Arcata budget stable but stagnant as crime intensifies

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

ARCATA – The City Council held one of two budget study sessions last week, with the second one taking place Thursday, June 24 at 5:30 p.m. That meeting will also include a council decision on whether to appoint a replacement councilmember for outgoing Mayor Sofia Pereira, who recently resigned, or schedule a special election.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, tax revenues are stable and in some cases stronger than ever. Fee increases on water and wastewater have also yielded income, much of that earmarked for wastewater treatment plant upgrades. Grants have helped deliver additional revenue.

But expenditures loom as well, with major projects, employee costs and insurance rate hikes soaking up all available revenue and challenging restoration of services. By far, the biggest capital outlay is for the wastewater treatment plant overhaul, at $10.5 million.

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The city has kept its budget balanced through the COVID crisis by making $1.3 million in cuts, mostly by freezing or eliminating staff positions, and suspending planned projects and new vehicle purchases. 

A handful of those cuts are restored in the new budget, including a few police positions and part-timers in parks, facilities and street maintenance. But, states a staff report, “Although the City remains fiscally solvent, the rebuilding of City services will take at least another two years.”

With crime intensifying, the Arcata Police Department is being tasked with high demand for services even while budgetary resources remain constrained. 

APD is budgeted at $7,087,356 for fiscal year 2021/22, up from this year’s $6,339,503. Some six APD staff positions remain frozen, including two police officers and one overhire officer. The police force is down two positions, from 27 to 25 personnel, and up to four more departures are expected this year. 

Police Chief Brian Ahearn assured the council that core services continue to be delivered, long-term planning continues. “Public safety costs money, and to that tend everything we do within this department comes with a price tag,” he said.

He said the department wants to be a team player through the tough times. “APD supports the very difficult decisions you have to make,” Ahearn told the council. “This budget, while lean, is meaningful and allows us to continue to get the job done.”

Councilmember Stacy Atkins-Salazar offered a suggestion for consideration, one in keeping with city goals. That would be to enlist “community ambassadors” to circulate in selected areas of town – mostly downtown and Northtown – to offer information and report crime.   

Ahearn acknowledged that the idea has “tremendous value” and is used elsewhere, but that the ambassador would best be paired with an officer, especially if they’re uniformed and perceived as authorty figures and police collaborators. 

“They are going to be challenged, They are going to be intimidated. They are going to be threatened,” he said, just as uniformed police officers are on a daily basis. “I’m somewhat fearful of their personal safety and what kinds of tools and training we’re going to provide them.” 

He said the ambassadors could bring new liability exposure to the city. He mentioned the “lack of accountability” in the state’s criminal justice system as exacerbating the hazard.

APD’s faltering staffing will require “hard recruiting” efforts by the department. That is underway, but coordinating training and bringing in a new person is complicated, and takes at least a year. 

Further, local law enforcement agencies are competing for a small pool of candidates locally. A recruitment flyer is being prepared for statewide outreach, one that sells Arcata as a nice place to live and work. 

“This is a long-term investment,” Ahearn said. “We look at this as a 15-month proposition for a 30-year commitment to the city.”

New personnel might be fresh recruits or lateral transfers from elsewhere. “We just need good people,” Ahearn said.

Elsewhere in the budget

The council also hear about a range of projects and programs managed by the Building and Engineering Services, Administrative and Financial Operations, Environmental Services and IT departments. 

At the suggestion of Vice Mayor Brett Watson, Councilmembers made a tweak to the budget – taking half the estimated cost of removing the planter from the center of the Plaza and recommitting the $15,000 for use in general Valley West improvements. 

Another of Watson’s suggestions was also readily embraced – diverting $10,000 from the $18,470 allocated for the Arcata Chamber of Commerce for use in collaborative projects with Humboldt State, such as improving lighting on the pedestrian footbridge.

Arcata’s total fund balance is estimated at $30,962,468, down $235,401 from last year’s $31,197,868. The estimated General Fund balance is $4,222,119. Enterprise funds are estimated at $16,307,327. Special revenue stands at $4,240,829.

 






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