A question of priorities

Council wrestles with financial and philosophical issues

Budget priorities

Should the Chico City Council adopt ranked spending priorities in crafting its budget? It’s an important question, and at the council’s meeting Tuesday (Dec. 20) it led to an interesting philosophical discussion.

At issue was a brief memo written by Councilman Bob Evans to City Manager Dave Burkland stating what he thought the city’s budget priorities should be. There were three, ranked from highest to lowest in importance.

First was replenishing the operational and emergency reserves “to their safe and proper levels”; second was restoring city services “to the levels our citizens have come to expect … by restoring city staffing to their [sic] proper levels”; and third was to “address and negotiate city employee compensation levels fairly and appropriately” within existing constraints, including the first two priorities.

Evans noted that reserves had declined significantly in recent years to unhealthy levels. “Our ultimate responsibility is to guard against insolvency,” he stated, asking the rest of the council to sign onto his memo.

Mayor Ann Schwab, while commending Evans for his contribution, thought the memo failed to consider the importance of context. She noted that she’d been meeting with Burkland to plan out a series of meetings with business and other governmental leaders focused on finances, that a special council meeting to update the budget contingency plan was in the works, and that redevelopment funding was up in the air until the state Supreme Court rules on it in January.

“These priorities … look very, very good, but it’s better to establish priorities after doing the preliminary work,” she said.

Vice Mayor Jim Walker and Councilman Mark Sorensen both supported Evans’ memo, saying restoring the reserves should be the highest priority.

“I want to be sure we don’t go into a big process and discover at the end that we should have had these priorities all along,” Sorensen said. “Four years ago, reserves were $12 million. Today we’re down to $6 million. That’s real; that’s indisputable. …

“We need to agree on where to put pressure. Our job is to make sure the city is going in the right direction.”

Burkland then said he expected to have all the revenue numbers by March and that the council could start discussing the shape of the budget then. Priorities can be developed now or then, he added.

Councilman Andy Holcombe was blunt: “I don’t share these priorities myself,” he said. “I don’t share the rankings. … I don’t see how one is more important than others.”

Adopting strict priorities now, he added, would reduce the council’s flexibility to respond to the complexities of the budgeting process.

Councilwoman Mary Goloff said she would like to plan separate meetings to discuss budget priorities. And Councilman Scott Gruendl warned that putting too much money in reserves could tempt the state to take some of it, and could also be “dangling bait in the [union] negotiating process.”

In the end, the council voted unanimously to table the item for further discussion, when staff returns with timelines for the upcoming special meetings.

“I need more information overall on where we’re going before I make a decision yea or nay” on priorities, Gruendl said.

In other council news: The council selected Larry Kirk, a retired chemistry professor and expert on environmental toxins (and husband of county Supervisor Maureen Kirk), to be the city’s representative on the Butte County Mosquito and Vector Control Board, succeeding Al Beck, who served 38 years. Kirk pledged not to stick around that long.

In choosing Kirk, the panel passed over organic farmer Mark Herrera, who sought to represent the interests of those who oppose pesticide fogging to control mosquitoes. Only Holcombe voted for him.

The council also selected Thomas Thomson to serve a one-year term on the Architectural Review and Historic Preservation Board. Thomson, an architect, is a Chico native (his father was Larry Thomson, who designed many schools and other public buildings in the area, including the council building) who lived in the St. Louis area for many years before returning to Chico.

Finally, I learned Wednesday morning that Sorensen has filed a complaint with the state Fair Political Practices Commission against Schwab, the city’s Sustainability Task Force that she chairs, and two of its members, Jon Stallman and Scott McNall. The complaint charges conflicts of interest in the awarding of contracts to Stallman and McNall, as outlined in our Dec. 15 Newslines story, “Charges fly over PG&E grant.”

Schwab is also targeted for voting to approve a $30,000 allocation to Chico State, her employer, to conduct a greenhouse-gas-emissions audit a couple of years ago.

In a phone interview, Sorensen said he was seeking clarification on whether conflicts exist. Told Schwab denies working for Chico State or the University Research Foundation—she’s employed by the Associated Students—Sorensen noted that she’s disqualified herself several times when Chico State was involved.

Asked about this, City Attorney Lori Barker said that elected officials always have the option to disqualify themselves if they’re unsure about a possible conflict. She also said that, while she didn’t believe STF members were subject to the state Political Reform Act when it was passed, things may have changed. She’s asked the FPPC for guidance, she said.

“Conflicts analyses are very complicated,” Barker explained, adding that she believes the Associated Students is a separate entity from the university.