Other notable stories
The best of the rest of what made headlines in 2018
Just before Christmas 2017, Butte County staff revealed shocking news that, due to a significant clerical error, local municipalities needed to repay $2.3 million to the state of California.
An audit revealed that Butte County over-disbursed more than $6.4 million in vehicle licensing fees since 2008, leaving local cities on the hook to repay a portion of the debt over the next few years.
Naturally, local government employees were taken aback, as they were already trying to figure out how to plan for skyrocketing pension costs and other budget shortfalls.
The city of Chico alone had planned to pay back $400,000 this year, and then in September, California Controller Betty Yee delivered some unexpected, but not unwelcome, news: they’d been granted a reprieve, canceling the debt.
Couplet (finally) completed
In September, the city of Chico closed the book on the final stage of construction on the First and Second Street Couplet project. The capstone: stacked red-brick retaining walls complete with two pillars and attractive wrought-iron fencing, including a giant decorative oak leaf, in the roundabout just outside the CN&R’s front doors.
The price tag: $378,000—from monies earmarked specifically for transportation projects.
Recall that construction began way back in 2012. The main work was to transform First Street and a portion of Second Street into one-way corridors, running west and east, respectively. The goal: enhancing traffic flow and pedestrian and bicycle travel, and making both safer.
But work abruptly stopped the next summer, leaving the corner of Second and Flume streets with a barren dirt roundabout. Also devoid of landscaping were the city-owned strips of land surrounding it. And that’s what those of us at the CN&R looked upon for five full years.
Needless to say, we’re happy the project is finished.
New fire chief: ‘understaffed'
At the end of January, Chico hired its fifth fire chief since 2008: Steve Standridge, who hailed from Colorado, where he served for 23 years with the South Metro Fire Rescue Authority outside of Denver. Immediately, he saw a department in peril. After having lost a grant that funded 15 firefighters, his predecessor had been forced to lay off employees and close two stations.
The city’s emphasis on law enforcement has resulted in significant funding for the police force, and Standridge was able to convince the City Council to boost his budget a bit this past year. His goals, as he related them to the CN&R a few months into his tenure, are to increase the Chico Fire Department staffing to a minimum of 17 firefighters on duty per day—the current minimum is 14. In the days following the deadly Camp Fire, he began to beat his drum louder.
“This is not just unsustainable, it is unsafe, inefficient, and a liability for the city,” he tweeted Nov. 29, after noting that his firefighters were fatigued and overworked and that his department was “dangerously understaffed.”
Counselors hit the streets
In February, the Chico City Council approved a memorandum of understanding between the Police Department and Butte County Behavioral Health to establish a two-person mobile crisis unit to respond to calls that involve mental illness.
While this was considered a coup for crisis intervention advocates, it also drew criticism, mainly for the fact that the unit is available only during the day—8 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Critics charged that the team was most needed at night, when Behavioral Health staff is not available to respond to incidents.
In September, Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien reported that the collaboration had been very successful thus far, having responded to 194 incidents. This contributed to the county’s decision to implement its own mobile crisis team in the fall to work with the Sheriff’s Office in southern Butte County.
Coming to terms
Chico City Councilman Mark Sorensen prompted a major change in the city charter during his last year in office.
Early in the year, the two-term councilman made the pitch to limit members of the panel to three consecutive terms—12 years. Those on the right side of the dais (read: the three other conservatives) took his lead and put that question to voters during the general election via Measure S.
Both Chico newspapers—this one and the Chico Enterprise-Record—urged readers to vote no for obvious reasons. First off, there’s already an established way for the body republic to enact term limits: via the ballot box. And second, we appreciate it when candidates are experienced.
Perhaps representative of the country’s political repulsion, locals voted in favor of the measure, 69.17 percent. The fine print: It’s not retroactive.
No, really, it's free
It was a good year to pursue a college education.
Recognizing the significant barriers students face when it comes to paying for higher education, Butte College set out to grant two semesters of free tuition and fees for first-time, full-time students starting this past fall, through its Butte College Promise Program.
To kick-start the effort, Ken Grossman, founder of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., and his wife, Katie Gonser—both alums of Butte College—contributed $1 million, the largest donation in the community college’s history. Better yet, the donation founded the Grossman Family Promise Scholarship Endowment, which will continue to fund the effort.
Sustainability programs at both Chico State and Butte College took hits this year, with the dissolution of the Institute for Sustainable Development and the Sustainability Resource Center, respectively. The former lost its longtime director, Jim Pushnik, to retirement, and the latter’s leader, Yvette Zunigh, resigned and was not replaced. Both had been around since 2007.
Funding was the cited reason for both campuses’ decisions: Enrollment at Butte College has been dropping, and so has its Associated Students funding, and Chico State cited concerns about its budget.
Both colleges reaffirmed a commitment to sustainability in different ways—at Butte College, officials said they will spread their focus on sustainability across departments, and at Chico State, institute staff members were transferred to Facilities Management and Services or the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative (and only some chose to stay). The latter department will now direct Chico State’s annual This Way to Sustainability conference.
