Ending secrecy

Jesus Center property negotiations emerge from closed session

The City Council finally returned to the council chambers this week after the completion of technology upgrades and renovations.

The City Council finally returned to the council chambers this week after the completion of technology upgrades and renovations.

As City Councilman Randall Stone walked out of the newly renovated council chambers on Tuesday (April 17), he told this reporter, “We’re absent for the meeting.”

He was referring to closed session, and the orchestrated walkout of three members—Karl Ory, Ann Schwab and himself—in what appeared to be a protest to a private discussion of the city’s potential sale of 3.5 acres on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway to the Jesus Center.

The venture has been criticized—by this newspaper and others—for a lack of transparency, and reached a stalemate last week over the sale versus lease of the land (see “Staying or going?” Newslines, April 12).

The walkout appeared to achieve its desired effect: Since the council needs five members to approve any sale of property, this left the remaining members unable to move forward. Now, the property negotiations will be conducted in open session, according to a City Attorney Vince Ewing.

“It took three council members to walk out of closed session to bring them to their senses,” Ory told the CN&R. He had made a request earlier in the meeting to remove the discussion from closed session.

In a strange twist, during his closed session report, Ewing reported multiple votes made Tuesday night, and offered more detail on what happened at the last closed session meeting on April 3: “an inadequate number of votes were obtained because the charter requires five votes for the sale of property.” This is contradictory to what was reported at the last meeting by Assistant City Attorney Andrew Jared: that direction was provided, with no action (i.e., vote) taken.

In other news, budget season has returned, with the first of four presentations led by Administrative Services Director Scott Dowell and other department heads.

Perhaps the darkest cloud on the horizon continues to be the city’s debt to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System: Last year, the city paid $6.5 million to CalPERS for its share of employee benefits. Next budget year, it will be $7.6 million. By 2024, the cost is projected to double.

“It’s staggering. That’s why the five-year projection [presentation on May 15] is going to be so important for us to start paying attention to moving forward,” Dowell said.

The city can’t pull out of CalPERS without having to pay the full liability of about $120 million, plus penalties, Dowell said. Agencies that have stopped making payments have seen retirees suffer, losing as much as 30 percent of their income, he noted.

During discussion from the dais, Councilman Mark Sorensen commented that this is not even the worst-case-scenario projection from CalPERS. “If we look back at some of their forecasts five years ago, their accuracy leaves something to be desired.”

Dowell further explained the impact by relating it to the general fund: Right now, the payment is about 19 percent of the general fund revenue, but it will quickly leap to 27 percent.

The only silver lining is that the city set up a CalPERS unfunded liability fund last year, which, if the proposal of adding $540,000 in this budget is approved, will have a total of $2.45 million by June 2019. It has also made progress with getting employees to pick up more of their retirement contributions, though these have come with other benefits to those employees, making it cost-neutral.

Staff is also proposing adding some positions: an administrative services information technician, public works assistant engineer, police dispatcher (to reduce overtime expenses) and police school resource officer (with two-thirds funding from Chico Unified School District).

Also at the meeting:

• Schwab requested the city explore a partnership that could garner more funding for public restrooms, whether it be to open more locations or extend restroom hours. It was shot down 3-4, with Mayor Sean Morgan, Vice Mayor Reanette Fillmer and Councilmen Sorensen and Andrew Coolidge against.

“We’ve been down this road before,” Morgan said. “We did it across the street [at the City Plaza] and it was an unmitigated disaster.” He said he’d prefer the city find a place where it could not be abused, and discuss the matter in concert with the Jesus Center consolidated services concept.

• City staff will return to the Internal Affairs Committee with information about the failures and successes of syringe-exchange programs in other cities, a request made by Stone and unanimously approved by the council. “I know we have an errant syringe problem in this community,” Stone replied. “I don’t see tin cans on the street, and there’s a reason for that, so perhaps there’s something we can do.”

• The Chico Museum, which closed temporarily last fall and was brought back by volunteers as the Chico History Museum, was granted a five-year lease with the city (see “Almost history,” Newslines, April 5).

• Chico First and Chico Friends on the Street members returned to make impassioned pleas to the council, but largely avoided taking jabs at one another. Chico First members spoke heavily about keeping Chico “beautiful, clean and safe” and enforcement of camping laws while CFOTS members encouraged the city to focus on housing and stop criminalizing homelessness.