Council candidates on the issues

How they responded to the CN&R’s 10-part questionnaire

It would be easy to divide this year’s Chico City Council candidates into opposing camps. Some people have done so, labeling four of them as liberals and four as conservatives. And there’s some truth to the division.

But it ignores the individuality of the candidates and the non-partisan nature of the council. Longtime council watchers know that council members are unpredictable and are as wont to defy labels as embody them.

That’s certainly been true of the incumbents seeking reelection—disabled-rights attorney Andy Holcombe; CAVE executive Ann Schwab; and businessman Larry Wahl. And we assume it will be equally true of any challengers who get elected.

They are Mark Sorensen, a businessman and chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, running for the second time; Joe Valente, a businessman; Cynthia Van Auken, a retired teacher; Jim Walker, a physician’s assistant and member of the Parks Commission; and Ali Sarsour, a retail manager, chairman of the Human Resources Commission and president of the Interfaith Council.

We asked each of them to respond to a 10-part questionnaire. What you see here are their unedited response to the 10 questions. Our thanks to the candidates for their participation.

Should Chico grow up, out or both? Which general-plan land-use alternative do you favor?

Sorensen: Both. The housing market (the buyers, sellers and producers) should be allowed to fine-tune the ratio based upon demand and the costs to produce a range of desired housing types.

Schwab: The general-plan update presents us with a tremendous opportunity to sustain Chico’s values while we thoughtfully plan for our future. By choosing the best special planning areas from options B and C, such as North Chico, Diamond Match, and South Entler, and optimizing opportunity sites for infill, we will realize our needs for housing, jobs and recreation for the next 20 years.

Valente: Both. We definitely need to have a good mix of single-family homes and higher-density multi-family units. I prefer land use alternative B moving toward A. I like B because I feel that it best represents a good mix of housing uses. I like A since it has the most options for growth areas. I think it is important that we designate enough land for growth so that we do not impact housing costs and quality of life within the city.

Walker: I think most Chicoans want to live in a place that has a neighborhood feel and a sense of community and will be close to work and shopping. Some are more comfortable in a single-family home, and some will be comfortable in a setting more urban in appearance. Economics tell me the single-family home will be on a smaller lot to better accommodate our growing population. I favor land-use alternative B.

Sarsour: Both. It depends on the city’s ability to provide services.

Mark Sorensen

Van Auken: I would suggest that Chico will grow in both directions as the market indicates people’s choices. Knowing there will be at least 10 elections before 2030, and knowing councils have different personalities over time, I tend toward A or B because it would not be wise to limit the city for future needs.

Wahl: I believe that we need a mixture of land-use alternatives that place a greater emphasis on preserving existing neighborhoods than creating higher densities.

Holcombe: Both. I support mixed-use infill and public investment to stimulate development of transit corridors as places to live, work, and play. Outward growth must also be sensibly planned for, so single-family homes remain part of our city’s commitment to a range of housing types and choices.

If further city budget cuts are needed, where would you make them?

Sorensen: The Police Department is the last place. We need to give departments financial goals and give them the trust and responsibility to meet the goals. You cannot effectively micromanage such a large organization by committee. This has been well demonstrated.

Schwab: The city can become more efficient while not reducing essential services of public safety, streets and parks. The city could save 20 percent from our fall leaf pick-up program by working collaboratively with commercial yard debris generators to identify limited drop-off sites, increasing the city’s efficiency while still providing this valuable service.

Valente: First I would not make any cuts to the Police and Fire departments’ staffing. I would continue to work with all unions to reduce increases in pay until a time that we can get a budget that is not operating in the red. I would cut out any spending that is not providing services to the citizens, like consultants, surveys, art projects, etc. Some of these are good services; however, in this economic time we must cut back and ensure that our cuts are not affecting the quality of life in Chico. The budget cuts that are to come will take a significant amount of time and effort to accomplish, and there is no simple answer to where they will come from, but we must be responsible and reassure the taxpayers that we are doing everything possible to be creative and thoughtful in our solutions.

Walker: It is important for me to enter the delicate issues regarding future budget cuts with an open mind. I have not had a chance to talk with all parties. I am very encouraged by the bargaining groups’ willingness to work with city staff during this difficult time. What they are doing is nothing short of heroic in my eyes. We need to maintain our “essential services,” of course.

Sarsour: We need to review the budget as a whole, then each department’s priorities, then construct a priority list.

Van Auken: I would not suggest budget cuts without going over the budget from each department first.

