Archive | February, 2023

Promises, promises – while they’re re-imagining Downtown and hooking Paradise up to our sewer plant, what has the city of Chico done for you lately?

27 Feb

Last time I was talking about actions the city of Chico has taken over the past 10 or so years that have led us to the situation (I’m being nice) we’re in today. That means a lot of things to a lot of people, and that’s why the conversation isn’t really going anywhere. I choose to focus on actions that have raised the cost of living in Chico while lowering the quality of life. I left off with the Trash Tax, so that’s where I’ll pick up.

Brian Nakamura came here not only to trim payroll, he came with plans to increase the city’s payments to CalPERS. He told us we had about a $198,000,000 pension deficit, and that was tanking our credit rating and leading to all kinds of calamity. Behind closed doors he steadily increased payments to CalPERS, taking the money out of every department fund. Funds went into arrears, and staff started telling us projects were years behind because there was no money.

Nakamura’s Howdy Doody solution? Well, we’ll just make the garbage companies pay for street repairs – after all, those big trucks are ripping up the streets! Nakamura also claimed he had numerous, steady complaints about “all these garbage trucks on the streets” – as if it was a public safety concern. The city had permitted those big trucks, if you’ve lived in Chico more than 15 years you watched them go from the size of a small delivery truck to the behemoths that troll our streets today. Public works director Fritz McKinley told attendees of a morning committee meeting that the trucks were not only big, they were speeding. (McKinley, by the way, got the can without explanation not long after)

I asked Nakamura for proof of those complaints, whether emails or letters, he ignored me. His solution was to limit trash haulers with a franchise agreement. The companies would vie for the right to serve us, and they’d have to pay the franchise fee – wake up Turnip Head, that means, YOU PAY IT.

The process was questionable, by the time it was done, Nakamura had left Mark Orme in charge. I remember, at one meeting, Orme tried to talk committee members into seeking compulsory trash service for everybody, but the consultant said they’d have to offer low-income subsidies. Recology manager Joe Matz declared loudly as he left the meeting that “service rates are going to triple…” There was an under-the-table arm-wrestling match over where the trash would go – at that time, the Butte County dump was complaining they weren’t getting enough trash (meaning, dump fees) and Recology wanted to take the trash to their own new, state-of-the-art dump in Rocklin.

Butte County won – Waste Management got the residential contract, Recology got commercial and some residential, and ratepayers lost not only their right to choose haulers but their right to have any say in rate increases.

I’m a landlady, I save my bills. I still have years of Recology bills – year after year, $18 a month, with a slight variation called the “Fuel Surcharge”. Sometimes that even went down. Under the franchise deal, rates naturally went up – you really didn’t expect a private enterprise like Waste Management to give you charity. And up. At this point, less than 10 years into this deal, my rates have doubled. I used to get a 96 gal bin for myself and my tenants for only $18/mo, including a 64 gal recycling bin. Now the same bins are $36.

I’ll tell you what else – we go to the dump a few times a year, and the dump fee has only gone up $2 in the same amount of time.

It’s not the cost, it’s the shakedown – the city collects millions in franchise fees a year, just for the privilege of doing business here. And now the state is demanding the sorting out of food waste – let’s talk about that later.

I’d like to finish up with what happened to the trash tax. Here’s a post I made in 2017, showing the funds were clearly no longer being used to do any kind of street maintenance, instead going right into the pension deficit like everything else.

Read that, it’s shocking. Here’s a quote I just pulled out, from a conversation about what to do with the franchise money that had been promised to fix the streets – “Stone: [admits the streets are bad]  I’m kind of comfortable dedicating for a year some amount…I’m uncomfortable about dedicating this long term, I don’t like to tie our hands…” He doesn’t want to tie his hands to keeping promises, is what he’s saying. Promises mean nothing to these people. Stone later denied to me that there had been any promises to use the money for the streets, but wow, David Little remembered the same promise. Where’s Little now? Sucking off the teat, as far as I’m concerned.

Most recently, we have a new sales tax that will go to securing new debt (I’m guessing, Pension Obligation Bond), and we have a sewer tax that will go to completely remodel Downtown and then pay for the hook-up to Paradise. But what have we really got? Look at the street in front of your house – that should tell you what you haven’t got.

Time Machine: set your watch for Chico, CA, 2012…

21 Feb

How the heck did Chico get into the mess it’s in? That’s been discussed from many points of view – here’s mine. You can also read back in the archives, I chronicled as much of it here as I could, trying to make sense of it, all the way back to 2012, when I quit my old blog at the Enterprise Record. Anybody remember that?

