The Plumas County Board of Supervisors continued to discuss how to spend the county’s $7.8 million Pacific Gas & Electric Co. settlement fund at their Nov. 7 session.
In a half-hour conversation that hinted at differing opinions, Chairman Greg Hagwood made it clear this was the beginning of a larger discussion that should result in a list of priorities for addressing the damages caused by the 2021 Dixie fire.
The $7.8 million PG&E settlement is more than half of the $15 million Plumas County has so far received in funding to address losses incurred in the fire, which destroyed Greenville and three other communities in the state’s largest single wildfire.
The question before the Board is “how do we want to look at these funds,” said Debra Lucero, county administrative officer. She had previously proposed a five-week timeline, with the overview presentation Oct. 17, and the Nov. 7 discussion as the next step, before adopting a final resolution on Nov. 21. Lucero said a decision should be made before starting budget discussions in January for the next fiscal year, which starts in July.
But Hagwood strongly encouraged “refraining from hasty, major decisions.” He urged including communities and stakeholders in the conversation: “This amount of money warrants some very careful and thoughtful deliberations… Nothing’s going to turn into a pumpkin at midnight.”
The language of settlement with PG&E, announced in a Jan. 17 press release, was specifically for a public agency to reimburse infrastructure costs, labor costs, “anything that was considered a loss,” Lucero said. Three county-owned buildings were among those completely obliterated Aug. 4, when the Dixie fire razed all of downtown Greenville.
“A million dollars of cost came out right off the top of our budget out of our general fund.”Debra Lucero, Plumas County Administrative Officer
Lucero said the funds were meant to mitigate the county’s losses, which include a $500,000 grader and $5 million in damages to county roads. On top of material losses, employees devoted time to disaster relief, specialists were brought in to address insurance payments, and many county departments suffered “holes in their budgets” due to the fire, Lucero said.
“A million dollars of cost came out right off the top of our budget out of our general fund,” she said. At the Board’s Oct. 17 discussion discussion, she recommended that the majority of the settlement be used to compensate the county for its expenses, with $1 million reserved for rebuilding and supporting citizen-led projects.
Hagwood agreed that the intent and purpose of the PG&E settlement is specific to the county’s interests and losses.
But District 5 Supervisor Jeff Engel said the PG&E settlement money should go explicitly to the fire-impacted areas of Greenville, Indian Falls and Canyon Dam. Major input in specific usage should also come from those communities, he said.
“And we’ll listen to them and go from there… What benefits the residents of the fire-impacted area and county-owned properties is what I want to see,” said Engel.
He referenced his Sept. 29 proposal for a resolution to designate funding to the burn scar but it was not discussed Nov. 7.
“What benefits the residents of the fire-impacted area and county-owned properties is what I want to see.”Jeff Engel, Plumas County Supervisor
Lucero’s spending proposal includes setting aside $2 million as a match for grants and $2 million as investment funds. That drew a question from Kest Porter, retired educator and former member of the Dixie Fire Collaborative Steering Committee. Any money invested would, at some point, be used.
“What would it be used for? Is it still being used for the burn scar?” Porter asked.
That would be up to the Board, Lucero said. The county has very few ways of making money; investing it is one of them, she said.
Interim County Counsel Sara James turned the discussion to the way the PG&E settlement was handled by the Board. Rather than an announcement recorded in the minutes of the Jan. 17, 2023 Board meeting, the supervisors announced the settlement in a press release published Jan. 18 in Plumas News.
This was entirely legal and in accordance with the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law, James said. “Because of the complicated nature of how the closed session items go, it is not a reportable action directly from a closed session,” she said.
Her explanation was designed to address uncertainty about when the Plumas County supervisors accepted the $7.8 million settlement from PG&E. The acceptance decision does not appear on either the supervisors’ agendas or their minutes for 2023. The Jan. 17 press release announced a collective $24 million settlement to 10 public entities in Lassen and Plumas counties, but it did not mention the amount of Plumas County’s share.
James said any litigation must be handled in closed session. “If this is settled through mediation, if it is settled through a settlement, then that information is not going to be made public because there are factors that go into these decisions that are not beneficial,” she said.
James’s explanation of the process requiring closed-doors negotiations did not clarify the issue, said Deb Hopkins, a Quincy resident who frequently attends Board meetings. “If you reiterate that in a way that expresses that this is typical— that this is how these things are done—I think would be very reassuring,” she said.
Hagwood said, “I believe that staff is acutely aware and is working on addressing it.”