City manager reflects on past year, looks ahead

2013-01-03T00:00:00Z City manager reflects on past year, looks aheadJesse Duarte Napa Valley Register
January 03, 2013 12:00 am  • 

St. Helena City Manager Gary Broad is a big sports fan, so it’s fitting that he used a sports metaphor to summarize his first year as, in essence, St. Helena’s head coach.

“Given that last year could be looked at as a rebuilding year, I think we accomplished a lot,” said Broad, who was hired in November 2011. “It generally feels like we’re on calm seas going into 2013. We can build off 2012 and accomplish a lot.”

Broad said he was impressed with the wide array of ordinances the council passed this year addressing vacation rentals, well drilling, relocation benefits for tenants of substandard housing, outdoor marijuana cultivation, large trucks on the Pope Street bridge, smoking in public parks, an annual water management plan to guide development, and of course, noisy leaf blowers.

The well ordinance, which bans the drilling of wells for commercial and industrial use and permits residential wells only under special circumstances, was particularly crucial because it keeps water customers on the city system, Broad said. The ordinance was intended to preserve groundwater for agriculture and keep the city’s water enterprise on a solid financial footing.

The water management ordinance was also a key step in getting St. Helena’s General Plan update one step closer to approval, Broad said. The plan has been on hold since late 2010, largely because of complicated problems involving water.

The new ordinance provides a mechanism for regulating how much water may be allocated for new development and limits the possibility of the General Plan reaching its full build-out, which has been a widespread concern in the staunchly slow-growth city.

Yet the centerpiece of Broad’s first year was undoubtedly the 2012-13 budget, which cut staffing and administrative costs to free up $1 million for long-deferred road repairs.

“The adoption of a new budget was a huge accomplishment in terms of straightening out the city’s financial situation,” Broad said. “It felt very precarious before that, but I feel like it got us on a good footing not only for this year but for other budgets going forward.”

Broad said the city should end the fiscal year with a budget surplus of a few hundred thousand dollars, which can be added to reserves in the next budget.

Road repairs

The timing of the budget’s approval in late June didn’t leave enough time to get a comprehensive paving project under way before the rainy season, but the city did pave Mills Lane and Howell Mountain Road, two of the worst roads in the city limits.

Howell Mountain was paid for out of the general fund, with St. Helena providing the asphalt and the county providing the labor. Mills Lane, which had a separate funding source, was a collaboration with crews from the city of Napa.

St. Helena’s roads remain some of the worst in the Bay Area, according to a study conducted by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

That study will also help determine which roads the city will pave first, as part of a comprehensive bid package Broad plans to release early this year. The roads rated worst by the MTC will likely be slated for paving, as well as some slightly better roads where the cost of repairs is likely to skyrocket if the city waits much longer.

Aside from freeing up funds for paving projects in the coming year, the approximately $1 million in cuts implemented in 2012 will continue to provide savings in future years, Broad said. That means the budget for 2013-14 will likely have another $1 million or so available for even more road repairs, or for anything else the council wants to fund.

The passage of Measure T was also good news for the city’s roads. Once the half-cent sales tax takes effect in 2018, it should generate $600,000 a year for St. Helena road repairs.

The countywide measure is preferable to a St. Helena–specific tax because it doesn’t put the city’s businesses at a disadvantage by saddling them with a disproportionately high sales tax rate, Broad said.

While the staffing cuts and road repairs were the centerpiece of last year’s budget, Broad said other steps have been taken to cut costs.

Employees have already agreed to contribute to their health care plans, and have committed to further negotiations aimed at investigating new ways to provide them with quality care while saving the city some money, Broad said. An employee compensation study is also on tap to see how St. Helena’s compensation packages compare with those offered by similar cities such as Calistoga.

The city has also obtained a new IT provider, modified the position of building inspector, and even cut the budget for bottled water at City Hall.

Broad said the city achieved those savings while broadening public outreach through a new consolidated city website, an electronic newsletter, and a year-in-review report.

In 2013, Broad hopes to further streamline city operations by providing councilmembers with iPads in place of printed agenda packets that can run into the hundreds of pages, and by eliminating Planning Commission hearings for minor design review applications.