Wahl: I support a hiring freeze, a two-tiered salary and retirement system with new employees earning less, hiring out services to contractors where possible and reducing employee positions. I would post what the city spends online and place decisions on bonds, including redevelopment agency bonds, before the voters.

Holcombe: The underlying issue is “how”; i.e., what process would I use to determine where to make cuts. It would be a department-by-department process, not across-the-board cuts. Maintaining public safety is a guiding principle in that process.

Ann Schwab

Under what circumstances would you support an increase in the sales tax?

Sorensen: I cannot foresee a set of circumstances at this time that would cause me to support such a regressive tax and drag on our local economy. Plus, the City Council cannot pass a sales-tax increase. Only the voters can pass a sales-tax increase.

Schwab: I do not support a sales-tax increase. After uncovering a $56 million, 10-year deficit, this council made tough decisions to cut operating budgets and adopt a strong economic-development plan resulting in a current budget that has a positive cash flow for the next six years that will only improve with continued efficiencies and sustainability measures.

Valente: Never.

Walker: Every one of us has the capability to help our local economy in a substantial way simply by shopping here in town and avoiding Internet sales, especially during the Christmas season. When we shop locally, we build a sense of community, support local business and through sales-tax revenues help fund our services such as police, fire and parks. A sales-tax increase would be a last resort and would require a vote of the people.

Sarsour: We need to establish a minimum line for police and fire protection, as well as other services. If our revenues go under this line, and automatic sales-tax increase should be started.

Van Auken: When the average per-capita income of Chico residents and the average of city employees are more nearly aligned, then I might consider an increase in the sales tax. With those averages being under $50,000 for citizens and over $115,000 for city employees, it will be a while before that gap is closed.

Wahl: Passing a regressive tax that has disproportionate impacts on lower-income families is not the solution to the city’s financial problems.

Holcombe: When the public asks for it. I support considering a sales-tax increase as a budget tool for the city. It is responsible fiscal planning to consider all potential solutions. I can’t impose a tax. That tool could be used only if the public voted to do so.

Do you support possible changes in the Greenline?

Sorensen: The Greenline was created to preserve prime agricultural land and was intended to be reviewed every five years. Yes, a quarter-century later it is in need of minor adjustment. Bell-Muir is one such area. Viable ag uses have waned, and we can achieve more efficient land use with better planning.

Joe Valente

Schwab: It is critical to conserve the prime agricultural lands on our west side, which contribute to related agribusinesses that are crucial to our economic stability and special quality of life. If there are substantial public benefits of converting that land, and there is strong county and city leadership, I would consider limited adjustments in the Bell-Muir area.

Valente: Yes, I think the Greenline must stay, but there are areas that are past the Greenline that are no longer viable agricultural land and must be considered for potential growth areas.

Walker: I am very respectful of the Greenline and appreciate what it has done since its inception. If there was ever a time to at least take a look at it, it would seem reasonable to do so during the general-plan update. I may not favor any changes, but it is worth a look.

Sarsour: The Greenline is in the county. Any discussion of the Greenline should be part of a package deal with the county that includes other areas as well.

Van Auken: It appears some of the Bell-Muir area is outside of the green zone. If that area is not productive, I would possibly approve a change. The city has to take into consideration that development can be approved by the county. The city should not allow itself to be used like it has in areas such as the Avenues. People new to the area wonder why the city can’t provide sidewalks in the city, not knowing the area is county.

Wahl: No.

Holcombe: Yes. Bringing in the Bell-Muir area, for example. That area was historically zoned for anticipated future urban development. It furthers the general-plan concept of compact urban form to grow out there.

Do you support the city’s greenhouse-gas reduction goals?

Sorensen: Most but not all. The city’s work plan includes adding a city gas tax, mandatory home energy audits, garbage tax, and putting a small contingent of police on bicycles when we are understaffed and unable to quickly respond to genuine emergencies, and have other issues that need our resources.

Schwab: I whole-heartedly support reducing our 2005 emissions levels by 25 percent by 2020. As the chair of the Sustainability Task Force, I will provide leadership to change current behaviors and the vision to incorporate smart planning principles in our general-plan update. We can collaboratively develop programs and initiatives that will distinguish Chico as a leader in sustainable efforts.

Valente: I think that we should do everything we can to reduce our emissions, so, yes, I support the goals. How we reach those goals is the real question, and we must make certain that by striving for the GHG reductions we do not put too much of a burden on businesses and homeowners.

