Chico, meet Oroville

The county seat faces many similar problems as its northerly neighbor

Oroville City Hall is vastly understaffed, thanks to budget cuts and layoffs following the Great Recession.

Oroville City Hall is vastly understaffed, thanks to budget cuts and layoffs following the Great Recession.

PHOTO by TJ Whetstone

The Butte County Grand Jury recently reported that Oroville’s finances, while on the upswing, are in a bad state; it’s had a hard time holding onto city administrators; police are woefully understaffed and pay increases have left the city strapped for cash; across-the-board layoffs have left other departments similarly short-handed; and the homeless population has grown to a disruptive level.

If this sounds familiar to people in Chico, it should. This is nearly identical to the situation Chico faced just a year ago and continues to struggle with.

“The Grand Jury began this investigation because of various news articles and Oroville City Council meetings, where the discussion centered on the escalating cost of city police and fire,” reads the report, released last week. “… These problems had similarities to what the 2013-2014 Grand Jury discovered about the city of Chico. This was a potential red flag to hidden problems.”

Oroville, like Chico, is pulling itself out of a financial hole it got into thanks to the Great Recession and the dissolution of redevelopment agency (RDA) funds. While its deficit wasn’t quite as large as Chico’s—$2 million in 2013-14—it still posed a problem for the city. The then-city administrator (there have been six in the past five years) called for an 18.1 percent budget reduction in each department. Some positions went unfilled, the fire chief resigned to avoid layoffs in his department, and others lost their jobs. The severance, leave accrual, unemployment and other costs involved with laying people off ended up costing the city, however, to the tune of around $650,000.

“These added expenses brought about a second round of budget cuts and layoffs within the many areas of Oroville city government,” the report reads. “All of these budget cuts and layoffs are still in effect as the city begins to develop its proposed budget for 2015-2016.”

The preliminary budget was unanimously OK’d by the City Council June 16 and will go before the panel again July 7 for final approval. It calls for the hiring of several employees, most of them in the police department.

The city of Oroville does face a unique challenge that is about to come to a head: the annexation of Southside Oroville, which is expected to be fully completed in the next 30 days or so. (The annexation was proposed in two chunks, “Area A” being more urban and “Area B” more rural.)

The annexation, which includes 982 households in Area A and 162 in Area B, will increase the amount of services the city must provide. With departments already operating at well below full staff—there are three department heads who oversee six departments, for example—the city will have much reorganization to do in the coming months.

Perhaps the biggest department to be affected by the annexation is the Oroville Police Department, which is currently operating with 22 officers—the same number it had in 1973, the report points out. The fire department is likewise understaffed with just 12.5 personnel, meaning “there are only three firefighters on duty at any one time, which is the minimum number required by law.”

During the beginning stages of incorporation, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office has agreed to overlap services with the Oroville Police Department, Don Rust, acting city administrator, said by phone. “The county is not going to abandon us,” he said.

Both police and fire are now overseen by one public safety director, Bill LaGrone, since the fire chief resigned last year. During budget sessions with the City Council, he presented his proposed solution to the short-handed police force. It included creating a Municipal Law Enforcement Services unit made up of six community service officers.

“The MLE officers will be responsible for handling all misdemeanor crime, cold felony crime, vehicle thefts, vehicle recovery, parking enforcement, park and trail patrol, transient issues, information to citizens and all code enforcement issues,” reads the proposal LaGrone presented the council on May 19. (He could not be reached for comment by press time.)

The council approved LaGrone’s request for eight new MLE officers to be included in the 2015-16 budget, Rust said. In addition to the inclusion of Southside in the OPD’s service area, the local police also deal with vagrancy issues—code enforcement has removed 11,000 pounds of garbage left by homeless camps along Highway 162, the Grand Jury report reads.

The additional eight officers will not have arrest power and will not carry weapons. In an effort to further bolster the department, LaGrone has proposed a 1 percent sales tax increase that would benefit local public safety. The City Council has backed his proposal, Rust said, but they’ll return to that after the budget is finalized in July.