I’ll start there. Back in 2012, the city of Chico hired a new city manager out of a tiny Southern California town called Hemet. Brian Nakamura – a man with a questionable employment record, who was already on the hot seat in Hemet for various reasons. Nakamura was hired at an unheard of new salary – $212,000/yr, plus full benefits – he paid nothing toward his pension or health benefits.

At that time the city was still reeling from years of fiscal hijinks – the most damning, a Memo of Understanding brought forward about 2006 by former city manager Tom Lando. At that time, the city was riding high from developer fees, so Lando decided everybody should get a raise. He wanted in on the money train coming from years of over development, so he suggest that we “attach salaries to revenue increases but NOT decreases”. Council approved that MOU. Over the next few years, salaries went up incredibly – 14%, 19%, 22%, per year.

Lando’s salary went from around $90,000/yr to over $150,000/yr. At that time, here’s the whammy – management paid NOTHING toward their benefits and the other employee groups paid slim to none as well. Public safety paid nothing, for pensions of 90 percent of their highest year’s salary, available at 55 years old.

And then, you might remember, The Great Bust of 2008. Like it was a surprise? Foreclosures all over town took property tax revenues into the toilet. Reeling from their own bad investments, CalPERS started to tank, and began demanding outrageous payments for all those new pensions. Trouble, right here in Bidwell City, and that’s starts with ‘T’ and that rhymes with ‘P’ and that stands for PENSIONS.

That’s where we were when Nakamura rode in, like Gene Wilder in “Blazing Saddles”. Nakamura was hired as a “corporate assassin”. We had a big payroll, and he had been hired to pare it down. Instead of negotiating better contracts with a “top heavy” management force – as had been suggested several times by consultants – Nakamura just waded in and started firing people.

All behind closed doors, without explanation, he eliminated senior staffers who didn’t agree with the new policies. He hired his friends from Hemet to replace them – Mark Orme and Chris Constantin – as his assistant manager and finance director, giving them salaries in excess of the people who’d formerly held those positions. And then Constantin started a campaign of blaming all the city’s financial woes on his predecessor Jennifer Hennessy, calling her “Loosey Goosey” in meetings and in an appearance before the Chico Tea Party. Constantin went on an regular PR campaign – sheesh, he even attended one of my Chico Taxpayer meetings, brought his wife and everything. He tried to tell us the whole thing was the fire departments’ fault. Nakamura started reporting threats from the Police and Fire Departments. But he kept doling out raises to his friends and refused to ask employee groups to pay higher shares of the CalPERS costs.

Instead, Nakamura began gutting the lower-paid workforce in all departments. This really made no sense in light of the fact that new management positions continued to be created at higher salaries. Orme went on creating new management positions right up until he left last year, while telling us we needed to pay a one-cent sales tax if we wanted our streets maintained.

Nakamura had been the one who first raised the subject of the CalPERS pension deficit, even mentioning the benefits deficit that is rarely discussed. Well, of course he needed to mention that – all the new salaries and no employee shares was rising up on the horizon like a tidal wave. I always think, “Jaws”, or “Perfect Storm”. Nakamura told us about it, but his solution was, the taxpayers should pay more. After Nakamura left and Orme and Constantin took over, the total payments to CalPERS went up drastically, millions a year siphoned quietly out of all the department funds. The city finally established the “Pension Stabilization Trust” and these payments became instituted – the PST gets a set percentage of every department budget, no matter the needs of the city.

Nakamura left as quickly as he was hired, leaving suddenly to take a job in Rancho Cordova, from which he was essentially fired for pulling some dirty tricks in a revenue measure campaign. But his legacy lives on in many ways – next time we’ll talk about the Trash Tax (cause that’s what current city manager and former city council member Mark Orme called it back in 2012).

Ever wonder what happened to Nakamura? Here he is at Texas A&M, giving us his insights on how the public needs to do more. We’ll pick this up again later as well.

I’m working on what we call “coproduction of services” at the local government level. Essentially, coproduction of services for a local government is “how do we engage the citizens to be active and to participate within the environment in the community in which they live?” We want citizens to engage within the community beyond volunteering and participating in public meetings. We want them to engage in the production and implementation of essential public services.
For example, citizens tend to engage in Neighborhood Watch or community-oriented policing, and we want to take this one step further by having citizens truly engage, in a safe manner of course, in providing services related to economic development, social justice, and environmental protection. Let’s put the gloves on, get the shovels and trimmers out, and rid our parks and natural areas of invasive tree and plant species, as an example.

