Q&A with the council candidates
Responses to CN&R’s general election questionnaire
Everyone agrees that public safety is the city’s No. 1 priority. As a council member, where would you propose getting the funds to increase our police and fire departments’ staffing levels?
Lupe Arim-Law: Create a Memorandum of Understanding between the Chico City Police and the Chico State Police that will assign Chico State Police to the downtown area or the avenues. This will alleviate the strain on the City Police and share the burden of safety without adding much cost. The Fire Department is well staffed for the next few years due to the SAFE Grant. Nevertheless, we will need to start working with the Fire Chief to plan beyond that point.
Andrew Coolidge: An Energy/Water Savings Program (Chico Green Growth Plan) which I brought to Chico in March and still has not be acted upon, which can save the city as much as $200,000 a year immediately, explore ending the 5% sales tax revenue sharing agreement made with the county in 1987 over the North Valley Plaza which has basically no benefit for the city to continue (immediate savings of $500,000), explore a city vehicle reduction program (undetermined one time impact which could be between $150,000 to $750,000 in immediate funds, plus would have a variety of other long-term savings (e.g., maintenance, fuel, etc.).
Reanette Fillmer: From the $43 million general fund budget. It’s a matter of priorities.
Scott Gruendl: The Fire Department is temporarily okay and to increase police we need to decrease salary and benefit costs of higher paid employees. Incentivize the academy so cadets know this community wants them through business and community partnerships. Immediately end the poisonous negativity of the CPOA and the police academy—if you can’t get on board, then get out.
Forough Molina: To increase the police staffing to suggested levels would cost about $500,000. The city needs to seek federal and state grants, like that received for our fire department. Sales tax revenues are increasing, yet we need to review the compensation packages for city and public-safety staff before making decisions. Prop. 30 has been a big boost for many cities, including Chico.
Mark Sorensen: We already see signs of rising tax revenues which, once confirmed, should be diverted to police. The recent contracting out for city attorney services is an example where we greatly improved the independence, objectivity, quality and speed of attorney services to the city while saving hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Contracting out may make sense in other areas.
Rodney Willis: I would ask for a half-cent sales tax increase for one year. As per Frank Fields, city of Chico accounting manager, it would generate approximately $9 million.
When city management identified a structural deficit back in 2007, what steps should have been taken at that time to prevent the budget crisis?
Arim-Law: To rectify a structural deficit, an adjustment in receipts or expenses must be made immediately. Either increase receipts or decrease expenses, or do both.
Cost Containment: Put on hold any new projects that are scheduled to begin; Put on hold all projects in process and review funding; Recommend a hold on all salary increases and stop new hires in all departments.
Expenses: Cut non-essential expenses; Do more with less; Lay off employees if imbalance continues.
Revenues: Consider additional taxes or fees to increase revenue.
Coolidge: Immediate steps should have been taken to limit city power and water usage, to plant and promote native species planting within new projects, staff reductions or furlough days should have been immediately implemented, cost savings (e.g. solar power, LED lighting) should have been explored and action should have been taken. Minor reductions in departments should have been made immediately in numerous departments or priorities which now, due to the lack of planning, were completely eliminated.
Fillmer: The Council should have recognized that the entire nation was headed into a steep economic decline and taken action to reduce spending. Council members should have also questioned the actions of staff and the city management team.
Gruendl: Tax and spend conservative majority over hires in 2001 creating lasting impacts and we layoff. In 2007 – Contain fee subsidies and employee costs. Salary reductions were one time when the Council said permanent. Pension Reform induced reductions were resisted at all levels. After pushing for years, my fee and allocation policy requiring scheduled updates finally adopted. Lesson – hire city manager that is obedient.
Molina: The first steps should have been to have the city manager work with the City Council transparently, explaining when and why to enact pay freezes, negotiate retirement benefits and look into sales tax increases, not to increase the salaries of city workers, as was done. I understand that hindsight makes everything clearer.
Sorensen: Since 2006, I’ve been saying that the city needed to align expenses with actual revenues, or preferably below revenues. Approximately 80 percent of general fund spending is on payroll and benefits costs, so that means that controlling those costs was the largest impact on the structural deficit in need of attention either through reductions in the number of personnel or the cost thereof.
Willis: There should have been systems in place ensuring revenue to meet all financial needs of the city were met. A fund should have been in place that would address unexpected expenditures, monthly departmental reports should have been implemented. Two accounting firms to review the budget, instead of relying on one. Even Al Capone had two bookkeepers for checks and balances.
