Plotting the course
As City Council sets goals for 2014, public pleads for more cops and trees
During a special Chico City Council meeting on Monday (Jan. 6) in which the council was tasked with adjusting last year’s objectives for 2014, members of the public were clear in suggesting what should command the council’s attention.
The speakers’ concerns included an understaffed police department, management of Chico’s urban forest, and city administration salaries, to name a few. As discussion progressed through the evening, an underlying theme became apparent: In light of the city’s tremendous financial difficulties, will there be enough funding to properly address each issue?
City Manager Brian Nakamura set the tone with a sobering summary of last year’s sweeping cuts, which eliminated dozens of city positions—including the city’s tree-maintenance crew—reorganized or merged departments, reduced hours of operation at Bidwell Park and temporarily closed Caper Acres four days a week.
“There was a lot of change in 2013,” Nakamura said in his opening address to the council. “As you know, we’ve had significant reductions in staffing; we’ve had some budgetary issues come forward.”
During the 2005-06 fiscal year, Nakamura said, the city had $12.5 million in its general-fund reserve; in 2013, the city faced a $15.2 million general-fund deficit. The council ostensibly addressed the budget deficit on Dec. 17, the final meeting of 2013, by adopting Administrative Services Director Chris Constantin’s decade-long plan that includes repayment of $1.52 million each year through 2021-22 and an additional $700,000 in the final year, 2022-23.
Nakamura led the council through a slideshow presentation during which he highlighted the previous year’s accomplishments in each category and outlined specific goals for 2014.
“What we hope to do this evening is set the framework by which we can move the organization forward in a positive way,” he said.
Last year’s goal-setting session set the city’s top priorities as public safety, finance, economic development, transportation and environment, and technology. At the Jan. 6 meeting’s conclusion, those goals remained largely unchanged except for transportation and environment, the scope of which was broadened to “community development and environment.”
Public-safety goals included resolving the ongoing mold issues at Fire Station 5 and hiring five new police officers. As it turned out, many who spoke during the public-comment section of the meeting—along with members of the council—had particularly strong opinions about properly staffing the police department, and about public-safety issues in general.
With 64 officers currently on staff, the addition of five officers would still leave the Chico Police Department well short of the 83 officers Chief Kirk Trostle maintains are necessary to adequately protect the city. To that end, Councilman Sean Morgan asked Trostle to illustrate how a fully staffed department would benefit public safety.
With a full force, Trostle said, he could bring back the traffic-enforcement unit in addition to the TARGET team—the department’s gang unit that was eliminated last February due to budget cuts—as well as the currently defunct Street Crimes Unit, which focused on street-level drug sales and took “a proactive approach” by keeping up with individuals on probation or parole.
Jack Van Rossum, who identified himself as a longtime Chicoan, told the council “there is more fear in our community than there has ever been as long as I’ve lived here. People are afraid—there are lots of people who will not go downtown to have dinner, people who pick and choose when they use [Bidwell Park]. In my own neighborhood, people getting mugged and armed robbery are not uncommon.
“The problem is what you do with the money, because you’ve only got so much money.”
Speaker Donna Shary said the police department “is in a crisis point.”
“Over the last five years, for whatever reasons, 30 officers are no longer at the department,” she said, her voice trembling at times. “In those same five years, roughly nine or 10 people have been hired to replace them. To me, that’s a crisis.”
Councilwoman Ann Schwab said that in place of “Band-Aids,” or reactive measures, she would like the city to “get to the root of problems.”
“We know why we have extra issues on Friday and Saturday night,” she said, alluding to partying in the south campus neighborhood and increased activity downtown due largely to college students. “If we got to the root of that problem, that would allow more police officers to be on the street other times of the week.”
On that note, Councilmembers Mary Goloff and Mark Sorensen suggested they’d like to see a stronger partnership between the city and the Chico State administration in tackling alcohol-related public-safety issues.
Though much discussion during the 3 1/2-hour meeting was devoted to public safety, Nakamura identified several other goals for the city as well. Under administrative services—listed last year as “finances” prior to the city government’s reorganization—objectives included continuing deficit-reduction measures, a classification study of the city’s “rightsizing,” and exploring additional revenue sources.
In terms of economic development, Nakamura pointed to continuing the efforts of “Team Chico”—an economic-development group led by the city of Chico, the Downtown Chico Business Association and the Chico Chamber of Commerce—as well as working with the DCBA to “further develop and implement business attraction, expansion and development tools.”
Community-development and environment goals included completing a “nexus study” on urban growth and how to pay for it; implementing an online building-permit process; continuing general sustainability efforts; and adoption of the urban-forest management and urban-area bicycle plans, both of which are currently languishing in draft form.
Several speakers expressed concern for the urban forest, including local tree advocate Charles Withuhn, who noted that “we are cutting down more trees than we’re planting” and that rudderless tree-management will only “accelerate the decline of our urban forest.”
Considering the city’s financial situation—too cash-strapped for a tree crew or a full police force—several speakers, including Withuhn and longtime social activist Emily Alma, questioned why certain city administrators are awarded what they claimed to be exorbitant salaries. (The salaries of Nakamura, Constantin and Assistant City Manager Mark Orme are $217,000, $160,000 and $185,000, respectively.)
“It’s absurd to me that we have very high-end benefits packages for the people at the very top,” Alma said. “We need to balance it out. [The city] can make reasonable cuts so we can take care of our trees and streets.”
Several speakers, on the other hand, commended city staff members for their work and acknowledged the difficult nature of their respective positions.