Stephens calls for public input to help resolve city challenges

By DR. JEANETTE FRANCIS

News Review Correspondent

The importance of considering new ways to address old challenges facing the city was the common theme in a presentation by Councilwoman Lindsey Stephens at last week’s meeting of the Ridgecrest Republican Women.

Since taking the oath of office last December, the city official has pushed into the public sphere a variety of unresolved issues, inviting input and often bringing her own outside-the-box recommendations to the table.

“I think we need more creative solutions to look at how to stretch our dollars further, and we need to look at more of what other cities are doing,” she said.

Stephens challenged her listeners to start attending council and committee meetings. “I’d like to see more people showing up to the meetings – both the council meetings and the committee meetings – because we need more input. We need more people getting involved.”

She then gave an update on each committee she sits on, including the one that oversees the city’s finances. “They are making some changes to the code so that the council has more input and control over budget. There’s been a lot of discretion by staff of moving funds between departments and things.” Code changes will afford the committee an opportunity to keep a “closer eye” on that process.

Stephens also reported that the city bought a new finance software system that should be installed by the end of the year. The system is supposed to be easier to use, which should expedite city projects.

Stephens next reported recent activities of the Parks and Recreation — or “quality of life” — Committee, saying that Pearson Park is slated to be outfitted with new equipment. The committee is considering how best to reduce costs associated with the project.

“I was able to discover that instead of doing bid by process we could do a purchasing contract, and a purchasing contract winds up allowing more money to directly go into the capital expense, less for consultants,” she said. As a result the city was able to save $150,000 and get more equipment installed in the parks.

The council is reviewing other areas in which to incorporate these purchasing contracts so the middleman can be cut out.

“We’re just going straight with the manufacturers of the equipment and getting the money more spent directly on the actual item that we’re needing.”

Stephens related that she was able to procure a $13,000 donation from Ridgecrest Regional Hospital to install fitness equipment, so “there will be little nooks off the walking paths where people can go and use the exercise stations.”

The committee is finalizing the purchase order this week, and installation is scheduled for September. “That will be a great thing for our community – the parks haven’t been touched in quite some time.”

The Freedom Park enhancement plan will include “a very patriotic splash pad, with a nice shaded picnic area and an outdoor movie screen.” The goal is to promote public use of the park, particularly as a community gathering place.

“It’s really at the heart of our community. We’ve got City Hall, Kerr-McGee and then we’ve got this really awesome park.” The council wants to “encourage more concerts and plays because we have a lot of good groups that put on plays and productions here.” Events could also incorporate amenities like food trucks.

Stephens next reported on Pinney Pool renovations, saying that the most recent bid given to the city was far over budget because of high labor costs associated with the requirement that the city pay contractors the prevailing wage – $50 per hour. So the city is looking for a local contractor.

“We have some local people volunteering time and services for the bath house and the parking lot so that’s very exciting, but the pool itself is crumbling and needs to be resurfaced.”

Stephens next reported on activities of the Economic Development Committee. At the end of May, she attended the International Council of Shopping Centers convention in Las Vegas, “a huge gathering worldwide of developers and retailers that come together and try and make deals.

Stephens thinks the community will get two months of use of the splash pad this year beginning in September or October. After the equipment is manufactured and inspected, the installation will be scheduled.

“The good thing about where we live is we will probably only have it shut down for maybe three months of the year because we don’t get below freezing for too long, so it will be nice because we will be able to utilize it for a large portion of the year.”

Kerr McGee ballfield renovations are on hold, as the bids were “a million to a million-and-a-half over what we had budgeted.” Stephens said she is looking at using local contractors in hopes of driving down the costs.

A new program that started this week is Indoor Playtime at Kerr McGee Center. The cost is $1 per child, and the program is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday.

Finally Stephens discussed the Infrastructure Committee. “Our biggest problem is that we have an $80-million-plus deficit on getting our roads fixed, and we are just completing a pavement management study.”

Measure V, passed in 2016, allocates a one-cent sales tax to fund city street and pothole repairs and augment public safety spending.

The measure will yield an estimated $4 million annually for eight years. Stephens said $2 million per year should be allotted to roads.

She presented a plan at Wednesday night’s council meeting (see also next week’s edition) that proposes the purchase of a slurry-seal asphalt resurfacing machine so that more of the work can be done by the city to reduce labor costs.

Her proposal would incorporate some expenditure of TAB funds and the savings incurred by purchasing equipment, which she said will result in significant Measure V savings. She added that she hopes quality improvements will be associated with hiring local people to do the work because they may be more invested in taking care of their own community.

“Our problems are not unique – every city across America is having roadway failures, so we need to really look around and see what other people are doing.”

Stephens said she would also like to see about $200,000 of the remaining TAB funds go toward repairing the Senior Center parking lot. The council subsequently approved the action Wednesday.

Stephens then discussed the Downs Street improvement project, which will involve moving utility poles owned by Southern California Edison in order to widen the road. She is encouraging allocating a portion of the TAB money for the pole relocation.

According to Stephens the city is in litigation with SCE over the poles and has been in negotiations with SCE since the late ’90s. “So, I think if we just pay for the pole relocation and get it done, it will save us some money because every year the cost of doing things is increasing.” The pole relocation is projected to cost about $600,000, and Stephens is proposing that the city and SCE split the cost.

Stephens then fielded several public comments. An attendee questioned the validity of Stephens’ Facebook survey, in which community members reported what they thought the city should use the TAB money on.

“I posted it in a group called Ridgecrest which has nearly 8,000 members in it, and some people have questioned if I should be doing it that way,” she responded. She pointed out that last year the city paid $25,000 and surveyed 400 households for Measure V, whereas the current survey yielded 700 responses and cost $0.

Another attendee inquired whether the representative on the city committee for water is sharing GSA progress with the rest of the council and whether there is in general a timely flow of information.

“Well, I noticed for the first time this month that we didn’t have it on our agenda, and the way that the calendar landed, our meeting falls after the GSA meeting, so normally we would have it on the agenda the night before the GSA meeting, and we would be getting information,” Stephens responded. However, the council has dedicated a lot of time to discussing bylaws, she said.

Another attendee questioned whether attorney fees are too high. “I do have a concern on the matter of how much we finance from a legal perspective. We pay a flat fee to our lawyer, and then for any litigation or special projects, that is billed to us separately. We spent $60,000 so far in legal fees for the water portion,” Stephens said.

Council meetings occur every month on the first and third Wednesday at 6 p.m. at City Hall. There will be no meeting on the first Wednesday of July because of the holiday. Committee meetings occur as follows:

Finance on the third Monday of every month, Parks and Recreation every first Tuesday at 4 p.m. at Kerr McGee Center, Economic Development second Wednesday at 5 p.m. at City Hall, Infrastructure fourth Thursday.

Story First Published: 2017-06-23