaway takeover. This is not the way this county has historically been run and it is not in the best interests of the people.
Eighty million dollars is a lot of money to obligate for speculation. It is increasingly clear that there are real risks, direct threats to services the county provides, a trifling with money not intended for land purchases all at a time the county is in fiscal trouble.
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