Money on trees

City Council approves 2016-17 budget, funding for urban forest manager

In terms of the city’s budget priorities, trees have fallen by the wayside in recent years.

In terms of the city’s budget priorities, trees have fallen by the wayside in recent years.

Photo by Howard Hardee

Crunch the numbers:
Go to to view Chico's budget for fiscal year 2016-17.

It was messy, but the Chico City Council eventually completed its most important task during the panel’s regular meeting on Tuesday (June 21)—passing the budget for the coming fiscal year.

There were revelations along the way. Late in the evening, it came out that the city has much riding on two grants to help staff the police and fire departments. Earlier on, there was positive news regarding Chico’s trees: The city will have an urban forest manager for the first time since its sweeping budget cuts in 2013.

When the position is filled in the next couple of months, it will expand the tree crew from one to two workers, well short of the 11 employees who used to make up the Street Tree Division. It’s still a boost as the city works through a backlog of 800 to 1,000 calls for service on street trees, said Erik Gustafson, the city’s director of public works-operations and maintenance.

The budget also includes $75,000 in capital projects for street tree improvements and $30,000 for tree maintenance in Bidwell Park. “That will be a big shot in the arm,” he said.

Prior to the budget’s adoption, members of the public pleaded for further support of the city’s iconic urban forest. “This is an issue that strikes the very identity and livability of Chico,” said Charles Withuhn, founder of the group Chico Tree Advocates. He outlined a plan to hire five additional tree crew members at a total cost of $272,190.

His pitch wasn’t seriously entertained, however. Not this year.

Administrative Services Director Frank Fields painted a so-so picture of the budget outlook. For instance, a modest rise in projected sales tax revenue will be eaten up by the rising cost of personnel benefits, he said.

Overall, the city increased its total budget from about $109.7 million to $118.3 million. That encompasses a little less than $30 million in capital projects and an $88.4 million operating budget, including $43.6 million in employee salaries. Most of that is earmarked for public safety—$23 million to the Chico Police Department and $11.6 million to the Chico Fire Department.

And public safety was the evening’s most contentious issue. In 2014, the city secured the $5.3 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant, which created 15 new positions for the fire department. It was recently extended through January 2017, but the city won’t hear back on its application for a two-year extension until September.

Here’s the problem: The 2016-17 budget assumes the city will secure the SAFER grant extension, along with another $500,000 federal grant to help staff the Chico Police Department. And so, when Mayor Mark Sorensen made a motion to approve the proposed budget, his council colleagues balked. They didn’t see a backup plan should the grants fall through.

After Sorensen’s motion died on the floor without a second, Councilman Andrew Coolidge proposed delaying approval of the budget until the council’s first meeting in July. With extra time, city staff could come up with a fallback option, he said. The motion passed, 4-2, with Sorensen and Councilman Randall Stone dissenting. Councilwoman Tami Ritter said she wasn’t prepared to vote and abstained.

The budget discussion seemingly concluded, but then resurfaced during City Manager Mark Orme’s wrap-up report at the end of the meeting.

If the grant funding falls through, Orme explained, the city has about $900,000 socked away in a “compensated absences fund,” a reserve for paying out departing employees’ vacation accrual. That could be used as a one-time bailout, but it wouldn’t sustain current staffing levels into future years. Without an unforeseen cash infusion, the city likely would resort to a hiring freeze, or worse—layoffs of public-safety personnel.

“The backup plan isn’t pretty,” Orme said.

Apparently satisfied, the council circled back around. Stone made a motion to undo the council’s earlier action and approve the budget as proposed. It passed 4-3, with Coolidge and Councilwomen Ann Schwab and Reanette Fillmer casting the nay votes.