AHWAHNEE — District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler thinks 2020 is going to be “another up year” for eastern Madera County.
“The last two or three years have been really good ones for us,” Wheeler said this week from his ranch in Ahwahnee. “Our budget’s been up. Our economy is up. Unemployment is low. We’re among the top ten counties in the state in terms of growth. All in all, I feel really good about where the County is — and where we’re heading.”
Wheeler knows how to run a business — before entering the political arena, he managed Frank Wyle’s 4,500-acre Circle W. cattle ranch outside North Fork for 27 years. He’s also owned and operated a successful upholstery shop and an antique store in North Fork, where he’s competed in the Mid-Sierra Loggers Jamboree every year since 1961. (*An injury forced him to sit out this year’s competition but he vows he’ll be “back in action next year.”)
Born in Fresno, Wheeler, 77, has been a resident of eastern Madera County for 60 years. He was first elected to serve on the Madera County board of supervisors in 2006. His current term runs through 2022.
“I learned how to be a leader a long time ago working for Frank Wyle,” Wheeler said. “Frank graduated from MIT and was a very sharp guy. He taught me that it’s important to have really good people under you. That’s the reason I got (North Fork resident) Tom Burdette in on the planning commission [in 2019].”
Wheeler also cites former planning commissioners Larry Wright and John Reed as key appointments he’s made to the Madera County Planning Commission. “Both Larry and John were really well respected in their decision making.”
Wheeler also recently hired a new chief of staff, Bobby Macaulay, who grew up in the Oakhurst area. “Bobby’s working out really well so far,” he said.
Since taking his seat on the board of supervisors, Wheeler says he’s “strived to uphold my political ideology of conservation, property rights and common sense.” He also said he remains a big supporter of businesses that bring well-paying jobs to the mountain communities — “so young adults can afford to live here.”
On the board of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District since 2013, Wheeler also serves on almost two dozen other key boards, commissions and committees statewide — and estimates he puts more than 25,000 miles a year on his truck driving to various meetings.
As has become his practice every year, Wheeler will hold a series of town hall meetings around the mountain communities in 2020. His first is scheduled for Jan. 30 at the Oakhurst Community Center. And when the County’s new satellite government center opens in early 2020 in Oakhurst, he plans to maintain a second office there.
“I can’t wait til January or the first part of February so I can have a base here in Oakhurst,” he said. “It will be really convenient for our citizens in eastern Madera County, especially with all of the services that will be available there,” including planned video connections that will allow individuals at the satellite center to participate through live feeds during board of supervisor meetings at the Government Center in Madera.
Asked by SNO this week what his New Year’s resolution was for 2020, Wheeler said he hadn’t thought about it much. “I’m not big on resolutions and that kind of stuff.”
But the supervisor did share some of his key priorities for 2020. At the top of the list: Finding a long-term solution to the sky-high cost of homeowners insurance for mountain area residents. “Because of the fires, in just the last five years, insurance on the average property in the mountains has jumped from about $1,100 a year to more than $6,000.”
Wheeler, who said he’s had his own homeowners policy cancelled twice and is currently searching for a new policy himself, said the recent move by the governor to put a one-year moratorium on policy cancellations is “a good start.”
“But we need to find a permanent solution,” he added. “That’s one of my top priorities right now.”
Wheeler wants to create a new “fuel reduction district” in eastern Madera County that would be funded by proceeds from county Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) revenues.
“The TOT tax won’t hit us residents hardly at all,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent [of TOT revenues] comes from visitors.”
Seeing some major local projects to completion, like Oakhurst’s three new hotels, a planned new, mountain-area convention center and the proposed biomass plant in North Fork are also among the supervisor’s top priorities. He says the three new hotels should all be open in 2020; the developer, Gautam Patel, is still working on plans for the new convention center; and organizers of the biomass plant are “likely” to secure financing in 2020.
Wheeler said upgrading the facilities at Ahwahnee Regional Park is another key priority — “I want to get the park so it’s more usable for people. We’re always looking for more money to fix it up.”
Wheeler also said he plans to concentrate his efforts in 2020 on helping to get the new EMC SPCA no-kill animal shelter open and trying to work with area developers to create more affordable mountain-area housing.
“We’ve got to create some decent housing for middle-income people who can’t even find rentals right now because all the available properties are being used as airbnbs,” he said. “If we’re going to grow our businesses and hire more people, there’s got to be places for them to live.”
Wheeler said he’s “excited” about the progress on the new $25 million Oakhurst Community College Center campus, to be built off Highway 49 behind True Value. “It’s coming together and moving forward really fast,” he said. “I think they could be breaking ground by the end of next year.”
Wheeler takes pride in being an active and highly visible leader around the mountain community. He’s also proud of his reputation as a straight shooter and man who can “get things done. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been re-elected.”
And as 2020 dawns, Wheeler thinks the area is well-positioned for the new decade. “I think we’re very lucky in Madera County right now. Last year was the first year in a long time that we’ve been able to fully fund every position that’s allotted in our budget. It’s really good to see that people are starting to come into Madera County to live, to build homes, to start new businesses. We’re doing a lot of things right right now.”