Took a trip to Willows, let me tell you about it

18 Feb

Well I have done nothing about the trash tax – have you? Seriously, I’m going to go before council at some point and call them on the carpet about it. Just trying to screw up the nerve to go to a night time meeting. But I will, you betcha, by golly.

In the meantime, it’s Spring, so my husband and I have been trying to get out there and enjoy the mellow temperatures and the surprises other towns have to offer. I told you I went to Willows. It’s a nice trip, with plenty of sights to see out there in Rice Country. I was born in Willows, at Glenn General, and in my entire life I have never lived very far from the Sacramento River. My grandparents are buried at the cemetery, and my mom lived in Willows until she died. So it’s good to get back out there now and then, see what’s going on in Honker Territory.

Willows, like Chico, has had it’s economic ups and downs. Looks like they’re on the Ups right now. The Sierra Nevada cheese manufacturing facility there on the Bayliss/Blue Gum highway has expanded across the road, and now they have a little storefront. It’s worth writing home about so I’ll tell you – they have reeeaaally good cheese – including goat cheese – for honest working man prices. And other products, like local goat yogurt, honey, jams and olives.

We drove on into Willows to see things that remained unchanged since my childhood. Some of the buildings had different businesses in them. I’m always surprised to see The Last Stand still operating – when I was a kid, it was called “Culps” after the family that owned it. Way back in the 60’s they served food and beer at an outside counter built onto the building. Right on the main drag, it was a big deal to sit out there with a beer in your hand and hoot and holler to your friends driving by. It’s somewhat the same – but less remarkable since everybody has outdoor dining these days.

We went to see my mom’s old house, but we found the school had expanded and they’d shut down streets for new buildings. The high school stadium look great – my mom was in the Honker marching band, so I always like to drive by the high school. We found my mom’s house, still the tiniest, oldest house among the subdivision houses that have grown up around it.

We drove around town to find Willows Hardware still doing a brisk business – my mom was a regular customer there, and when she died I’ll never forget how nice they were about the $11 she still had on the books – “don’t worry about it Hon...” We paid it anyway because people expect you to pay your way unless your butt poor and then they make fun of you. I’m just sayin’, Glenn County made me honest, cause everybody knows you and your family generations back.

My mom worked at Nancy’s Cafe when it was located in town. It was considered the nicest restaurant in town at one time, before it moved to the airport. My husband and I were surprised to find a trendy little restaurant in the building that used to house my grandma’s bank. With panini’s! Sheesh, you would have got made fun of for eating anything but a “sandwich” when I was a kid, but there it was. We got a panini and a very nice kale salad, with candied walnuts(!), and ate our meal at a neat little table on the sidewalk. No, it wasn’t a “parklet,” and it didn’t impeded the sidewalk in any way, because the streets and sidewalks in Willows have always been wide and well-maintained.

I wish Chico could take a lesson there, instead they narrow the streets in commercial sectors and completely ignore residential streets in older neighborhoods. A lot of the neat old buildings that colored my memories are still standing, in fact, the old Benamati place is getting another facelift. And there’s art – I wish I had pictures – they have old farm equipment mounted proudly on the corners of sidewalks, one old rake “repurposed” as a bike rack.

And they even have launched a “Shop Local” campaign – I wonder how much it cost them to print banners and hang them from lamp posts, featuring various tourist attractions like the museum and the Llano Seco bird viewing platforms. It was a sales pitch, to be sure, but well done. And effective as far as I’m concerned, my husband and I are planning to go back and see the museum.

Next time, remind me to tell you about our day trip to Redding. Wow!

Viva la resistance – can we stop Valley’s Edge? No harm trying!

11 Feb

The North wind is blowing and the oak trees are flowering, and yeah, that’s a mosquito buzzing around my elbow this morning. Didn’t Punxawtawny Phil tell us six more weeks?

Well he was wrong.

My husband and I followed some honkers out to Willows the other day. The migration is in full swing, waterfowl of all kinds are congregating in the rice fields west of Chico. We took a turn at Seven Mile Lane to check out the Llano Seco viewing platforms.

The platform is right on the road, generous parking lot, and a short trail out into what used to be a rice field. I grew up near Princeton, that was the route by which my grandma often brought us into Chico. She liked to take different routes, she was a bird lover. She’d point them all out as she drove along the narrow roads. But we were never allowed out into the fields, too dangerous, and trespassing is considered a sin in farm country.