Based on salary and benefits data from the State Controller’s Office, are city employees overpaid? If so, what should be done to reduce the pay? If not, why is that pay justifiable?
Arim-Law: Chico ranks No. 17 (top 10%) in average wages and No. 3 (top 2%) in average retirement and health benefits out of 168 mid-size cities (2012). Chico’s public employees are compensated well. Based on this data, there is room for negotiating cost savings for the city, especially in the benefits package. We have a wage gap between the public and private sectors in Chico. I would like the wage gap to decrease, hopefully not by cutting public salaries but by creating better paying jobs in the private sector through economic development.
Coolidge: Many of our unions have made concessions at varying levels. While some of our city employees are overpaid, we also must realize that public employees should have protections in place as they do not generally benefit from city profitability and thus shouldn’t fall victim as easily to economic hard times. Chico should expect to have excellent personnel who do an excellent job and receive above average pay, however all three of these factors are necessary for the city to be successful.
Fillmer: I’ve spent my career working in Human Resources. Relying on data strictly from the State Controller’s Office to make salary and benefits determinations would be the wrong approach. A comprehensive analysis is necessary in order to make these types of decisions. Anything less would be irresponsible and unfair to employees and taxpayers.
Gruendl: I started with reductions and realism in the management ranks to help lower the average overall. We must continue to reduce benefit costs by increasing employee contributions and find competitive benefit pools. We must reduce special pay and continue to institute overtime restrictions and alternatives. This is nothing that I have not done with my own career.
Molina: Our city employees do a great job for our residents. However, I concur with previous management and City Council members who have agreed that negotiations are needed to check salary and benefits expenses. As I stated at the Chamber of Commerce forum, I will not vote for any salary higher than that of the governor of California.
Sorensen: Some are overpaid, particularly compared with private sector counterparts. This is a statewide problem. As is the cost of retirement programs, which is now over $9 million/year and growing far faster than inflation. We must continue to work the issue through the bargaining process and never again allow formulas to raise salaries merely because general fund revenues increased.
Willis: Due to drastic cuts in city staff, the pay received by city employees is justifiable. Six mechanics for 333 vehicles, one employee to answer all questions posed by citizens of Chico, 40 police officers doing the work of 56 officers for the population that Chico possesses.
What would be the first policy decision you would attempt to make as a member of the City Council? Why?
Arim-Law: Create a Social Service Task Force to alleviate the homelessness situation in downtown and in our parks. The task force will serve as the resource liaison between existing organizations and the homeless. It will include at least one licensed case-worker and an assigned police officer. The Task Force will work in the field with the homeless to get them the help they need and get off the streets.
Coolidge: I believe we need to work with our police department and budget to insure public safety is the priority of the city as identified time and time again by the citizens over the last few years. I also believe we need to enact an energy and water savings program which will save Chico hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and make us more efficient as well as explore other money saving ideas which have not been acted upon. I would favor any policy decision which has these at its end goal.
Fillmer: We need to improve the safety of our city. Concerned citizens have been asking the council to take action for years. They’ve packed the council chambers over and over again yet no significant steps have been taken to reduce crime. I’ll work with the police department to take action and hire more police officers.
Gruendl: Focus on police department through reductions that allow for immediate position increase and revamp the Police Academy to serve our needs rather than the other way around. While police morale is bad, it is perpetuating a reputation that is far more damaging as is the leadership at the academy. If you can’t get on board then get out.
Molina: I would initiate a plan guiding collaboration between the Chico police and area community organizations, creating a timeline and setting goals to address Chico’s transiency issue. There has been discussion, but never a concrete action plan. We need to ensure that people are not afraid to go out and enjoy our city. We need to deal with this issue now.
Sorensen: Continued financial oversight of our $120 million in appropriations.
Willis: I would address the transient/homeless issue. This is a public-safety issue—one that concerns individuals, homeowners, business owners. What’s needed are solutions and action right now! Not more rhetoric.
How would you as a member of this nonpartisan panel propose overcoming its very partisan approach to policy-making? In other words, how would you work with you ideological opposite?
Arim-Law: All jobs require working with others who have varying values and ideals, and this position should be no different. As a Chico City Council Member, we must lead by example, know how to compromise, and bring the community together with positive results. I am an effective manager and will stay focused on the task at hand without losing sight of the ultimate objective of making Chico a safer and more vibrant city.
