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Supervisor Wheeler Holds ‘Virtual’ Town Hall

AHWAHNEE — District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler held a Town Hall meeting — via Zoom — on Wednesday (May 27), allowing county officials to provide updates on local efforts to combat COVID-19 as well as share the latest developments regarding key projects underway around Madera County.

Running the meeting from his ranch in Ahwahnee, Wheeler said the virtual format, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, “actually works pretty well. This is a good way for us to get the latest information out there.”

Undersheriff Tyson Pogue reported during Wednesday’s Town Hall that although crime around Madera County has actually decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the biggest problems MCSO deputies are encountering lately is illegal parking along county roads, especially near popular recreation areas like Bass Lake.

“We’re working with CHP to try to crack down on that,” said Undersheriff Pogue, who is expected to be appointed sheriff next month when current Madera County Sheriff Jay Varney becomes Madera County’s new chief administrative officer.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Madera County Deputy Public Works Director Jared Carter reported that North Fork’s new round about will be officially completed next week. “We’re just getting the lighting finished,” Carter said. “We had to work out some issues with PG&E.”

Carter said Oakhurst’s sewer line replacement project is ahead of schedule and could be wrapped up by the end of June. The project along Highway 41, which was scheduled to be completed in October, has reached Denny’s restaurant, Carter reported.

The construction work involves replacement of 5,240 feet of the town’s main 12-inch sewer line, which runs below Highway 41.

“We’ve only got about 600 more feet to go,” Carter added. “But we expect to encounter some challenging digging conditions as we near Hodges Hill Drive so that could slow the pace of work a little.”

Carter also said the County anticipates starting the Oakhurst Connector project later this year, with work beginning with construction of a new bridge and widening of Highway 41 where it will intersect the new major artery.

The long-anticipated project, currently estimated at about $19 million, will include construction of a new, two-lane road connecting Highway 41 with Indian Springs Road. The road will be about one-half-mile long and will include a 365-foot-long bridge over Nelder Creek as well as 12-foot-wide travel lanes, five-foot-wide shoulders, a five-foot-wide sidewalk and separate five-foot-wide bike lanes on either side of the road.

Carter also said Wednesday that work will likely not begin on the project to replace the Finegold Bridge on Road 200 until next year or 2022. “The design work is all done but the Measure T funding is still a couple of years out,” Carter said, adding that County officials are hoping to be able to tap some federal funding sources to speed up that project’s construction timetable.

Community Development Director Matt Treber said he expects Oakhurst’s new Fairfield Inn and Hampton Inn by Hilton to be issued occupancy permits and be open for business later this year after the Highway 41 sewer line replacement project is completed. The Holiday Inn, the northernmost of the town’s three new hotels, opened earlier this year.

Sarah Bosse, the County’s health director and Dr. Simon Paul, Madera County health officer, also gave short presentations during the Town Hall. 

And County Finance Director Joel Bugai provided a brief update regarding the impact of the COVID-19 on the County’s budget.

“Right now, we’re projecting a current year revenue shortfall of about $5.7 million,” Bugai said. He attributed much of the shortfall to significant decreases in the past few months of sales tax and TOT (transient occupancy tax) revenues.

Bugai said the County hoped to “fix” the budget by controlling expenditures rather than dipping in to the County’s $7.1 million Reserve Fund.

Bugai said officials are also looking at the possibility of furloughs. “We’re not recommending them right now but they can’t be ruled out.

County Human Resources Director Elba Gomez added that the County plans to honor its existing contracts with several employee unions.

“We learned a lot from the last recession,” Supervisor Wheeler said. “We’ve been pretty prudent with our planning. Hopefully, we can avoid layoffs during this latest downturn.”

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