Six optimists, one naysayer on city finances

Wahl warns of ‘hard realities’ at otherwise cautiously upbeat State of the City breakfast

FIRE UP ABOVE<br>At the annual State of the City breakfast Wednesday (Jan. 14), City Manager Dave Burkland described the services city employees provide, many of which go unnoticed by residents. As this training photo shows, in addition to their other duties, city firefighters must be prepared to deal with aircraft fires at the municipal airport.

At the annual State of the City breakfast Wednesday (Jan. 14), City Manager Dave Burkland described the services city employees provide, many of which go unnoticed by residents. As this training photo shows, in addition to their other duties, city firefighters must be prepared to deal with aircraft fires at the municipal airport.

Courtesy Of City of Chico

Chico City Councilman Larry Wahl doesn’t mince words, and he doesn’t mind being the lone voice of conservative dissent on the council. He seems to enjoy it, in fact.

That was more than evident Wednesday (Jan. 14) at the Chico Chamber of Commerce’s annual State of the City breakfast, when Wahl, the last council member to speak, pointedly disagreed with earlier, cautiously positive descriptions of the city’s budget situation.

Sales-tax revenues are dropping in Chico, he said, which means less money for the city, and “we’re going to be hard-pressed to get out of it. … Those are the hard realities, folks.” He talked about more layoffs and mandatory furloughs and even cutting salaries. “You have to do something,” he said.

And he got a round of applause when he said the city needed to streamline its permitting process. The two-year Chico Volkswagen snag “resonated up and down the state,” he said, with people asking themselves, “Holy smoke, why would I want to go to Chico to do business?”

He urged his fellow council members to remember that, although they enjoyed a 6-1 liberal majority, 45 percent of Chicoans were self-identified as conservatives. Acknowledging that “to the victor go the spoils,” he nonetheless urged them “in fairness” to appoint a proportionate number of business people to city commissions, a process the council is in the midst of right now.

Even Wahl, however, couldn’t keep himself from waxing positive about Chico. “I’m really optimistic … because folks all over this community want it to work well,” he said.

If the event had an overriding theme, that was it. Beginning with City Manager Dave Burkland’s presentation describing the services the city provides and the problems it faces, speakers invariably mentioned a spirit of cooperation and willingness to listen among interest groups.

In a PowerPoint presentation, Burkland highlighted selected city employees—an associate planner, a waterwater treatment operator, a dispatcher and an associate civil engineer—as a way to illustrate some of the many things the city does.

Overall, he said, the city’s budget strategy, developed in late 2007 and implemented during the 2008-09 fiscal year, “is taking effect and is successful.” In addition, the city is in the midst of a $54 million upgrade of its sewer farm that will increase its capacity by 33 percent, has a year to go to complete its general-plan update, and is continuing to work on neighborhood, circulation and downtown plans designed “to continue to make Chico a great place.”

He mentioned briefly the recent elimination of six firefighter positions (see detailed story), saying only that the failure of reopened contract negotiations to reduce a 4 percent pay hike left the city no choice but to lay off personnel.

The city has $30 million in “shovel-ready” capital projects should federal stimulus funds become available, Burkland said. Interviewed later, he explained the city had purposely held off putting some good-to-go projects out to bid for budgetary reasons, with the result that the city’s “timing is significantly better than that of many of our partner cities” should funding for infrastructure projects become available.

In that same interview, he also said he shared Wahl’s concern about sales-tax revenues but explained that the current budget strategy was designed to allow some “wiggle room” for just such eventualities.

He is concerned that the state may raid redevelopment funds, however, forcing a slowdown in some capital projects. And there’s always the possibility that it could try to hold onto operational funds, but the cities would challenge that legally, he said. “So far I haven’t heard anything in that regard.”

The other council members focused on specific areas. Vice Mayor Tom Nickell, standing in for Mayor Ann Schwab, who had a scheduling conflict, stressed that the city couldn’t rely on the state or federal governments, which is why promoting local businesses was so important.

He talked about the work he’d been doing toward implementing the city’s downtown plan, including moving forward on privatizing parking enforcement, installing smart meters, developing a new loading policy and working with the university on parking issues.

The only new council member, Jim Walker, stressed the value of maintaining, “in these trying times,” a close relationship between business, the city and the university, and stressed the importance of good communication, “especially when we have disagreements; that’s when it’s important to talk with each other.”

Councilwoman Mary Flynn discussed her work on economic development, noting that the city was focusing on two things. The first is improving physical conditions by creating an inventory of all land available for business use, improving the infrastructure and speeding the regulatory process, and the second is “working with base-level employers and entrepreneurs.” She then read a long list of types of businesses that had recently expressed interest in Chico.

Councilman Andy Holcombe stressed the quality of the people in city government and the rest of the community, the importance of having an inclusive process, and how the city is continuing to invest in capital projects.

Holcombe acknowledged he once saw the business community as an adversary, “but no more. … We’re all people who want to make Chico a better place.”

Councilman Scott Gruendl began by having everyone stand up. Then he asked certain numbers of them to sit down to illustrate the percentages of people who die prematurely, are hospitalized with asthma or develop chronic bronchitis from wood-smoke pollution.

Gruendl is the city’s representative on the county Air Quality Management District board, which has been wrestling with fine-particulate pollution from Chico’s fireplaces and wood heaters for some time. “It’s critical that we address this issue,” he said. The city will be taking it up in February.

He also talked about his work with the Mayor’s Economic Development Task Force, which he established during his 2004-06 mayoral term, and its successful efforts to bring venture capital and capitalists to Chico. And he said that, because of its sustainability efforts, “Chico is poised to be the No. 1 green city in Northern California.”

“Even in the face of California’s dismal economic picture,” Gruendl said, “we are in a position to weather it well.”

The State of the City event was hosted—quite deftly—by new Chamber President and CEO Jolene Francis and carried live on KPAY radio.