Walker: I need to look at the specific goals, but considering the global environmental issues, I am sure I would support them. I have been a bicycle commuter for more than 40 years. We can be much more efficient in our use of resources. We can all do more to reduce our carbon footprint.

Jim Walker

Sarsour: Yes.

Van Auken: If that means everyone should live on top of each other and walk or ride bikes everywhere, then, no, I don’t support it.

Wahl: I have supported reducing greenhouse gases by voting for a less polluting city vehicle fleet. I also voted to use solar power at the city sewer plant and on the downtown parking structure.

Holcombe: Yes. Measuring the city’s threshold carbon footprint and setting future reduction goals are essential to sustainable urban planning. Essential to a sustainable way of life. Essential to sustaining not just our community, but also the planet we belong to.

Do you support development-impact fees to offset air pollution?

Sorensen: No. We already received nationwide recognition for having particularly unaffordable housing. We have enough of a housing affordability problem without adding more taxes and bureaucratic costs to the creation of housing. Particularly at this point in time when the housing market is stagnant.

Schwab: New development should fully mitigate its impact on our community. I’d explore a flat charge per unit plus a fee based on square-footage, giving an incentive to those living in smaller homes. These fees could be used to fund safe-routes-to-school programs or provide woodstove replacement rebates.

Valente: No. I think it puts too much of the burden on new-home buyers, who will be the ones paying for these impact fees in the end.

Walker: I do not know much about developer impact fees to offset air pollution. I don’t know how they work or what the net gain would be to our city. We need to be very careful in what we are trying to achieve when we talk about any kind of fee imposition. New development certainly needs to pay its own way in regards to demand for city services.

Sarsour: Yes.

Van Auken: No.

Wahl: I do not support applying a new tax to housing to reduce greenhouse gases, nor do I support Ann Schwab’s sustainability group’s recommendation for a local gas tax to pay for carbon reduction. The cost of housing and price of gasoline are too high already.

Ali Sarsour

Holcombe: Yes. Regional air-quality standards require mitigating or reducing air pollution through urban planning. It is a development impact that cannot and should not be ignored.

Would you support making the mayor’s post a four-year, elected position?

Sorensen: Possibly. Though once again, this is not an action that the City Council can take. This would require the voters to approve a change to the City Charter.

Schwab: While an elected mayor would result in a mayor with a citywide support base, s/he might be at odds with the council majority. It’s important to me to serve with council members who welcome civil conversations on hard issues and respect one another’s opinions. I’m open to hearing the community’s thoughts on this new approach.

Valente: No. I think that the current system is good and allows the council to self-regulate.

Walker: No. Our current system of a strong city manager works well.

Sarsour: I need to do more research on the topic.

Van Auken: No.

Wahl: The makeup of the council changes every two years, and each new council chooses one of their number to preside over their meetings as mayor. I see no reason to change that system.

Holcombe: Uncertain. Would need to know the fiscal impacts, and how it might affect the responsiveness of local governance. Having council members represent districts, as opposed to all elected citywide, is another interesting alternative concept to explore.

Do you support construction of a new downtown parking structure? If so, how soon?

Cynthia Van Auken

Sorensen: Yes. After the current efforts to better manage existing downtown parking inventory, and increased efforts to get CSU, Chico to minimize, manage and mitigate its parking demands upon our downtown have played out, and if we continue to have a level of parking that stifles capital investment into our downtown.

Schwab: As an avid bicycle commuter, I think we could find more creative solutions to a perceived parking problem than spending more than $20,000 per parking space for a parking structure. Increasing bus route frequency or initiating a downtown/university trolley system would not only be less expensive, it would also reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions.

Valente: Yes I do, but I think we need to be innovative about how we fill up the structure. We need to work with the university to enable student and faculty parking in its current structure and possibly in the new structure. The city streets hold too much of a burden of the university parking, and if we can alleviate that by leasing spots to the university we could have a significant improvement in our parking situation. Given the current financial problems within the city, I would say that we should build a parking structure as soon it’s financially responsible to do so.

Walker: I have opposed construction of the proposed new parking structure primarily because of its location. It would have been built on a parking lot that is rarely full and disrupted a traditional farmers market. I would consider a parking structure farther south downtown, with the idea to encourage new, exciting business to improve the downtown experience.

Sarsour: We need to do a comprehensive plan on downtown. What is it going to be in 10 to 15 years? A parking structure should be part of a transportation study that includes buses, bicycles, walking and other methods of getting to downtown. That will give us a better idea if we need a parking structure, how big, what location, etc. We need to start to work on this plan as soon as possible.

