Housing and public safety

Council approves budget and formation of Street Crimes Unit—schedules housing conference

Marin Hambley reads from more than 200 cards compiled by community members, urging the council to fund social services rather than increase the Chico Police Department’s budget.

Marin Hambley reads from more than 200 cards compiled by community members, urging the council to fund social services rather than increase the Chico Police Department’s budget.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Local real estate agent Brandi Laffins believes the city’s housing crisis could be alleviated by focusing on supply and demand.

“Prices are out of control and I really do believe that’s because we just don’t have enough housing,” Laffins, president of Sierra North Valley Realtors, told the City Council at its meeting Tuesday (June 4). “We have clients that are living in two-bedroom apartments that can afford $3[00,000] to $400,000 homes but they can’t find them.”

If those homes become available, their apartments will then be freed up to lower-income renters who currently can’t compete when property managers are approving leases, she continued.

That was just a small part of the broader conversation about housing that night, as the council discussed how to proceed post-Camp Fire. The panel unanimously voted to move forward on creating a city housing task force to discuss policy, and also directed Councilmen Scott Huber and Karl Ory to organize a housing conference for the council and community. Progress will be reported back to the panel within 90 days.

That item brought out the most speakers of the evening, just over a dozen, including developers.

Most, like Laffins, spoke in favor of diving into the topic. Some added a caveat, warning that the council should ensure all parties are brought to the table.

Kate Leyden, executive director of the Chico Builders Association, said any policy created from these discussions should consider production of all types of housing, including affordable market rate and affordable subsidized, and should “include the people who work in the industry, the ones who understand that market,” such as land developers, builders and real estate agents.

“The key to all of this is that people understand the facts of building,” she said.

Huber, who proposed the conference, said he’d certainly invite representatives from the real estate and builders groups, as well as the North Valley Property Owners Association.

In general, his idea is to create an event that helps the city “move forward in the most productive way” and understand its “full range of options” when it comes to housing, geared toward how the city can facilitate the creation or availability of housing for very low- to moderate-income families, renters and entry-level home buyers.

Also that night, the council unanimously passed the budget, but not without outcry from community members, particularly when it came to the Chico Police Department’s budget. It increased by $1.2 million from last fiscal year and makes up most of the general fund’s operating budget, at approximately $26 million of $49.7 million (the Fire Department is next on the list, at $13 million). The council chose to continue funding for a Street Crimes Unit it brought back last year, a decision that essentially will pay for that team year-round.

During public comment, Marin Hambley approached the dais with a string of more than 200 cards. Hambley, a member of the Justice for Desmond Phillips advocacy group, explained that all of the cards had suggestions as to how the city could better spend that enormous budget, namely on housing and mental health initiatives. This included suggestions of low-barrier homeless shelters, 24-hour public restrooms, storage lockers and trauma-informed police training.

“It doesn’t help our unhoused community to police them. It doesn’t help our mentally ill to police them. It helps them to get resources,” Hambley said. “Instead of funding a permanent street crimes unit, fund a permanent crisis care advocacy and triage unit.

“We are asking that you reconsider the budget and redirect some of those resources towards things that will actually support the most vulnerable, the most at-risk in our community.”

Most of the council spoke in favor of buoying the police department further—it has been the most supported in the past six years, growing by 14 1/2 positions since 2013 (five grant-funded), according to City Manager Mark Orme. Huber defended the council’s position to expand the police force, saying that with the increased population of Chico, “we need a level of protection out there that meets the level of crime.” Councilwoman Ann Schwab added that it’s “very significant” the city has established the unit, and Orme praised the council for its desire to see that to fruition.

Ory, the only critic, said he came close to voting nay because the budget is “not truly balanced” if the city is taking $350,000 per year from its $800,000 waste hauling franchise agreement to fund an expansion in the police department.

Orme replied that “candidly, if we had any other options, I would use them.”

“I think we gave the public the illusion we can staff with our existing budget,” Ory added. “We can’t continue to steal from one department to fund another.”

During the budget discussion, Orme mentioned other highlights, such as the addition of a firefighter, which previously were reported in the CN&R. What was new Tuesday was the decision to modify the budget to hire an additional full-time code enforcement officer, rather than a part-timer.

Ory made a point to inquire “hypothetically” as to how the city would pay for an expensive special election, clearly a reference to the recall effort underway for his and Mayor Randall Stone’s seats. Orme responded that it’d “most likely” come from city reserves.

After the meeting, City Clerk Debbie Presson confirmed that the proposed recall petition was submitted on Tuesday, and said she will work with the City Attorney’s Office over the next 10 days to ensure its legal compliance before it can be circulated.

Also of note, the council decided to abandon its previous decision to set an earlier meeting start time.