Coolidge: I believe most councilors spend too much time promoting partisan policy rather than realizing their job is to work to provide safety and opportunity for the people of Chico. I would encourage other councilors to do the same regardless of their party affiliation.
Fillmer: It’s a matter of putting the needs of our community before the political games. On the council, I will be laser focused on improving the safety of our community and ensuring a healthy financial future for Chico. I’ll work with council members and community members from any political party who share this vision.
Gruendl: As the senior member, I disagree. Examples exist of moderate decisions and compromise in the last year, such as Sit/Lie or the Military Banners. Council gets partisan when there is unwillingness to compromise. Partnerships the public never sees make a huge difference and I am saddened that the conservatives fail to disclose the help they got even though in the minority.
Molina: I welcome the opportunity to work with everyone to meet the needs of Chico. I entered this race because of my desire to increase community safety. My history of successfully working with people from diverse backgrounds for a common purpose speaks to my ability to be open, respectful and goal-oriented. This is one of my greatest strengths.
Sorensen: As long as minds were open to logic and reason, I’ve worked very well, and effectively. The past two years of massive change and challenges have certainly been a test. I’ve been on the Finance Committee for four years as the only conservative, yet we rarely had split decisions; rather, we worked out solutions for the city’s best long-term benefit.
Willis: I’ve always been able to lead by example. Compromise is necessary whether in marriage, friendship, employment. The focus needs to be serving the citizens of Chico, not a political party. I would remind each of the council members and hold them accountable. The council serves the people of Chico; the people don’t serve the council.
What city-owned assets, if any, should be sold to free up city funding?
Arim-Law: None. City assets can not be disposed of like at a yard sale. We should try our best to keep our assets for the community to use today and to enjoy in the future.
Coolidge: Equipment, such as large backhoes and trucks which have extremely limited use within the city (two months per year) should be sold along with any other vehicles which sit idle for more than 50% of the day. Dramatic cost savings could be gained by selling city equipment which would be more cheaply rented, then those maintained year round with limited usage.
Fillmer: I don’t think we need to free up funding by selling city-owned assets. What the council needs to do is prioritize the fundamental services of local government. The safety of our community must be addressed. Chico can hire more officers by making public safety a priority and having a council that supports the police department.
Gruendl: There are no city assets that are worth selling for revenue mainly because the action would only produce one-time revenue to address ongoing expenses, now selling prices are lower than value, and retaining ownership allows us to borrow now and again in the future. There are some assets from the RDA, but the revenue would be split across several entities.
Molina: Council members must meet with city staff and constituents to discuss long-term effects of selling city property; a short-term gain might hurt long-term gains. Using proceeds from sales to pay down debts would allow us to use general funds for public-safety salaries. The city shouldn’t sell lands abutting Big Chico Creek and Bidwell Ranch.
Sorensen: A listing of 247 properties is currently being reviewed. Some that stand out as likely candidates are 168 E. 11th St., 178 E. 11th St., 1413 Salem St. (all vacant houses for many years), plus vacant lots 874 and 856 E. 20th Street.
Willis: No city-owned asset should be sold to free up fund at this time.
Chico is a special place to live for various reasons and preserving that way of life is paramount to most locals. What aspects are you most concerned about preserving?
Arim-Law: Community safety is most concerning to me. We must keep our streets and parks safe, our water clean, trees healthy, air clean and the city’s infrastructure sturdy.
Coolidge: Above all I value our beautiful parks, culture and small town atmosphere. While improvements and growth should be considered and will happen, it must be done in a way which respects our community.
The freeway improvements are a perfect example of a failure in this area. Allowing CalTrans to create giant concrete walls, shows we lacked the leadership of Redding, Yuba City, Lincoln and Oroville, who when faced with similar type improvements were given ornamental metal work, beautiful colored brick walls and artistic aspects which gave their cities a sense of pride, while we were given a concrete tunnel because our leaders failed to be our voice with the state.
Fillmer: I am most concerned about improving the safety of our community.
Gruendl: Chico’s reputation. People are negative about Chico because they gave up or to make the progressives look bad or so certain employees get raises. Yes, there are very negative aspects of Chico, but there is so much that remains great! When we only talk about the bad, we perpetuate it. There is hope and the truth is we are recovering!
