HANFORD – So who's going to pick up the estimated $11 million tab for the Corcoran levee-raising project?
Local officials overseeing the expensive project, which started in March and was done to protect Corcoran from a flood that hasn't happened, revealed part of their strategy Tuesday at a Kings County Board of Supervisors public hearing.
To relieve farmers and Corcoran homeowners of the burden of having to pay the full bill, officials at the Cross Creek Flood Control District want the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to pay about 60 percent, or $6.6 million, of the total cost.
The two state prison facilities south of Corcoran are inside the district's boundaries.
Attorney Mike Nordstrom, who represents the district, told county supervisors during the hearing Tuesday that the whole plan hinges on how much the state is willing to pay.
"It's all for naught ... if the prison is going to vote 'No,'" he said. "It's very critical we have the prison on board."
Norstrom was referring to the fact that, in order to get the payment plan approved, officials have to put the proposal before Corcoran property owners for an up-or-down vote.
Corcoran property owners, all 3,713 of them, will be able to vote "Yes" or "No" on whether they want their property taxes increased to pay for the levee work.
Contractors were paid for the work with government-issued IOUs, which the district is now on the hook for.
Each vote in the referendum won't be counted equally, according to district manager Dustin Fuller.
Fuller said that the votes will be counted based on the value of the property, meaning that wealthier landowners, in addition to being asked to pay more, will also have a greater say in the outcome of the vote.
District officials estimate the two state prison properties have a value of $1 billion, which makes them far and away the most valuable land inside the levee.
Fuller said that if the state votes "No," the payment plan is dead no matter how the rest of the property owners vote.
He said if that happened, the district would have no way of paying off the IOUs. He said the district would go bankrupt and disband as a result.
If state prison officials agree to chip in as much as district leaders want them to, the remaining 40 percent of the $11 million would be picked up by agricultural landowners and property owners in Corcoran's residential and industrial areas.
District officials at Tuesday's public hearing didn't provide an estimate of what percent growers in the district will pay relative to home, apartment and other property owners in town.
Fuller said no final dollar amounts will be available until the payment plan is approved and the district's board of directors decides how many years they want to take to pay off the debt.
Diana Frederick, a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation manager who spoke at Tuesday's hearing, said the state has yet to get on board with the district's determination that the prison properties are worth $1 billion.
"We absolutely do need additional time," she said.
Frederick submitted a letter from another prison system official, Deborah Hysen, stating that "critical information in support of the [$1 billion] assessment has not been provided."
Hysen wrote that the state plans to "fully evaluate the assessment methodology" used by the district.
In response, supervisors postponed a decision on the payment plan until the board's next regularly scheduled meeting, which is slated for Tuesday.
At that meeting next week, district property owners and residents will get another chance to comment.
It wasn't immediately clear if the one-week delay will be enough time for the state to complete the additional evaluation work mentioned in Hysen's letter.
As soon as the public hearing wrapped up Tuesday, Fuller, Nordstrom and other district officials headed off to catch a flight to Sacramento to meet with state prison officials.
Meanwhile, Donna Rojo, the only self-identified Corcoran resident to speak on the record at the hearing Tuesday, worried about how much Corcoran homeowners will end up having to pay.
Rojo said many Corcoran residents are low-income and can ill-afford additional cost burdens.
"In my household, budgets are pretty tight," she said. "What is it going to cost households in Corcoran? We're very concerned about that."
Rojo said a lot of Corcoran residents couldn't leave work to attend the hearing, which was held at the Kings County Government Center in Hanford.
County Supervisor Richard Valle, who represents Corcoran on the board of supervisors, wondered aloud how much agriculture will be asked to pay.
"I think it's fair to let the folks in Corcoran see the bigger picture," he said.
On social media, some commenters said that agricultural groundwater pumping caused the levee to sink over the last two years, a sinkage that made the $11 million levee-raising project necessary.
Such commenters said that because of that, agricultural landowners should be asked to pay the majority of the cost.
"Since the levies needed to be raised because of ground subsidence, the corporations, farms, entities that pumped the most water should pay the most taxes for the upgrade/repair of the levies," wrote one commentator. "Why tax local home owners that used only a fraction of the ground water?"
According to the plan proposed on Tuesday, agricultural areas inside the levee would be taxed at a higher rate than property owners in town. That's because most of the farm ground is at a lower elevation than the town and therefore at greater flood risk.
Ditto with the two state prison facilities, which are also at a lower elevation than the residential areas of Corcoran.