In an interesting bit of timing, the Napa County Grand Jury released a report summarizing the challenges facing St. Helena just 24 hours before we were scheduled to talk to city representatives about some of those very issues.
As has been the case for the last few years, we came away from that interview with the sense that despite those many challenges – none of which should be surprising to anyone who’s been following city government – the city has a plan on how to tackle them.
City Manager Mark Prestwich — joined by Mayor Geoff Ellsworth and Assistant to the City Manager Jessica Deakyne — said the city would issue a full response to the Grand Jury within 90 days. However, his summary of what’s on the city’s agenda might as well have been a point-by-point response.
On addressing long-deferred infrastructure projects? Prestwich showed us the “Infrastructure Roadmap” he presented to the City Council last Tuesday, with overlapping studies of St. Helena’s water/sewer/storm drains, the downtown streetscape, and City Hall, library and recreation facilities. Meanwhile, Ellsworth said the council is starting to talk about funding options.
On rising pension costs? The city has hired an actuary, accelerated payments toward its unfunded post-retirement medical and pension liabilities, rolled back expensive benefits involving unused sick leave, and plans to bring the pension issue back to the council soon. All local governments are facing this problem, and St. Helena seems to be addressing it.
On the vacant storefronts mentioned by the Grand Jury? Expect to hear about a possible public/private partnership that will bring more shoppers and diners to downtown St. Helena. Deakyne, whom Prestwich praised as a rising star in local government, happens to have valuable experience working with landlords and filling empty storefronts. And the city has already streamlined the permit process for businesses.
The biggest unknown in the city’s otherwise promising economic strategy remains the city’s own partner, the Chamber of Commerce. When one of our boardmembers suggested that the Chamber needs to step up its game with merchants, Ellsworth seemed to agree.
The Grand Jury report focuses primarily on problems that can be traced back to past administrations instead of recognizing the forward-thinking solutions being implemented by Prestwich and his staff. And to be fair, those past administrations were hobbled by recession-era staffing cuts that kept City Hall focused on day-to-day operations instead of long-term strategic planning.
Since then, funds from Measures D and T (both half-cent sales taxes) and transient occupancy taxes from the Las Alcobas hotel have stabilized the city’s finances, and Prestwich has presented credible plans to help St. Helena tackle its many challenges.
So yes, St. Helena has a difficult road ahead. But it appears we have a competent crew in City Hall steering us down that road.