Lawsuits

On the legal front, the city settled two major lawsuits in 2012, but a new suit filed in November has the potential to consume a lot of time and money.

In December the council agreed to pay $325,000 to settle a suit brought by Dennis Hunter, who accused the city of violating the terms of a 2009 agreement. The city transferred dirt excavated from the flood project onto Hunter’s adjacent property, but Hunter claimed the city had failed to compact the dirt to form proper building pads.

Broad said the settlement isn’t as bad as it seems. The city never paid the flood project contractors to compact the dirt, which probably would have been a significant cost, and dumping the dirt on Hunter’s property saved the city the cost of having the dirt trucked away.

“When you look at the settlement, you should think about what the cost would have been if the city had paid for that work in the first place,” Broad said.

He said a similar cost analysis applies to a suit brought by one of the flood project’s subcontractors, which led the council to approve a $175,000 settlement.

Both suits would have continued to rack up legal expenses if the city had continued litigating, Broad added.

The only suit now facing the city is a federal action filed by former tenants of a substandard Pope Street rental property who accuse the city of not providing enough housing for low-income residents and discriminating against Latinos. Broad said the city’s attorneys are still working on their formal response to the allegations.

At this stage it’s still hard to estimate how much it will cost the city to fight the suit, he said.

“If the lawsuit goes to court it will be a significant general fund expense,” Broad said.

General Plan, Hunter project

As for early concerns that last year’s staffing cuts would cripple the Planning Department, Broad said the department is running just fine with Interim Planning Director Greg Desmond doing most of the work and Broad himself, a former planner, providing occasional help. It’s helped that the department’s workload has been light of late, with no major projects coming before the Planning Commission in the past few months.

Things should ramp up in 2013, with work resuming on the General Plan and public hearings expected for the 87-unit Hunter project.

“The council has agreed that rather than taking on new and additional priorities — like leaf blowers — that can take up a lot of time, we should make the General Plan a priority,” Broad said.

The council plans to tackle the General Plan chapter by chapter at a series of meetings. Broad hopes to get started as soon as possible.

The Hunter project’s environmental impact report has been on hold because the consultants preparing the document asked for more money to respond to the extensive comments submitted in response to the draft EIR.

Consultants, city staff and the developer — who actually pays for the EIR — have been working on a new contract to pay for the work. It should come up for council approval soon, Broad said.

Another priority for the Planning Department is a study investigating the feasibility of affordable housing on five sites around town. The study will be paid for by a $100,000 state grant.

Two projects that were the focus of a lot of discussion in 2012 now seem to be on the back burner.

Negotiations involving Carl Doumani’s Mills Lane office project are dead unless Doumani proposes a new plan, and the future of the city’s Adams Street property is in limbo due to questions about funding and ongoing controversies about how the site should be developed.

In 2012, the community rejected the idea of building a hotel on the 5.6-acre site at the corner of Adams Street and Library Lane. Broad said he knew it would be risky to hold public meetings to talk about the hotel option, and indeed members of the public were harshly critical. But Broad said the meetings were a signal that the city welcomes public input.

“We want to get public feedback so City Hall knows where the community wants to go,” he said. “We want to avoid what happens in a lot of communities where the city goes in one direction and then gets a lot of negative public feedback afterward.”

Trees, flood project

Also likely to generate lively discussion will be a new tree ordinance intended to protect the city’s trees while still respecting the rights of property owners.

The recent cutting down of redwoods at Woodbridge Village on Pope Street has renewed calls for an ordinance that would give the city some oversight over the cutting down of large trees. Broad expects the Tree Committee to craft a new ordinance to bring before the council, which rejected a far-reaching ordinance last year that drew heavy criticism from councilmembers and citizens.

Meanwhile, consultants hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should start work on a long-awaited study that could help the city obtain federal reimbursements for the flood control project.

The city and the Corps have agreed on a 50-50 cost split, and the city has committed $620,000 for its half of the study, which ensures that the project meets the Corps’ technical standards. However, the Corps only has about $50,000 available for the study, and the Corps will announce early this year whether any additional money will be appropriated, Broad said.

“We’re being as proactive as we can in pushing for political and financial commitment to this study,” Broad said. “We have $20 million riding on getting it done.”

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