Mad River Union
McKINLEYVILLE – There are plenty of reasons for McKinleyville residents to feel cheery and optimistic about their town’s future. On the flip side, the unincorporated community – along with all of Humboldt County – faces some daunting challenges.
All of this was discussed Jan. 17 during the McKinleyville Chamber of Commerce State of McKinleyville event held at Azalea Hall, which was brimming with a crowd of more than 100 residents who turned out to listen to a panel presentation.
For more than two hours, the nine-member panel of county and local officials chewed over issues including jobs, crime, law enforcement, homelessness, roads, the economy and more.
‘You can find a job’
Fifth District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg, a McKinleyville resident, noted that Humboldt Countys’ unemployment rate keeps on dropping. For 2017 the unemployment rate was 3.4 percent, down from 3.6 percent the year before. The state-wide rate is at 4 percent.
“There are a lot of jobs open right now,” Sundberg said. “If you can pass a background check and a drug screen, and you work hard, you can find a job in Humboldt County.”
Sundberg briefly touched on the issue of roads in McKinleyville.
“We have some exciting things going on with roads,” Sundberg said, informing the crowd that the County of Humboldt, which is responsible for maintaining roads in McKinleyville, will received $6 million for paving and other transportation-related projects this year.
The money comes from a 12-cent gas tax increase and vehicle registration fee increase signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown last year.
Humboldt County has an estimated $200 million in deferred road maintenance. The gas tax money will help Public Works make a dent in the crumbling infrastructure. Sundberg said that among the roads that will get some much-needed help is Ocean Drive in McKinleyville.
‘McKinleyville is a priority’
Humboldt County Sheriff Billy Honsal delivered some good news for those who want to see a stronger law enforcement presence in town.
Honsal said the Sheriff’s Office has hired more deputies thanks to funding from Measure Z, a half-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2014. Honsal said there are now 13 officers assigned to the Northern Command, which works out of the Law Enforcement Facility at Pierson Park. That staff allows three deputies to be on duty at any given time.
This will allow a bicycle patrol of trails in McKinleyville by Deputy Charlie Lamb, who returned to work after a successful nine-month battle with cancer.
“A couple times a week, he’s going to be cruising the Hammond Trail. He’s going to be cruising the trails in and around McKinleyville to make sure they are safe,” Honsal said. “People need to feel safe walking in this community. This is a family community and I want to make sure that stays that way.”
Honsal said his office is also working on hiring a school resource officer, a deputy who would be assigned to work with the local schools and address juvenile problems. “That’s something that’s going to be very positive here,” he said.
Honsal also introduced Capt. Kevin Miller, whose rank was upgraded from lieutenant last week. “He’s your chief of police here in the city of McKinleyville,” Honsal said.
Miller noted that while deputies of the Northern Command are based in McKinleyville, the territory they cover stretches from Samoa Boulevard north to the Del Norte County line and from the ocean east to Lord Ellis Summit.
Miller said the number of service calls in McKinleyville has remained remarkably similar over the past two years. In 2017, the office received 9,816 calls. The year before it received 9,807 calls, a difference of nine.
“McKinleyville is a priority for my department,” Honsal said. “I hope you see that.”
One of the complaints heard often in McKinleyville is that low-level criminals are allowed to roam the town, despite being repeatedly caught engaged in criminal behavior. People wonder why they’re not being locked up and why townsfolk have to be repeatedly victimized before anything happens.
The reasons were explained by Sheriff Honsal and District Attorney Maggie Fleming.
Part of the problem is simply the nature of the criminal justice system.
Fleming said that while people may read a news report about someone being arrested by police for a crime, that doesn’t mean the person will automatically be charged by the District Attorney’s Office.
“Law enforcement can make an arrest based upon probable cause,” Fleming said. “I can only file charges if there’s admissible evidence that would allow 12 jurors to find the person guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Fleming said sometimes she fields calls from people who want to know why she hasn’t filed charges against a suspect. Sometimes the answer is that police haven’t finished an investigation and come to her with a case.
As for the reasons that low-level offenders are able to stay on the street, it’s a combination of legislation and limited jail capacity.
In 2014, voters approved Prop. 47, which reclassified numerous non-violent crimes as misdemeanors. In some cases, suspects are are now issued tickets instead of being arrested and taken to jail.
Faced with over-crowded state prisons, Governor Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 109 in 2011. Inmates convicted of non-violent and non-sex offenses now serve their time in the Humboldt County Correctional Facility rather than in state prisons.
