Heavy lifting

Chico council weighs warming center, toilets and climate change

City-run warming tents in Depot Park may well be replaced by an indoor site at the Jesus Center.

City-run warming tents in Depot Park may well be replaced by an indoor site at the Jesus Center.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Just how cold and dangerous does it have to get before the city will open its new warming center at night? That was one of the difficult questions the Chico City Council tried to solve at its lengthy meeting Tuesday evening (Feb. 19).

Council members praised City Manager Mark Orme and his staff for responding to a recent cold snap by erecting two emergency warming tents in Depot Park in just 24 hours. The rapid response was needed to protect homeless people from extreme cold weather.

However, the warming center isn’t cost-effective, Orme said, and the council needed to find another way to keep people from freezing to death.

The council also needed to establish the scope of the warming center. How cold it has to get outdoors was open to interpretation. The problem is that cold levels are subjective: Forty degrees on a foggy day can seem as cold as 32 degrees on a sunny day.

Orme presented four options, ranging from working with a nonprofit agency—he teasingly said he had one in mind—to a spendy option involving creation of a new fire captain position within the Fire Department.

As it turned out, the nonprofit agency was the Jesus Center. Its executive director, Laura Cootsona, told council members that the center’s dining hall would work well as a warming center. It has the added advantage of offering direct services there.

Councilman Karl Ory moved to approve the Jesus Center option and set the trigger temperature at 32 degrees. His motion passed, 6-1, with Sean Morgan dissenting.

Cootsona will need approval from her board of directors before the warming center can be developed. In the meantime, the city will continue to operate the Depot Park warming center in the event of extreme cold, as it did for the second time this past weekend.

In other news:

Council members received a lengthy oral report—based on a voluminous and data-rich written one—from Mark Stemen, chairman of the Sustainability Task Force (STF), outlining that body’s many accomplishments and continuing challenges.

When it comes to meeting the goals of the city’s Climate Action Plan, Stemen said, “Chico was on target to meet its previous goals, and then came the Camp Fire.”

Chico has proven, he said, that it can reduce its greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions, but fire is an ongoing threat. A vulnerability assessment included in the report noted that the number of fire-inducing extreme-heat days (over 104 degrees) had doubled from four to eight annually, and the forecast is that the number will continue to increase.

According to the STF report, the state of California recently adopted a new GHG target of 40 percent reduction of 1990 levels by 2030. The report recommends that the city adopt the statewide target and create a new Climate Action Plan to implement it. (The current plan only goes through 2020.) It also recommends that the STF be upgraded from its current, anomalous status as an advisory committee to become a full-fledged “standing” commission.

These recommendations were supported by nearly all of the dozen or so audience members who addressed the council. Eric Nilsson, the retired principal of Inspire School of Arts & Sciences, was one of them. “There is no better time to establish bold and visionary leadership,” he said.

Ultimately the panel voted, 4-3, with Councilmembers Ory, Morgan and Ann Schwab dissenting, to approve the first two recommendations but not to upgrade the STF to a full commission “at this time,” in Mayor Randall Stone’s words.

At Huber’s request, the council took up an issue with which it has been wrestling since 2015: public toilets open around the clock. In 2016, the city experimented with leaving City Plaza restrooms open 24/7, but the level of vandalism was intolerable, said Eric Gustafson, Public Works director-operations and maintenance.

Still, it was a valuable experiment, he said. His department learned, for example, that leaving the restrooms open did reduce the amount of human waste befouling downtown. The city subsequently changed the restrooms’ open hours from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week. This reportedly has given homeless people more opportunity to relieve themselves in the city’s restrooms.

There is general agreement, however, that around-the-clock restrooms are needed. Gustafson’s agenda report recommends that the city “identify funding for two portable restroom systems” and continue discussions with the Butte County Association of Governments for future grants to obtain a Portland Loo, a more sophisticated outdoor restroom.

Again, about a dozen people spoke to this matter. Nearly all agreed with the recommendations, but several felt they were overly focused on downtown when there was a similar need in other places. And two portables simply aren’t enough, they said.

One of them was Angel Gomez, of the Butte Environmental Council. More portables are needed, she said, “especially along waterways near homeless camps,” where human feces is getting into the creeks and posing a serious public health threat.

Council members voted, 5-2, to approve Gustafson’s recommendations, with Morgan and Kasey Reynolds dissenting. Where the portables will be sited remains to be decided.