Priced out of space

Community groups decry raised rates for using City Council chambers

It won’t quite be like looking for a studio in downtown San Francisco, but renting the Chico City Council chambers won’t come cheap—not anymore. So it was decided on Tuesday (Jan. 5) during a meeting the council powered through in about an hour and with very little debate.

As a public facility, the council chambers have historically been open to community groups at minimal cost: $29 an hour. That’s “drastically lower” than the fees for reserving a similar space through Chico Unified School District or Chico State, said Mayor Mark Sorensen. The problem, as noted by Councilman Randall Stone, is that the city “is not even close” to recovering the costs of attempting to run a conference center.

Last year, the city spent about $88,000 on making the building available to community groups, Stone said, and fees “brought in somewhere in the neighborhood of $800 or $1,000.”

Vice Mayor Sean Morgan added that the city has incurred other costs on top of the staff hours devoted to unlocking the doors, monitoring the facility, locking the doors and cleaning up; equipment has been stolen from the chambers on more than one occasion, he said.

“Our price for this room is so low, and we’re trying to keep the room nice,” Morgan said. “We’re five to 10 times below market value on that. It’s a bad use of the taxpayer’s building.”

Under the proposal, the hourly fee for renting the room would increase from $29 to $137, in addition to a $40 custodial fee for opening and closing the doors and a $75 fee for using the computer display and sound systems. That could add up for groups who regularly rent the chambers, such as the League of Women Voters of Butte County, the Butte County Air Quality Management District and the Butte County Association of Governments.

Margaret Swick, president of the League of Women Voters, pointed to the candidates’ forums her organization hosts in the chambers and argued that during election season, especially, it’s in council members’ personal interest to make the room accessible.

“If the League of Women Voters is unable to afford your enormous increase in cost for this auditorium, then where will the local voter be able to observe and listen to you the next time you run for office?”

Eileen Robinson, president of Chico Unified School District board of trustees, also pleaded with the council to not raise the reservation fees. Thanks to Measure E funding and recent expansion of the district’s facilities, she said, CUSD does have spaces large enough to accommodate board meetings and student presentations, but those buildings won’t be available until June 1. Further, the CUSD board did not budget for the unanticipated rate hike and therefore won’t be able to afford renting the chambers.

“I implore the council to consider postponing the rate increase through the end of May,” Robinson said.

The council was mostly unmoved. Councilwoman Tami Ritter asked Robinson how, if her organization were in a similar situation as the city, she could justify not recovering costs. And Sorensen seemingly didn’t believe that the CUSD would struggle to find the funds “on a $118-million-a-year budget.”

Councilwoman Ann Schwab alone opposed the rate hike, arguing that the city’s responsibility is to foster public discussion. “We’re for bringing people together to talk about the community,” she said. “This is one of the few venues that [is] reasonably priced for organizations to use for the very reason we exist—promoting community-building … Such high prices really, really concern me.”

The council voted 6-1, with Schwab dissenting, to raise the cost of reserving the chambers. The new fee schedule will go into effect March 1.