Van Auken: I think the university should be encouraged to provide more campus parking for students. I have never gone into the current parking structure and not been able to find a space except on special-event occasions. I have even been in it when I was nearly the only car, so I would not be in favor at this time.

Wahl: Yes. Most people agree that there is a need for a new parking structure, so it makes sense to add it to our capital-improvement projects. When we can solidify the financial resources to complete the project, we should build it. Delaying a needed project only makes it cost more.

Holcombe: I support the consensus downtown plan. That plan has established triggers of parking utilization rates (85 percent) coupled with fiscal analysis of alternatives to reduce car trips before moving forward with a municipal parking structure. I support working with the university now for it to create more parking.

What could Chico do to be more business-friendly?

Sorensen: Do a better job of planning places to locate employers. Streamline our overly bureaucratic, expensive, time-consuming and uncertain approval process. Chico’s reputation is known for being all these things. Let’s truly work to move our county up from the third-worst per-capita income in the state.

Schwab: The city’s role in creating a healthy business culture is achieved by identifying adequate acreage and ideal, optimum locations for industrial, retail and office space through the general-plan update process, offering predictability in the planning process, efficiency in the permit process and continually offering a desirable quality of life through superior public safety, streets, parks and community services.

Valente: Reduce impact fees so that we are more competitive with surrounding cities and make our processes within the city predictable. This city is known for being a very tough city to get anything done in, and it starts with staff and goes all the way to the council. It is a mentality that has cost this city dearly, and it is really a fundamental change in the mind-set that needs to be made to show businesses that we are serious about wanting them to bring jobs to our city.

Larry Wahl

Walker: I have been meeting with local business leaders to try to find answers to that question. I met with the city’s economic development coordinator and representatives of CEPCO and Tri-Counties economic development. We need a concerted effort, especially at this time in our nation’s economy, to promote our existing local business. Showing support to existing businesses will help attract new business to Chico.

Sarsour: Educate business about the resources and the limitation of what is available to them; engage business in dialogue about what is possible in the long-range plan so there will be no false expectation and disappointment.

Van Auken: The Chico VW dealership expansion is an example of an unfriendly business environment. The legal cost and the cost of delays for material goods can be overwhelming. Impact studies should include economic impacts, which are ultimately more important to the people than snake and meadowfoam habitats. Sustainability is about the environment, society, and economics. Legal costs and time delays merely add to the cost of doing business, which in the end means the consumer has to pick up the tab.

Wahl: I support adding research-park zoning to the general plan, especially because there is an economic boom growing in research and development of alternate energy sources. Chico should be ready to attract those good jobs and clean businesses.

Holcombe: Don’t fix what isn’t broken. Business investment takes place in Chico in part because of the way we are now. The city has prioritized economic development and incorporated economic development strategy in all planning decisions. Consistency of the city’s response through transparent long-range planning keeps us business friendly.

Are police resources being used effectively to keep Chico safe?

Sorensen: Yes. And I believe that our Police Department is continually searching for better methods and tools to accomplish their various missions.

Andy Holcombe

Schwab: Considering the limited resources available and increases in population, the women and men of the Chico Police Department are doing an incredible job. With 12 unfilled positions, officers are working overtime, committed to serving Chico. I did not support a 7.5 percent cut to public safety and will work to find resources to ensure our streets and neighborhoods are safe.

Valente: The Police Department’s resources are dwindling; they are understaffed and out of space. I believe that they are doing the best possible job considering the circumstances this city has put them in. If we continue to cut their staffing at the same time crime levels are on the rise and our population is growing, we can only naturally expect a decrease in service.

Walker: The Police Department is doing a very good job given our recent budget cuts. I would like to be able to provide more resources to combat local gang issues. Keeping Chico safe is a community issue and a community responsibility.

Sarsour: I do not have enough information now to make a good judgment. In the next year the city manager has to review all the departments, including the Police Department, and report to the council. The City Council has to be careful not to micromanage every single operation of the city; that’s the city manager’s job.

Van Auken: I do not know the answer to this question because I don’t know all of the resources available to the police.

Wahl: The reduced police resources are being deployed very effectively. When the council majority voted to cut 14.5 police positions to balance the budget, the Police Department was put under severe strain and the community in jeopardy. The near riot recently demonstrates why we must add more police immediately.

Holcombe: Our resources are being used effectively. Chico is still a special place to live, work and play, but we are past the point of doing more with less. The issue to solve is increasing our public-safety resources to meet the demands of properly servicing a growing community.