Bearing the cost

City approves disaster funds distribution—mainly for public safety, roads—and hears presentation on syringe program

Butte County Public Health Officer Dr. Andy Miller presents information on the efficacy of syringe access programs to the Chico City Council.

Butte County Public Health Officer Dr. Andy Miller presents information on the efficacy of syringe access programs to the Chico City Council.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

During a meeting that included the contentious topics of syringe access and 24-hour restrooms, the City Council also took a significant step toward addressing the impacts of the Camp Fire by allocating $3 million in one-time disaster-relief funding from the state.

Figuring out how to assess and respond to the aftermath of the wildfire has been at the forefront of City Manager Mark Orme’s mind since Nov. 8, he told the council on Tuesday (Oct. 1). He recommended spreading the funds across multiple departments to “get enough birds with these few stones as possible.”

His proposal ultimately was approved, 6-1, with Councilman Karl Ory against (he advocated to spend the $3 million on one project).

A significant portion of the money will go toward street repairs. Since the Camp Fire, the deterioration of Chico’s already neglected roadways has accelerated. A total of $825,000 will help patch up some of the rougher sections of the city and fixing congestion near the Federal Emergency Management Agency community in south Chico.

Most of the funding, however, will go to public safety, including a $1.5 million communication infrastructure upgrade. The current system is so outdated and unreliable, the city has experienced long outages, Information Systems Manager Josh Marquis told the CN&R.

Among the other funding directed to public safety was $200,000 for automatic license plate readers for police surveillance. The cameras take photos of license plates, scan a state database and alert police if a car is stolen or registered to a wanted person.

Other allocations were earmarked for increased operation costs at the city’s wastewater treatment plant and consultant services to help the city pursue grants.

Looking to the future, Orme estimated the city needs $290 million for infrastructure, taking into account deferred maintenance, as well as the impacts of a more than 20 percent population increase post-Camp Fire. He acknowledged there’s no revenue for such things.

Ory said the council must draft a plan to address the post-disaster state of affairs.

“This is the true cost of the disaster on us that we need to bear, and it’s going to take a whole bunch more than a $3 million grant from the state,” he said. “This should be more of a blueprint towards asking voters for an increase in both property taxes and sales taxes as a beginning point …”

Also at the meeting, Butte County Public Health officials voiced support for the syringe access and disposal program proposed for Chico by the Northern Valley Harm Reduction Coalition (NVHRC). Their reasons included mitigating the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C. Cases of the latter have increased rapidly in Butte County in the past five to six years, particularly among those ages 18 to 29. Such programs have not only been shown to reduce the rates of these diseases but also increase the number of referrals to drug treatment programs.

“[I]t’s pretty clear, just on the data, that this city, this county would benefit from a program that provides these services,” Public Health Officer Dr. Andy Miller said.

NVHRC’s application is awaiting approval and funding from the state Public Health Department. Although the City Council has no authority in this case, it sought the presentation from public health to better understand the concept and inform the public.

Councilman Sean Morgan expressed skepticism as to the program’s efficacy, and asked whether Miller meant that families and children playing on playgrounds also would benefit.

Miller replied that “we all benefit” with fewer instances of HIV and Hepatitis C. Public Health Director Danette York added that “if you take out humane side of it,” prevention saves money. It costs $90,000 to treat a person with Hepatitis C during their lifetime; $450,000 for someone with HIV.

Most members of the public spoke in favor, including neighbors of one of NVHRC’s proposed sites. NVHRC founding member Siana Sonoquie said the group is “really listening to the feedback of the community.” The organization already has been collecting used syringes and training agencies and the general public on how to use the overdose-reversing drug Narcan.

Those against were concerned about safety and increased litter. Public Health pointed out that studies have shown such programs do not increase needle litter in communities. The department will make the same presentation before the Butte County Board of Supervisors later this month. Miller recommended the city also reach out to NVHRC for more information about its proposal.

Many members of the public also addressed the council on the need for 24-hour public restrooms at the outset of the meeting, during business from the floor. In response, Orme said that the city would install two portable units downtown this week, one at the Transit Center and another at Depot Park. Both will be accessible 24 hours a day.

The council approved such an installation in this year’s budget cycle, with the intent to provide safe, sanitary places for the public—especially homeless individuals—to relieve themselves.

So why the delay? The Public Works Department’s facilities manager, the project lead, recently left, Erik Gustafson, director of operations and maintenance, told the CN&R.

As she advocated for the restrooms, Chico resident Nancy Wirtz put her money where her mouth was: she handed the city clerk a $10,000 check to support the effort. She told the council that people on the streets deserve to be treated with the same respect as the housed.

“Honestly, if you want good citizens, you have to treat people as citizens,” she said. “And that includes giving them bathrooms when they need it.”