City taking frugal course

Heeding a citizens’ oversight committee’s recommendation, the Chico City Council will likely take a comparatively frugal approach to redevelopment-area (RDA) funding when it adopts its biannual 2006-08 budget on June 20.

At its June 6 all-day budget workshop, the council considered an expensive list of items worth $50 million compiled by City Manager Greg Jones but ultimately opted for a stay-within-your-means approach.

The council’s Finance Committee (Larry Wahl, Andy Holcombe and Mayor Scott Gruendl) had recommended spending only $14 million for infrastructure improvements, which included $8.5 million in projects the citizens’ watchdog group considered fiscally prudent at this time. The $50 million in potential capital-project spending, if approved, would have resulted in a $24 million deficit.

After some wrangling, the council voted to cut down the $50 million to $6.5 million for fire hydrants, Highway 32 widening, and Eighth Street reconstruction plus $14 million for neighborhood infrastructure. Through Councilwoman Maureen Kirk’s insistence, parks projects received another $2.5 million, for a total of $23 million. The council set aside a much-publicized new police station worth $17 million and $7.5 million worth of improvements to the west side of the Chico Municipal Airport.

The approved projects and their costs would bring in a biannual 2006-08 redevelopment budget with a black bottom line. The funding would come from $19 million remaining from the $70 million redevelopment bond issued in 2005 plus anticipated tax money growth.

City Council members and the city manager act in a dual roles as the board of directors and executive director, respectively, of the 10,000-plus-acre RDA. It was the council/RDA board’s passage of the big bond debt last August without specific ideas about how to spend the money—plus the $4 million-plus for rebuilding Downtown Plaza Park—that created anxiety among the citizenry. Activists clamored for a watchdog committee. The council/board agreed but gave the committee only an advisory role.

At the June 6 meeting, Mark Sorensen, committee chairman, stressed the need for more transparency in the decision-making process.

“We note there is no public information on the status of previously funded projects, including dollars consumed and dollars required (including cost overruns) to complete those projects. There has been zero public information on current project status, and we hope to see a systemic change in the way capital projects are brought forth and selected for funding,” Sorensen said.

Most listed projects reflect the judgment of former City Manager Tom Lando, now a city redevelopment and special-projects consultant.

Committee member Barbara Reed urged the use of common sense. “Sensible prioritization should take precedence over politics,” she insisted. Common sense demanded the council select certain projects and set others aside because there simply isn’t enough money to cover all needs, she added.

Committee member Lon Glazner also noted the lack of transparency and called for public discussion. He then suggested the fiscally responsible route the council finally decided to take: Identify $19 million worth of projects based on the cash in hand by adding neighborhood infrastructure improvements to projects the committee earmarked.

Indeed, the city has moved to add transparency to the process. Public meetings in neighborhoods all over town will be organized and carried out by Fritz McKinley, city director of engineering, with the assistance of Kim Seidler, city planning director, and senior planner Claudia Stuart. These meetings will have no time limit to come up with a plan—a prioritized list of capital projects—to spend the new budget money.

Sorensen said he thinks such meetings are good but late. “Long ago there should have been far more detail on individual projects,” he pointed out. “The RDA directors went forward without enough of an information foundation.”

Further, the first edition of a slick new newsletter arrived in the mailboxes of all Chico residents June 9. Nearly all of the elaborate fold-out product is devoted to explaining redevelopment and touting its benefits.

The Chico RDA raises and budgets its own money—apart from city of Chico budgeting—through issuing 30-year bonds that are paid back through diverting property tax money generated within the RDA boundaries. This bond money is spent on capital-improvement projects that are supposed to eliminate urban blight. But over time, changes in state redevelopment law have allowed ever-more-creative definitions of blight, until, as Councilman Dan Herbert has said, the interpretation of blight now “is in the eye of the interpreter.” However, the money can’t be used for ongoing maintenance—to fill the potholes, for example, that cause so much motorist grumbling.