Can't keep a good gallery down
By spring 2017, the 1078 Gallery had gone through three homes and survived as an art space in Chico for 36 years. When it was booted from its expansive digs at 820 Broadway due to disagreements with the owner over its live-music programming, it was just another obstacle for the enduring nonprofit to overcome. The gallery was homeless for about a year as it searched for a new building. In the interim, the organization put on pop-up shows around town until it finally opened its fourth location at 1710 Park Ave.
The August debut started with a soft-opening performance of Slow Theatre’s production of The Wolves, followed by a celebratory edition of its annual 1078 Gallery Members Show.
Now 37, the gallery is back and as committed as ever to its mission of offering “exciting exhibitions of contemporary and experimental artworks in visual, musical, literary, film, and performance mediums.”
In a move that some characterized as discriminatory against the homeless population, the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission (BPPC) and Chico City Council voted in in favor of changing park closure times to a uniform 11 p.m., even for City Plaza, which used to be “open” until 2 a.m., when downtown bars close.
For Upper Bidwell Park, the BPPC voted in early November to recommend a $2 daily parking fee and a $25 annual parking pass, with reduced or waived fees for certain groups such as disabled people and groups that lease park facilities. The fees would go to maintenance of Upper Park Road, including additional staffing, should it be reopened.
The City Council might have discussed the issue in November, but the Camp Fire hit and priorities shifted. Look out for it in early 2019.
Now with more history
It was more than a year ago that the Chico Museum mysteriously closed it doors. When it reopened a few months later, the museum had a new name, new mission and new leadership. Following a split from Far West Heritage Association—the organization that also managed the Patrick Ranch Museum in Durham—board President Amy Kao formally signed documents in April, establishing the newly independent Chico History Museum.
The new entity is a volunteer-run nonprofit that focuses solely on exhibits on Chico’s history, including its permanent Chico Through Time and reconstructed Chinese Temple displays, in addition to rotating exhibits curated by board members Randy Taylor and Dave Nopel.
The museum has a five-year, dollar-a-year lease with the city of Chico for the historic Carnegie Library building at Second and Salem streets, and in addition to continuing to raise money and attract volunteers, the board has the long-term goal of reconfiguring the building’s main room and basement to increase its usable space.
Cops on campus
Fall 2018 marked the return of police officers to Chico Unified School District campuses after a six-year hiatus. This was made possible because CUSD received a substantial grant from the Department of Justice—$1.5 million, specifically for tobacco-related education and enforcement.
By next school year, there will be five officers across CUSD campuses: one based at the elementary sites, another at the middle schools and one for each high school.
The return of the officers garnered criticism at Chico City Council meetings, where speakers charged that policing on campuses does more harm than good, and questioned the district’s use of health-related funding (from a tax on tobacco users) to bring armed officers back on campus.
Others expressed excitement at the opportunity to take a proactive, preventative approach to issues on local campuses. The grant also funded a CUSD intervention specialist and new smoke/vapor detectors for high school restrooms.
This past year, Bob Littell passed the torch of the Sierra Nevada Nevada Big Room to 34-year-old Mahina Gannet. Littell, who retired in March, had been the venue’s only booker since it opened in 2000. During his tenure as manager, the Big Room gained a reputation as one of the premier places on the West Coast to see great Americana, bluegrass and blues shows in a warm and fairly intimate setting.
With the change in management came a shift in focus. Gannet added to the schedule of its traditional music fare (now promoted under the banner of the “Heritage Series”) an ambitious roster of shows that has brought in a wide range of styles, from rock and indie to rap and even experimental. Recent sold-out shows featuring the likes of indie/Americana singer-songwriter Neko Case and mathy indie-pop act Pinback are a promising sign for both the brewery and the community.
Wait, we got funding for art?
After years of little to no funding, 2018 marked a shift in priorities, with money coming from two different directions.
First, in March, the City Council directed $10,000 annually toward the maintenance and repair of public art. Then, in May, the council reinstated the allocation of transient occupancy tax (TOT) funds to support arts and culture organizations. Annually, 1 percent of the TOT revenue will be dedicated to the arts. For 2017-18, that amounted to $25,056, which was spread out among 11 recipients—from the Blue Room Theatre to the Stonewall Alliance Center, with the recipients chosen by the Chico Arts Commission.
While the city raked in its first $800,000 annual infusion from a waste-hauling franchise agreement with Recology and Waste Management in 2017, the reverberations of the transition weren’t felt until this year.
Waste Management took over all residential accounts, and commercial customers were split into two districts, one for Recology and one for Waste Management, eliminating the competitive market.
Many customers (primarily business owners) were up in arms over what they saw as a degradation of service and significant fee increases, some to the tune of thousands of dollars per year. Critics argued that the city was benefiting while customers had to bear the burden.
One of the main arguments in favor of the franchise agreement was that it would lessen the impact on city roadways, which are estimated to cost $7 million to maintain. Last year, city officials voted to direct all proceeds to road maintenance.
But already, this past Oct. 2, Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien requested that $350,000 in waste-hauling fees be redirected to a permanent street crimes unit, a proposal backed by former City Councilman Andrew Coolidge. This despite the fact that, two months earlier, the city was granted $1.5 million in state tobacco tax grant funding, negating the need for approved city funding for two school resource officers. The council nixed the request, and reaffirmed its position that the waste-hauling fees go to local roads.