Another long night

Council addresses array of items, including climate action, emergency shelter and budget

Chico Fire Chief Steve Standridge says it is significant that city staff is proposing adding a firefighter in the 2019-20 fiscal year.

Chico Fire Chief Steve Standridge says it is significant that city staff is proposing adding a firefighter in the 2019-20 fiscal year.

CN&R file photo

Sisarie Sherry lies awake at night contemplating dozens of what-ifs.

What if sea levels continue to rise, or if the permafrost melts? Without addressing climate change, those “ifs” become “whens,” Sherry told the Chico City Council Tuesday night (May 7). “When is the next fire going to roll through and destroy the next town?”

Sherry isn’t alone in her concerns. Alongside 18 others, many of them Chico State students, she called on the city to reconfigure the city’s Sustainability Task Force into a climate action commission with the same staff support as other city boards.

The majority of the panel replied in support, creating the seven-member body, which will be geared toward implementing the city’s Climate Action Plan and responding to its declaration of a climate emergency, made last month the same night a storm cut that meeting short (see “Nature speaks, council heeds,” Newslines, April 4).

That agenda item drew the most speakers of the night, even though the 2019-20 budget and emergency housing regulations also were on the docket.

When it came to the budget, Fire Chief Steve Standridge had good news to report for his department: City staff is proposing adding a firefighter.

“Without a doubt, staffing is my most critical need,” Standridge told the panel. That one position will bring daily staffing to 15, enough to operate an additional fire engine.

From Sept. 1 to Dec. 15 last year, Standridge utilized spare overtime funds to staff another fire engine. As a result, response time improved by 4 percent. That being said, Standridge reminded the council that 17 firefighters per day is ideal, and that was before 19,000 more residents settled in Chico after the Camp Fire.

Following the public safety theme, Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien also made a budget presentation. His department will add six officers—two will be grant-funded school resource officers (see “Back to school,” Newslines, Aug. 23, 2018). The remaining four, including one sergeant, will make up the Street Crimes Unit.

Those positions already have been created—the council voted in October to make the unit a permanent fixture, directing $186,000 in police overtime to pay for four academy recruits. The question remains, however, as to how their salaries will be funded. Administrative Services Director Scott Dowell said city staff has suggested using $350,000 from the waste-hauling franchise agreement funds, which the council originally earmarked for road improvements, and $350,000 from Chico PD overtime. The council will finalize the budget at its first meeting in June.

Like most agendas in the past several months, there was plenty for the council to cover. Perhaps the most contentious item of the night involved the adoption of state regulations crafted for cities that made shelter crisis declarations, as the council did late last year. It provides requirements for emergency housing facilities—such as tents, lofts, manufactured houses, mobile homes and cabins—related to drinking water, waste disposal, toilet and bath services and kitchen space, among other things.

Chico Housing Action Team (CHAT) volunteers showed up to advocate for the service provider’s tiny home community, Simplicity Village, planned for Notre Dame Boulevard.

Charles Withuhn, who has long championed the effort, told the city that the project is “enjoying very broad community support.” Four of the homes already have been built, and 16 financed, he said.

While Councilman Sean Morgan offered praise for CHAT, he criticized the state regulations. He argued that California always will have a homeless crisis, implying that the city would thus essentially establish permanent, substandard housing and attract more homeless people to the area. Chico’s declaration specifies an end date of June 30, 2021.

Mayor Randall Stone had the last word, speaking fervently in support. The median household income of Chico is $45,000, and the median home price is out of reach. The city’s lowest-income residents can’t afford base-level rent. That is, in part, because city fees for new development were historically the same for small and large homes, encouraging developers to build bigger.

“We couldn’t provide housing for our residents in this community before the Camp Fire,” he said. “We have to build for the entire community … that includes people that are making $800 a month and that includes people that are making $8 million a month.”

The vote to adopt the state regulations passed 5-2, with Morgan and Councilwoman Kasey Reynolds against.

In addition, it looks likely that the council’s meeting procedures could change, even if the length of its meetings does not. Morgan motioned to end the meeting at 10 p.m., just as the clock struck that hour. He and fellow conservative Reynolds were outvoted.

“I can’t imagine going to bed at 10 o’clock if we could go till midnight to address these issues that are so pertinent,” Stone said, reiterating the city’s need to address Camp Fire-related issues.

Morgan replied that while he understands the point, “when we’re going into closed session at midnight and doing personnel reviews or litigation … we’re not doing the public a good service.”

The council unanimously agreed to discuss several items at future meetings related to meeting protocol, including length, the timing of business from the floor and responses to pending litigation.

In other council news: The panel also reviewed the city’s Diversity Action Plan for the first time since 2013, and adopted goals. This includes increasing outreach to underrepresented groups, having departments make annual workforce diversity reports, and scheduling presentations from cultural groups.