Drop in the bucket
As City Council considers how to spend $4.8 million, debate arises on funding library
As the Chico City Council deliberated on Tuesday (March 3) how to spend $4.8 million in carryover funds from last fiscal year, the most contentious expense was a relative drop in the bucket—$25,000 to help the Chico branch of the Butte County Library maintain its current hours of operation through the end of the year.
In June, it became apparent that the city’s cost-cutting measures, in addition to increased sales and property tax revenues, had created a surplus for fiscal year 2014-15, though that’s still in the context of the city’s $7.8 million general fund deficit. In an email to the CN&R prior to the meeting, Mayor Mark Sorensen explained that the council was “not in a hurry to allocate the funds until we had a better sense of what the current year would look like.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, city staff presented the council with three options, two of which would direct varying amounts toward the deficit and other pressing one-time needs, such as an assessment of the city’s streets, LED street lights and monitoring equipment for City Hall. The third option was to contribute the bulk of the surplus to debt repayment.
Included in the first two options was additional funding for the library, which each council member spoke of as a vital community resource. They shared some concerns as well—namely fairness, considering the multitude of arts groups and community organizations previously accustomed to receiving city funding that were cut off in 2014.
“It’s been my contention for years that library funding should come to us to be reviewed with other community organizations,” said Councilwoman Ann Schwab.
Councilwoman Tami Ritter also questioned how the $25,000, on top of $75,000 the city has directed toward the library this year, and given the city’s long history of supporting the county-run library, could be considered a one-time expense.
“We’re saying this is one-time funding, so where does this leave the library next year if we approve [funding] this year?” she asked.
City Manager Mark Orme explained that he included library funding among the recommended one-time expenditures because he believes it’s valuable in terms of public safety, the council’s No. 1 priority, because it provides a positive environment for people who don’t have a place to go and a means of finding work for the unemployed.
Ritter motioned to adopt the option that represented a middle ground between addressing one-time expenses and paying down the city’s debt, with the caveat that, in the future, the library gets funding consideration alongside all other community organizations that apply.
The motion passed with a 6-to-0 vote (Councilman Randall Stone, who lives near the library, recused himself from the discussion), thereby directing $25,000 to the library, $2.45 million toward the general fund deficit and about $500,000 to preapproved projects. The council didn’t earmark the entire sum, as $1.2 million will carry over to the 2015-16 general fund balance.
In other council news, the panel shared its chambers with the Airport Commission on Tuesday as the city attempts to attract an airline to replace SkyWest, which stopped serving Chico in December due to poor sales and maintenance and fuel costs.
In the wake of SkyWest’s departure, the city formed an Airline Attraction/Feasibility Committee. Its findings were presented by Katie Simmons, president and CEO of the Chico Chamber of Commerce, who said that there’s a clear need for a manager of the Chico Municipal Airport.
Orme echoed that sentiment, adding that city staff doesn’t have the time and energy to “turn the airport into the enterprise it’s supposed to be.” Currently, only one member of city staff is dedicated to overseeing administrative duties at the airport, he said.
Vice Mayor Sean Morgan provided a summation: “Assets produce revenue, and our airport doesn’t,” he said. “I think it could, and that would be fantastic … but I don’t think we have the local expertise to make that happen. I know we don’t have the staff that has the time to make that happen.”
To that end, the city sought outside help by posting a request for proposal, drawing only one response—from airport management company AvPORTS, which oversees the operations of 14 airports on the East Coast. Despite comments from several longtime tenants of the airport concerned with how the company’s management will affect existing lease agreements, the council voted unanimously to pay AvPORTS $190,000 to manage the airport through Dec. 31.