So I love being able to take our dog and stroll along a ditch bank, watching ducks fill themselves up on the muddy bottom of a swamp. There were a lot of geese and other water fowl, and birds filled the air. There was a phoebe bird snapping at bugs just off the platform, and I could see sack-like titmice nests hanging from the trees. Phoebe makes a mud nest, oftentimes on a human structure. She sits on the end of a tree branch, or on a cattail, and when she sees a bug – SNAP!

And there was drama. As we were walking along the trail we heard a commotion – a bunch of ducks went running across the water away from the bank’s edge. We saw a stranger sitting on the water – a hawk had jumped a mud hen, and was holding it under the water to drown it. They say hawks rarely eat other birds – bullshit, just pay attention, I’ve seen them take a bird right out of the air. The hawk sat on the duck for two or three minutes as we watched wide-mouthed. I wanted to yell and throw rocks, but that’s a violation of the Prime Directive.

I’ll tell you what though, that water is cold. The hawk couldn’t sit it out, and you know, a duck can hold it’s head under water a long time. So the hawk gave up and the little mud hen paddled away like nothing had happened. There’s a lesson for you folks.

Nature is a good classroom. This kind of habitat goes away with over development. Many years ago people in Chico started to realize we had something special here – agriculture, nature, AND a really neat town to serve the local population. But, you know, a town can grow too big for it’s pants. Building into your ag land and your water shed is getting too big for your pants.

Our developer beholden council tells us we need the houing, but Kevin Costner told us the truth – “if you build it they will come…” What council and staff really want is high-priced, property tax generating housing and the spend happy city people that come here to live in it.

I don’t know if Valley’s Edge can be stopped, but I hope the lawsuit holds it back a while and taxes the city’s war chest.

Next time remind me to tell you about our trip to Willows.

Insubordination Downtown – whattya gonna do? Call Ghostbusters?

4 Feb

I asked all of you to contact your council representative and ask about the trash tax and so I did same. I wrote to the city clerk Debbie Presson and asked her how to agendize a discussion for an upcoming meeting. I got no response. So I waited a week or so and wrote to clerk Dani Rogers – she responded with this –

The citizen request has to be sponsored by a Councilmember.  The Councilmember would bring the request forward.  You can email the full Council and see if one takes up the issue, or you can work with your district Councilmember to try to get them take it up. You can also address the Council from Business From the Floor and ask that they take up the item on a future agenda.”

I won’t waste my time contacting any members of council, they don’t respond. I’d rather go to the meeting and take it up from the Floor – at least then it’s on the record. But you know, that means going Downtown at night. I don’t mind admitting, I don’t go Downtown at all anymore, certainly not at night. I’ll have to think about it.

I sure miss Kelly Meagher, he used to make the meetings worth attending. I’ll never forget the night he got into an argument with Dan Herbert – back in the days when there was a real back-and-forth exchange between council members and citizens. Some people would say Kelly liked to tie one on before a meeting – who cares, he was magnificent. Dan kept coming at Kelly with the city line, and Kelly just kept coming right back at him. It got so Dan couldn’t get a word in, Kelly just kept ramming him down. Finally Kelly ran out of breath. Dan sat on the dais with a tired grin, as usual, the meeting had gone on too long. Kelly stood at the podium waiting for an answer, Dan just shook his head and laughed – Dan could be a real good natured guy sometimes. Finally he said, “Kelly, you’ve interrupted me so many times, I can’t remember what I was going to say…” Everybody laughed and the meeting went on.

Mark Sorensen, former council member and current city manager, has put an end to that type of back-and-forth conversation at meetings, he’s put an end to public input, he’s closed meetings as much as possible. He got a lawyer to tell council they don’t have to respond to their constituents anymore unless those constituents agree with them, or yeah – gave them some big bucks at election time. This is mutiny on the Bounty as far as I’m concerned, pure, willful insubordination. They think we won’t fight, maybe they’re right.

Yes, Kasey Reynolds is a ruthless politician who would hide sick people in a rotting old building, and then refuse to answer their calls for help

3 Feb

No, I haven’t driven by Miller Mansion lately. In fact, I don’t drive or bike a lot of places around Chico anymore because the roads are bad and the visuals are… depressing. It’s hard when the sweet little town you knew as a child turns into a cesspool in front of your eyes and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

I’ll never forget having kids here – like my husband says, we got Chico in her heyday. We rode our bikes everywhere, enjoyed three well-run public swimming pools and rode our kids up the park to Salmon Hole. We were a working class family but we could still afford to own a home, as well as support various businesses, even charities like the Jesus Center, Esplanade House and Butte Humane Society. We were members of the Nature Center and the Butte County library, spent many happy hours with Joe the Crow. She used to greet us when we came in the door. We enjoyed downtown eateries and attended shows at the plaza. Oh my gosh – we could afford to water a couple of fruit trees and a row a’ maters!

