sebastopol city council

MAKING HIS CASE - Fire chief Bill Braga (right) asks the council for a full-time paid firefighter at the Sebastopol Fire Station. Council members Una Glass (left) and Michael Carnacchi listen to his argument. The full council voted unanimously to hire a firefighter.

To understand someone’s values, look at how they spend their money

June is budget month for government agencies across the country, and Sebastopol is no exception. Budget discussions stretched over two city council meetings, and on June 18, the Sebastopol City Council gave initial approval to the City of Sebastopol 2019-2020 Budget.

Presented by Finance Director Ana Kwong, the 2019-20 budget forecasts the town’s revenues at $9.29 million and expenditures at a slightly higher $9.55 million. The budget was balanced by transferring $260,000 from the city’s reserve fund.

Councilmembers blamed having to dip into the city’s reserve fund on damage caused by this year’s flooding.

The council also moved $1 million from the reserve to fund city pensions with CalPERS, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System.

That left the reserve with $2,662,000, which still exceeds the council’s reserve goal of 20% of the general fund.

Where does the money come from and where does it go?

The largest portion of city revenues — 52% — comes from the sales tax and other city taxes. Property taxes make up another 27%, while the city’s transient occupancy tax brings in 7%. (See the below for the rest of the revenue breakdown.)

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Police accounted for the city’s biggest expenditure at 45%. Another 11% went to the fire department, while public works consumed 13%. (See the chart below for the rest of the expenditure breakdown.)

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BUDGET HIGHLIGHTS

The creation of a full-time firefighter position

Sebastopol has always been proud of and (from a fiscal perspective) grateful for its volunteer fire force, but according to Fire Chief Bill Braga, the volume of calls has now exceeded his department’s ability to respond in a timely manner. The number of calls is expected to top 1,300 in 2019, thanks in part to medical emergencies from Sebastopol’s graying population.

According to Braga, who was raised in Sebastopol and has been with the fire department for 36 years, the Sebastopol Fire Department’s average response time has risen to six to seven minutes after receiving a 911 call.

“I’m hoping for a three- to four-minute response time,” Braga said. “That is a lifesaving window for our community …  A medical emergency, heart attack, stroke, which is our typical emergency — we need to be with the patient within the golden minutes, and we’re not.”

Councilmember Sarah Glade Gurney wondered if this expenditure could be put off until the mid-year budget review, but most councilmembers jumped to endorse the idea of hiring a new firefighter.

“This is for me, no question. $127,000 is an investment in our community for public safety. Compared to other things on this list, it gets my vote,” Mayor Neysa Hinton said.

Ultimately the council voted unanimously to support this budget item.

Repairing infrastructure

The council dedicated $200,000 to repair the roof of the Sebastopol Community Cultural Center and an additional $100,000 for flood-related costs not reimbursable with state or federal funds. They also agreed to spend $100,000 to repair and maintain the storm drains in town. Other repair-related expenditures include $49,000 to replace the filter and plumbing system at Ives Pool and $10,000 to paint the exterior of the police department. The city also forked over $34,400 for a new police motorcycle.

Economic development specialist or community vitality coordinator

The council had an interesting debate over spending $40,000 for an “economic development specialist,” a position that was later renamed a “community vitality coordinator.”

After listening to some initial discussions about the scope of the position, Gurney raised an objection.

“If we’re taking an action that we believe is for the benefit of our business community, I think it would be really great if they agreed that that action was for their benefit,” she said. “I’m very curious to know what the business community would like the council to do in terms of support for their success.”

Gurney suggested having a facilitated workshop with local businesses and business groups to actually suss out what kind of support they would like from the city.

“We’ve had four or five economic development specialists over the years,” Gurney said, “and for all the work that they did, we got almost no results.”

“I can’t speak to the success or lack of success of previous people,” responded Hinton, “but I think Sebastopol is a different place than it was back then and that different people are different people, and the right coordinator could really make this happen.”

The council ultimately committed to making a $40,000 expenditure to enhance community vitality, though not necessarily by way of hiring a part-time contractor. They agreed to have a facilitated workshop with local businesses and business groups prior to defining the position.

Sonoma Clean Power’s Evergreen Program

The other lively debate concerned the council’s desire to switch the city’s utility program to Sonoma Clean Power’s Evergreen Program, which provides 100% locally sourced and renewable energy. It will cost the city $40,000 more per year than Sonoma Clean Power’s regular program, in which the city is currently enrolled.

“This is the No. 1 thing we can do to make the biggest impact in meeting the climate goals that are in our General Plan and in Climate Action 2020,” said Councilmember Patrick Slayter, who is also a board member and Sebastopol’s community representative to Sonoma Clean Power.

Hinton had some qualms about the proposal initially, not simply because it was a major chunk of change, but because she wasn’t sure how the residents of Sebastopol felt about the program. She asked what percentage of the electorate was enrolled in Evergreen only to learn that the program has a low sign-up rate — only 1,100 people have signed up in all of Sonoma County.

Gurney suggested this had to do more with the company’s marketing acumen than the worth of the program. She felt Evergreen, with its emphasis on local renewable energy, was an obvious match for the values of the town.

“There are a lot of values-driven people in this community who believe in the energy delivery behind the system … this is a value statement and it’s going to cost.”

Glass agreed.

“I think it’s about leadership,” she said. “We’re the kind of city that should lead in investing in local renewable energy and clean power.”

Glass did wonder, however, “if it would be a more cost-effective investment to add more solar power to our wells and at the lift station on Morris.” (The majority of the city’s utility budget is eaten by pumping — pumping water up from city wells and pumping wastewater.)   

At this point, Slayter, who had attended a recent Sonoma Clean Power board meeting, mentioned that the utility has plans both to step up its marketing of the Evergreen program and to start a new energy generation program for municipalities, using photovoltaics.

“The opportunity may exist for some additional financial assistance on municipal properties,” Slayter said. “Sebastopol has photovoltaics on every one of our buildings, but we have a large parking lot in our downtown that’s open to the sky. That is prime real estate for some solar carports. It would be a big producer and … then you’re selling the energy back to the grid.”

The prospect of moving closer to the city’s climate goals, getting out ahead of neighboring cities (the leadership argument) and becoming an actual energy producer was too alluring to resist. The city council voted unanimously to spend $40,000 to switch to Sonoma Clean Power’s Evergreen Program.

“The City of Sebastopol 2019-2020 Budget,” which is 212 pages, can be found online on the meeting page for the June 4 city council meeting at ci.sebastopol.ca.us.

(1) comment

LenInSebastopol

Switching to Sonoma Clean Power does indicate not only the plan to commit to such energy but also reveals the standard "not-my-money" governmental approach to much of what moves our "leaders". The fact that about 1,000 private parties have done such a move clearly shows that our representative democracy is a myth. Nothing new here folks, as we move along.

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