“In the old days, if a person was sentenced to more than a year in jail, it meant they were going to prison,” Fleming said. Now they stay in the local jail.
Honsal said the jail, which has 417 beds, is near capacity. On Jan. 16, the day before the State of McKinleyville presentation, there were 390 inmates in the jail, Honsal said.
Honsal said that before the jail was full, it “served the community’s needs” by providing a place for people on drugs or alcohol to sober up for a few days while they were connected to services. “We don’t have that anymore,” Honsal said.
Fleming said one of her concerns is Prop 57, which was overwhelmingly passed by California voters in 2016. The law allows for a three-member panel with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to release state prison inmates for good behavior long before their sentences are over.
Fleming gave the example of Eureka resident John Simpson, who was sentenced in 2009 to 16 years in prison for possession of an assault weapon, being a felon in possession of firearms and fleeing from a police officer. Simpson had previously been sentenced for manslaughter in 1992. He led officers on a dangerous, high-speed chase and was later found with loaded weapons.
Less than halfway through the 16-year sentence, Fleming said she received a letter from the state saying Simpson was going to be released. Fleming had 30 days to respond and successfully prevented the release.
Fleming said that when Simpson was originally sentenced, there was an expectation that he woould serve 85 percent of his sentence.
That sentence was determined by a judge after hearing from the D.A., law enforcement, the victims and the defense.
Under Prop. 57, an unelected panel with no local connection can approve early releases. Fleming said this concerns her.
Fleming said that the number of cases brought to trial have increased substantially since she was elected in 2014. She took over the office previously run by D.A. Paul Gallegos, who did not seek reelection that year.
“The year before I took office, there were only 17 cases that went to jury trial,” Fleming said. “My first year in office, there were 35. The next year it was 42 and last year, we tried, I believe it was 32. So we’ve now tried 110 jury trials since I took office... of those, two-thirds were felonies.”
“Literally, right now, 23 people housed in our jail are waiting for their murder trial,” Fleming said.
Near the end of the panel presentation, attendees had an opportunity to hear answers to questions they submitted in writing. One question queried the panel about the possibility of McKinleyville incorporating and becoming a city.
Sundberg said that a state law regarding how tax revenues are divvied up between counties and new cities makes incorporation unfeasible.
“So the state made a law awhile back that says ‘if you want to incorporate your town, you have to be revenue neutral to the county,’ which means any taxes that you paid at that time, after you incorporate, the same amount of taxes go to the county,” Sundberg said.
With the existing tax revenue unavailable to the new city, additional tax revenues would have to be found, Sundberg said. The town would have to find a way to generate new tax revenues, perhaps through commercial growth.
“Unless they change that law, it’s never going to incorporate,” he said.
“So what can we do about it? We need to make sure McKinleyville has the same services that a city would get, and high-quality services,” Sundberg said.
Just about all the services that a city receives are provided “in components” in McKinleyville, Sundberg said. The McKinleyville Community Services District provides sewer, water, streetlights, parks and recreation. The County of Humboldt provides street maintenance, law enforcement and planning. The Arcata Fire District provides firefighting services.
• McKinleyville Neighborhood & Business Watch coordinator Christine Willfong told the crowd that she would soon be walking along both sides of Central Avenue to receive input from businesses regarding the Business Watch. She encouraged people to join the program and to create their own neighborhood watches.
• Humboldt County Planning & Building Director John Ford said his department plans to begin work on the creation of a McKinleyville Town Center ordinance, which would establish land-use rules for the middle of town.
• McKinleyville Community Services District Manager Greg Orsini discussed his agency’s planning efforts with regard to its sewer and water infrastructure. The district will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2020. After half a century, some of the pipes and other components of the district’s facilities are going to need to be replaced. The district is developing plans for this.
• Although there’s a serious homeless problem in McKinleyville, the issue did not dominate the panel’s discussion. Sundberg said that Measure Z is funding the Mobile Intervention Service Team (M.I.S.T.), which partners a deputy with a social worker. Together they can find people who need help and try to connect them with services.
One of the biggest barriers to getting people housed, Sundberg said, is not funding but a lack of housing stock. The county is trying to find more landlords who are willing to work with the county. “We need to find out what the landlords need,” Sundberg said.
• Arcata Fire Chief Justin McDonald said that the district has been using pickup trucks to respond to some incidents rather than using full-size fire truck. So far, the new system seems to be working fine, he said.