Some day archaeologists will call that “The Chico Lifestyle”. It’s become extinct.

Well, maybe not extinct. Chico was going into a slump when I was a kid, I remember the chatter. Buildings had burned and were not being cleaned up. The building now known as the Diamond Hotel was empty and a disgrace – by the time I got to Chico State it was known at “The Pidgeon Palace”. The old administration building on Main was in similar condition, trees growing over broken windows, the inside gutted, full of pidgeons and rats.

I was still pretty young when they tore the facade off the Morehouse building because they were afraid it would crash down on the sidewalk. My grandmother shopped at Osers – later Sports Ltd, now I don’t know what – and the manager told us she was worried about the building falling down around her head. Tres Hombres was an empty lot with a lot of trash blowing around inside a chainlink fence.

When I came to Chico State in the 80’s, there was a Downtown Renaissance. Lots of good, affordable eateries, even a grocery store. But of course, at that time, the college students were the nuisance. A lot of people called Downtown “The U District” and avoided the area. Binge drinking, puking, and sexual assaults seemed to be the college culture. The college and the town were at odds. Downtown business owners complained of broken windows, urine puddles in front of doors, and vandalism. Binge drinking deaths started to become common headlines – what you still don’t see in the paper, is the conga line into Enloe ER every Friday and Saturday night.

It seems to me, Downtown is Chico’s spoiled child, and the more attention she gets, the worse she gets. But you see City Council still treats Downtown like a “special district”, pouring more and more tax money into a tiny grid that only serves a tiny portion of the public.

A recent story in the News and Review reports sales tax revenues for Downtown Chico are on the downswing the past few years, and not just because of COVID. Recovery has been slow, even though Downtown businesses have received millions in COVID relief from the feds and the city. Vacancies are up Downtown, the N&R reporter counted 20 empty store fronts just in the Mainstreet/Broadway grid.

While they fuss over their “Downtown Revitalization ” plan and spend more taxpayer money on a “shop local (Downtown) ” campaign (another local government fad, like skating rinks), the rest of Chico goes to hell. Furthermore, I believe that in her angst to rid Downtown of the troublesome bums, District 2 councilwoman Kasey Reynolds made arrangements with a man who didn’t even own the sub-code building he was occupying to “get them off the street”. Especially the street right in front of her Downtown ice creamery.

Kasey Reynolds is not fit for office. She’s obviously out to protect her own interests, and her own agenda. I also believe she entertains visions of higher office, hoping to follow her benefactor James Gallagher on to the assembly. Call me catty, I couldn’t help but notice – the day she took office, she started “dressing for success” and spraying on the make-up. She’s a girl with ambitions.

So I’m not surprised that she would do something so desperate and ruthless as hide people and their real problems in a decaying building and then ignore pleas for help. Atta Girl Kasey!

There it is – the first letter to the editor bitching about a rate increase that could have been stopped with a piece of paper that said “NO!”

1 Feb

A friend sent me a link to a letter in the ER yesterday that goads me into saying “I told you so!” A local woman bitching about the sewer rate increase. Just now?

The entire process was legal, mostly because people haven’t been paying attention as the state legislature has changed the rules for how taxes can be administered. The writer had very good points, suggesting the use of some of the millions the city of Chico got in Camp Fire emergency funding, to bring our sewer plant and infrasture up to date. But, here’s the thing – all we had to do to to stop that sewer rate increase was write NO on a piece of paper with our address and signature and deliver it to the clerk.

In the 45 days between receiving the notice and the hearing date, I wrote two letters to the paper telling people about the process and how simply we could reject it. The local media sat on their keyboards. I contacted Howard Jarvis Association and received information how to beat it, and shared that on my blog. I spoke to friends, neighbors and strangers at the grocery store. I got many blank stares.

Meanwhile, I’ll guess over half of Chico threw their notices in the trash without even reading them.

So now the media, including the Enterprise Record, are jumping on the bandwagon to promote the rate increase, with a glowing Eric Gustafson talking about the Candy Land we’ll have now – even promising to resurface entire streets after sewer hook-ups instead of sloppy patches.

All that waits to be seen – what we will see immediately, is a continuing rise in our cost of living with a simultaneous dip in our quality of life. I also predict Gustafson will be moving on to a higher salary in another town within the next year.

What I also predict is another push to outlaw septic tanks – we’ll see, on the next installment of Tank Girl.