As the Town of Mammoth Lakes comes to terms with a $29.5 million lawsuit judgment, Mono County Supervisors weighed in on the possible effects it will have on the county.
Counties and incorporated municipalities have very different functions. Cities and towns create their own wealth through property taxes and use some of that money to improve their area—by building a recreation center, a park, public art displays—but by law, a chunk of that property tax revenue also goes to the county.
The county then acts as a “safety net” for the entire population of the county, providing state-mandated services such as mental health services, public health services, district attorney services—all of the trappings of a modern Western culture.
When towns or cities suffer, for example during a recession, a low snow year, or in this case, a $29.5 million debt owed—the county will also feel the effects—at least somewhat.
At minimum, if a town is strapped for cash and it can’t take care of its own obligations, the county can sometimes step in. Such is the current case, for example, when the Town of Mammoth Lakes recently pulled out of an agreement to pay half of the cost of operating the Whitmore Animal Shelter.
If municipal property tax revenue drops consistently over an extended period of time, the amount of money coming into county coffers will also decrease, even as the demand for services, emergency food and shelter, etc., stays the same or increases.
Although Mono County is a solvent county with a small reserve for emergencies, no one thinks the next few years are going to be easy.
“Something has to give,” said Mono County Supervisor Byng Hunt. “It’s inevitable.”
According to Hunt, the most likely things to “give” are services that the town and county both do, such as the animal shelter. Other services include law enforcement (the county has sheriff’s deputies and the town has a police department), and various IT functions and emergency dispatcher functions.
But pulling out of an agreement to fund an animal shelter is one thing. Talking about combining law enforcement duties—in effect cutting positions at the Mammoth Lakes Police Department to save money—is a whole other situation, and that’s exactly the kind of “sacred cow” another county supervisor, Larry Johnston, thinks must be at least considered.
“Two million dollars a year has to come from someplace,” Johnston said, noting that about $5.6 million of the Town of Mammoth Lakes annual budget goes to pay for the police department.
Should some—or all—positions need to be cut, the town could then contract with Mono County to provide sheriff’s deputies to patrol and do law enforcement, saving some costs. It’s a common model in many smaller communities, he said.
County Finance officer Brian Muir said his job as a steward of the county—and of the safety-net services it is by law required to provide—is to do one main thing.
“We don’t want to get rich, but we need to make sure we are compensated properly, if we do provide services,” Muir said. “We want to be able to help in any way we can, but we also have to protect ourselves.”
Contracting with the county to provide financial services is another option the town might want to consider, he said.
Hunt said he thinks the next few years will indeed be a struggle—for the town and for the county—but he also realized it could be a great opportunity for a joint cooperation.
“This is going to require us to be very cooperative, very innovative, to rely on each other, and to think outside the box,” Hunt said.
“We won’t have the luxury of not talking to each other, not consulting each other and I think that could be a good thing. And we have a great product, great mountains, a beautiful place people want to come to, no matter what. I think the future is bright even if the near future will be difficult.”