Council weighs youth, senior programs vs. ADA compliance for grant use

Public expresses concern about diluting Measure L

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Council weighs youth, senior programs vs. ADA compliance for grant useA debate on how best to spend some $300,000 in grants made for a lively discussion at City Hall during the first meeting of a newly elected council.

The council also approved budget revisions to accommodate underperforming revenue projections and nearly $400,000 in unfunded obligations. (See related story, this page).

In the five-plus hours of discussion — which started Wednesday evening and was adjourned that night to be held over to Thursday afternoon — philosophical questions relating to the role of city government, funding priorities in the community and the city’s chronic budget issues were raised from both sides of the dais.

In the end, the council directed staff to identify enough cuts in the budget to correct the structural deficit between revenues and expenditures, and tabled the decision on how to spend the grant money.

One of the focuses of the discussion was allocation of Community Development Block Grants — money disbursed from the county to help augment funding options for projects that meet specific criteria and benefit the city. The city receives money in five-year blocks, and typically adjusts the plan on a yearly basis. The city receives about $150,000 per year, but often rolls the money over in order to shore up the fund to support a larger project.

Interim Director Dennis Speer presented the staff recommendation of using the money to fund projects to make sidewalks ADA compliant.

Following that recommendation Dennis Young, president of the Southern Sierra Boys & Girls Club, said that his organization had been denied a previously applied for grant with no indication why. (The city later clarified that the club’s grant did not meet requirements and was rejected by the county.)

He and several others voiced the value of the organization to the community and said they were willing to work with the city to find a way to comply with criteria in hopes of qualifying for a grant.

One resident said that he opposed the city giving financial support to a service outside of what he believed was the city’s role to only protect citizens and provide streets and other infrastructure.

Lori Acton, one of the newly seated councilmembers, said that the club is supported primarily through fees and donations, not the city. She added that since many juvenile crimes were committed during after-school hours, the club’s offering activities to young people could be said to support the role of public safety.

“What matters now is the $75,000 on the table for them,” she said. “I don’t think we should pull these funds from them.”

James Sanders, another new member of the council, said that he appreciated the worthiness of the cause, but “In these difficult times, it’s hard for me to justify dedicating that money.” He said that the city first needed to address the issues it was behind on financially.

Jason Patin, newly appointed to mayor pro tem, said that he did not understand the urgency of the issue — which apparently needed a final decision that Friday.

Patin agreed that in theory supporting the Boys & Girls Club fit the “community development” description in the title, but said he was hesitant to depart from the staff recommendation.

“My question is, if we take money from [ADA compliance projects], can you tell me what that’s going to do in terms of liability, in terms of our access to future funding?”

Speer said that the city was at some risk if it did not move forward in the project, and that the state and federal governments could make an issue of the fact that the city has not reached compliance. “That day hasn’t come, but it’s a likely outcome.”

Acton recommended using Measure L funding for the ADA compliance so that the council could use the money to improve the Boys & Girls Club, as well as the senior center.

Sanders objected, saying that the intent for Measure L dollars was to fund police protection and street improvements. Acton said that ADA compliance fell under that purview.

“I don’t think that’s going to pass the smell test,” said Chip Holloway, appointed vice mayor at that meeting. He also validated the youth program and its Teen Court counterpart, which he said was successful in turning around 78 youth in the last year.

“I think it passes the smell test quite nicely,” countered newly elected Mayor Dan Clark.

Acton recommended using the $300,000 available to fund $200,000 in senior-center improvements, $95,000 in BGC improvements and $5,000 in street art. She said that because the city owned both buildings, those funds could be considered infrastructure improvements.

Patin objected to not saving any money for the original recommendations. Holloway said he believed that the council should not approve money that had no projects attached, and that if the money was approved the projects would be built to the budget, not the need. “If you give a budget of $200,000, they’re going to spend that even if it only costs $100,000.

Sanders said he was fine with approving the staff recommendation, and that promising Measure L money for the ADA compliance work “draws a very fine line on misusing Measure L.”

After taking action on the budget items (see related story), the meeting was adjourned and the discussion continued on the next day.

A new tone was immediately set when Holloway and Patin announced that after discussing the issue with county staff, they got an extension to Jan. 16 to make a decision.

The tone from the public microphone had also changed dramatically, with most members expressing an objection to abandoning the ADA compliance projects and promising Measure L to pay for them.

“I am a little dismayed there’s already an effort to use money for things other than repairing streets,” said Phil Salvatore, one of five members of the Measure L Oversight Committee. He said that a former councilman was already in talks to have the senior center transferred into the county’s hands.

He said that taking the money and spending it on street art, “considering the budget problems we’re having, feels almost like a betrayal.”

Holloway said that was never a consensus of the council, but a concern generated in the “local network of useless information.”

Acton said that she was only raising the point that the city had other funding options for ADA compliance.

Clark said that the council had also been responding to the urgency to meet a previously set timeline.

Scott Garver, another Measure L Oversight member, said that the council risked losing the tenuous public trust by taking money out of proposed projects and backfilling it with Measure L. “Look at what the city voted for – the literature specifically talked about streets, and it was passed on the shoe leather of the police who walked door to door to talk about public safety.”

He asked the council not to dismiss the perception issue, or discredit public feedback. “Whether or not it is chatted about in the ‘network of useless information,’ these are the people who voted for Measure L. And even those who didn’t vote for it are the ones paying for it now.”

Garver said that trust was critical particularly since the ultimate goal was to reapprove the local tax when it expires in five years in order to continue paying for those long-term obligations. “The people who voted for this and the 100 percent paying for it are entitled to a little reflection on the council’s part.”

Patin objected that those statements had nothing to do with the grants, which was the item up for discussion.

Resident Jim Rachels agreed that the council has a credibility problem. He said that although the city’s actions in moving money around as discussed may be legal, “You’ve done a horrific job to this point convincing the public of what you are doing.”

Patin reiterated that those comments did not having anything to do with the item up for discussion.

“That animosity just creates more distance between yourself and your constituents,” said Rachels.

“I just want to clarify — Measure L is not on the table,” said Acton. “It was illustrative. All I was using it for. Clear? Crystal? Thank you.”

The council agreed to revisit the issue after staff brought back a new recommendation.

Clark said that he was confused by the distrust from the public. “Give us that trust until we lose it.” He said that he believes people should be respectful of each other. “I’m not a confrontational person. I don’t know why it has to get like that.”

Story First Published: 2012-12-12