I wanted to take a little time to update our community on some of our major issues and to express gratitude and recognize the work of our City Council, City Manager Mark Prestwich and City Staff.
This letter was composed just before the Kincade fire and PSPS events but remains relevant as an overview and was vetted through our City Manager Mark Prestwich, who has been with us now for two years in our wonderful town of St. Helena.
His background with the League of California Cities and in working previously in Napa, Sacramento, and Nevada City gives him a well-rounded and dynamic approach to modern governance, while still recognizing sensitivities of our unique small town.
While we still have much to do in updating previously neglected physical and administrative infrastructure, a staff report from a July 22, 2019 City Council meeting shows 40 of the many large and small projects our staff are currently working on (this document is available on the City’s website). It is important to understand when considering these projects that our small City staff can’t do everything at once, but must prioritize efforts in a sequence to establish processes and foundations for best success now and into the future.
Other recent examples of good forward progress are passage of the long-stalled General Plan; a decision to review past legal services to bring down previously over-the-top legal costs; Public Works Department re-organization to increase responsiveness on parks, street, and building maintenance; approval of a new downtown restroom after many years of stasis; administrative steps towards York Creek Dam removal; and moving into modeling phases for downtown streetscape, City Hall replacement and possible Library renovations.
Also, allocations for maintenance on current City buildings has recently tripled and we are approving a firm to help update our zoning codes and permitting for businesses and residences.
It’s also important to point out that finances in St. Helena are increasingly stable. When Mr. Prestwich arrived in 2017, St. Helena still lacked formalized internal financial controls to prevent repeats of problems experienced with the Flood Control Project and $1.9 million FEMA payback.
His immediate action to formalize these protections has been key in strengthening our financial footing for the future.
Mr. Prestwich also brought in an objective financial diagnostic tool from the League of California Cities, which clarified St. Helena as financially healthy but with areas of concern related to capital asset conditions, one-time General Fund subsidies to other funds, and service level solvency. While the recent Grand Jury report focused on many of these problematic legacy issues, the City’s response acknowledged past problems, but also clarified tremendous progress made in the last two and a half years in rectifying them.
A recent award from the Government Finance Officers Association verifies significant progress in upgrading our financial safeguards.
St. Helena runs on a $15 million General Fund budget and has increased its reserve from 29% at June 30, 2018 to an estimated 53% at June 30, 2019, a level of stability not enjoyed by many other cities anywhere. The amount well exceeds the Council-adopted 30% reserve policy.
To give context to these numbers, the Government Finance Officers Association has a minimum recommendation of a 16% reserve and the average unreserved fund balance of California cities with a population under 25,000 is 38%.
Added to this, St. Helena is being proactive with the management of PERS pension funds by reducing the amortization period for the City’s pension liability and we have very little debt, a strong credit rating, substantial resources and assets upon which to draw if necessary, and diverse revenue streams that provide resiliency in shifting economic climates.
ROADS & TRAFFIC
While road, traffic, and parking concerns continue, the start of our first full year of Napa County Measure T transportation funds more than triples our previous road paving budget and creates a dedicated revenue stream of well over a million dollars a year for the next 25 years for streets, sidewalks, bike lanes, and traffic calming measures to reduce speeding and make our streets safer.
These funds can also be used for related infrastructure such as underground storm drains.
Use of Measure T funds also frees up financial capacity for addressing our parking issues. These investments will transform our street infrastructure over the coming years and help us continue forward with more safety and usability for pedestrians, bicycles and drivers.
While sadly some of our longstanding merchants have recently closed, it must be recognized that there is new energy downtown with many interesting new businesses to complement our wonderful established merchants. The new permit for pop-ups has three takers including a business now filling the Ritchie/Goodman Building. Events like Neighborhood Table in spring and Jingle all the Way in holiday season bring our community together downtown, as do Chamber of Commerce concerts and mariachi and multicultural events at beautiful Lyman Park. Don’t forget the downtown street piano, a good place for an impromptu music lesson!
The empty downtown storefront issue continues to come up and does bring concern. Challenging as this is, it is not just a St. Helena issue, but occurring also in other Napa and Sonoma County towns, around the Bay Area, and New York City as municipalities and merchants work to understand changing dynamics of retail.
Because of St. Helena’s small, nimble size we can be proactive in finding solutions, including updates to permitting and zoning, and working to encourage our landlords with vacancies to help fill space.
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The upcoming streetscape and sidewalk upgrades will also help with traffic flow, pedestrian and bicycle safety, and parking.
A component of this will be directional signage for clearer navigation.
Like the rest of the Bay Area, one of our most pressing issues is housing. We must address this current imbalance but with sensitivity to current residents/property investors.
The City is moving forward with a comprehensive strategy that includes not only how we build housing, but how we help with financing to keep a full spectrum community here. Land banking, as seen with the City’s recent assistance of the Pope Street acquisition, will be one of the components of the strategy, balanced on both west and east sides.
Like our traffic and water issues, the housing dynamic here does not occur in a vacuum. County level decisions regarding land use and commercial activity in the Ag Preserve contribute greatly to the pressure on our local situation; thus the County must join us in a round table approach to servicing this issue.
Our water and wastewater systems are tremendous assets that belong to our community. How water and wastewater is managed in St. Helena directly affects the health and safety of our community as well as property values.
The City is currently engaged in a comprehensive engineering approach with two separate firms on a water, stormwater, and sewer master plan and engineering-based rate analysis.
This type of engineering-based process brings long overdue change in our approach to water administration and should eliminate oversight gaps that led to such incidents as the 2016 wastewater plant cease & desist order.
The needed upgrades to our wastewater treatment plant are currently under design and plan to incorporate a tertiary recycled water component which adds to community water security.
Funding for this type of project is an exercise in municipal finance for which we have excellent financial standing and many options such as rates, bonds, and grant funding opportunities.
Celebrations and community events are also important to our civic balance and bring a healthy amount of fun, spirit, and pride to the town as experienced recently through our Community Potluck and Harvest Festival/Pet Parade. Look for more upcoming events from service groups, the Chamber of Commerce, nonprofits, churches, and the City, including Jingle all the Way at Lyman Park running from Nov. 29 through Dec. 29.
Other items like emergency preparedness, PG&E activity, climate change, City/County communication, youth programming and social justice/inclusiveness remain high on our collective radar, as do options for financing a new city hall, needed streetscape improvements, and library renovations. We will be looking at various options of municipal finance to accomplish these necessary endeavors.
Investment in these areas now will serve our community for decades to come.
If we want a clean, well-managed city we need to stay on top of upgrades and maintenance and provide necessary tools such as new street sweeping equipment, convenient restrooms, and clear administrative policy.
This all takes some expenditure, but the good news is that St. Helena has the financial resources to move forward in these areas while still building fiscal reserves and retaining our lovely small-town character.
I want to reiterate the importance of remembering we have a small but dedicated City staff, and they do an amazing job of keeping the gears of this town turning in good directions. But as a small City we can’t do everything at once, so it’s important to keep this in mind as we all work together in strengthening our community.
With all of our progress there will always be challenges and issues, such is the nature of life, but we should always have gratitude for the abundance we have in our community and the wonderful town where we live.
I am most appreciative of our amazing community, as well as City staff and City Council, and grateful to have the good fortune to be here together with everyone to share our positive steps into the future.