Molina: It is important to me to preserve our parks, including Bidwell Park, maintain open spaces, and revitalize downtown.
Sorensen: All of them. Its small town charm, its parks, open spaces and its agricultural roots for my children, and now for my grandchildren.
Willis: Bidwell Park, downtown, Bidwell Mansion, a thriving city with a vibrant close community.
The Greenline: Should the demarcation be rigid or flexible?
Arim-Law: The Greenline demarcation reflects a General Plan principle defining Chico’s urban growth and the rural edge. The General Plan describes graduated development from rural to a dense urban core along with corridors for future residential and business development, all within the Greenline. I do not support changes to the Greenline.
Coolidge: Rigid, unless deemed absolutely necessary by all sides.
Fillmer: I support the Greenline because agriculture generates substantial economic benefits to Chico.
Gruendl: The Greenline needs to be mostly rigid and preferably by a physical feature that clearly represents a demarcation. Flexibility would ultimately lead to arguments and ambiguity that would slowly erode the Greenline over time.
Molina: Demarcation should be rigid.
Sorensen: Flexible, just as it was intended when it was formed in 1982. The Bell Muir area being an example where the original alignment was in conflict with reality of the area.
Willis: The Greenline should be rigid. There are enough infill areas of property in Chico to build on. This question shouldn’t be posed and the idea ever considered.
Is it premature to ask voters to support an increase in sales tax, as is being done on the Ridge? If so, why? If not, why?
Arim-Law: A tax increase needs a champion. That champion can be city council or the people of the city. Although I am pleased with the progress of our deficit recovery, if council or the people of Chico believe a small tax increase would be worth implementing to rehire some key positions as soon as possible, I would not be opposed to the discussion nor to paying the tax.
Coolidge: Yes, I believe the city has not explored all increased revenue possibilities nor have we done enough to help local businesses be successful. The best investment Chico can make to create revenue would be solving our crime and transient problems in the downtown. Reform to the labored permitting process (which generally has a backlog of seven to ten weeks) would also create revenue and economic benefit.
Fillmer: From 2007-2012, expenditures outpaced revenues by $20 million and our reserve accounts were depleted. Because of this financial mismanagement, the public’s trust in our local government is broken. I fully support prioritizing revenues for law enforcement, but asking Chico taxpayers to pay more in taxes is not the right approach.
Gruendl: Timing of a tax is any time the voters demonstrate their willingness. I think that we first demonstrate we have fiscal stability and that the elected representatives have regained control over the organization. Next we survey the public to determine their wishes and at what level of tax. If the support is there then we move forward.
Molina: It is premature to ask voters to support an increase of taxes. We need to build back some public trust in the council before we propose any taxes new taxes. We have $43 million dollars in our general fund annually to fund essential services.
Sorensen: Premature. I can not yet say that the city spends its existing general fund revenue of $43 million a year reasonably efficiently.
Willis: No. Public safety is a priority. Eveyone I have talked to in neighborhoods, at church, at work, at the farmers’ market, would be willing to pay a sales tax increase if it meant better police/fire staffing. That would mean a better, safer place to live.
Would you support initiatives that come from your constituents, even if they are “feel-good” measures that in some cases are more symbolic in nature?
Arim-Law: Yes. “Feel-good” measures can help define the identity of a city. They are principled stands and represent community values.
Coolidge: While I believe some measures can be beneficial, I would be primarily concerned with their cost to the city immediately as well as the long-term fiscal impacts.
Fillmer: Chico residents want a council that is serious about reducing crime. They’ve been asking for the council to take action for years—I don’t think a “feel-good” agenda is in the best interest of our community.
Gruendl: I support constituent requests as my responsibility as an elected official. If the initiative is not worthy for consideration then the process weeds it out. There is a vocal minority that claims certain issues are “feel good” when there are more that consider the issue critically important. Claims that feel good issues waste resources and fund is 100% hogwash.
Molina: “Feel good” measures? That sounds like a waste of time to me. However, “feel good” has been used as a politically divisive term (see nonpartisan politics question). I will represent all people and fight for economic, political, social and environmental justice. Again, it’s all about balance: economic, environmental and social/cultural. Our most important focus now is public safety.
Sorensen: The question is nebulous. It depends upon what they are and if and to what extent they consume or divert city resources and staff time from more important or pressing items.
Willis: If it is important to the citizens of Chico, it is important to me. Yes, I would support, in some cases, some measures.