City debates fire department funding after fire tax fails

The city of Portola held its regular city council meeting Wednesday, June 14, with an agenda that focused on the budget crunch and failed fire tax.

The meeting began with all council members present. Council members spoke briefly about their experience at the Clover Valley aid station during the Lost and Found Gravel Grinder.

City Manager Robert Meacher pointed out that the 88 people who camped within city limits in designated overflow camping for the event generated $1,464 in revenue.

“Public Works Director Todd Roberts brought up that fact that this might be a growing phenomena,” Meacher said.

Meacher also showed the council a recently aired segment about the Western Pacific Railroad Museum  and its run-a-locomotive program, which appeared on Sacramento ABC 10 with reporter John Bartell sharing the experience.

“Portola is finally getting itself on the map,” commented Mayor Larrieu.

Mayor Pro-tem Pat Morton spoke about the recent conversations held between the Eastern Plumas Chamber of Commerce and the Portola Volunteer Fire Department  Fireman’s Association.

“There has been some confusion over who has the rights to serving and selling drinks during the summer concerts in the Portola Park,” Morton said. “Audrey Ellis and the Chamber have been extremely gracious in giving PVFD sole rights to drink sales for the summer concert series.”

Councilmember Bill Powers spoke about the recent Hospitality, Recreation, Retail, and Tourism meeting he attended June 6, touching upon the Tourism Council, a roundup of local commercial enterprises with beginnings in Eastern Plumas County.

“The meeting really pointed out that we are all in this together and without collective effort, nothing much will ever happen,” Powers said thoughtfully. “However, I don’t think that we should discount the fact that we (in Portola) are on the very edge of all of this growth in the Reno area, and that growth is bound to reach us sooner rather than later.”

Plumas Sierra Telecommunications

Joseph Okoneski, national sales manager at Plumas-Sierra Telecommunications, gave a visual presentation to the room with information regarding the high-speed Internet service that is rapidly spreading in the formerly Internet-free parts of Plumas County.

“There are great things going on,” Okoneski exclaimed. “We’ve had to rebuild the whole network, but things are getting up and running with a very high level of local interest in high speed Internet.”

“The trend appears to be veering away from cable or satellite television programming, as most people watch the majority of their shows online these days and I think soon we will see TV being delivered via Internet only,” Okoneski continued. “Even just a couple of years ago, 60 percent of our Internet traffic was streaming Netflix or other such sites.”

Okoneski went on to explain that at this point, there are 10, 15 and 20 Mbps Internet packages available, with PST working hard to bring up the speed of service to a potential 50 and 100 Mbps level. “There is truly no data cap with PST,” he said. “When we say unlimited, we mean unlimited, without the slowdown that some may see with other ‘unlimited’ plans.”

With three crews working around the clock on installation, PST remains extremely busy and in addition to the Internet boom, PST is excited about its corporate office making the move from Susanville to Portola.

“This (high-speed Internet access) is really the lifeline,” Okoneski said. “We are moving forward on installation at Gold Mountain, and we have come across so many people that are extremely excited about the ability to work from home instead of having to spend so much time in the Bay Area.”

Those interested in contacting PST can visit plumassierratelecommunications.com or call 800-221-3474.

Operating budget

The city council agenda had the 2017-18 proposed operating budget listed as business for the meeting. However, due to some technical difficulties, the public hearing for the city’s budget was moved to the June 28 meeting.

Fire tax failure

The mail-ballot votes for the Measure B Fire and Emergency Tax have been tallied, with 415 voters participating; 146 voted yes, but the overwhelming majority of 269 voters chose not to pass the measure.

Meacher asked the room if there were any thoughts on where to go from that point in regards to funding the Portola fire department.

Council member Powers said that many were unhappy that the tax measure didn’t pass. However, PVFD has been showing renewed energy in making connections within the community and working toward erasing negative comments about the department.

“The huge burden on the general fund is still there,” Powers stated. “It’s unavoidable, and it’s going to hurt one way or the other.”

Meacher interjected that the vote essentially keeps the city at the status quo, with no changes to be made. Larrieu commented, saying, “One thing that the community should have clarification on is the fact that the fund-raising events that the PVFD puts on, such as pancake breakfasts, is not raising funds specifically for PVFD use for equipment, turnouts and the like. Those funds go towards benevolent activities within the community.”

Measure B committee member Cal Patterson then chose to speak, saying vehemently, “I really appreciate the work that everyone put into the Measure B fire tax initiative. However, it failed, and we are now in a budget crisis.”

Patterson went on to state that the city does not have the revenue needed to support the PVFD and that the potential for cutting the fire budget was very real to him.

“People in the city quite obviously do not respect the fire department and showed that with their votes,” he stated with frustration. “We tried, and the reality now is budget cuts.” The approximate amount that the city funds the PVFD hangs around the $95,000 mark.

Larrieu mused over the potential to turn the fire department over to the state, saying that it was becoming more and more of a viable option to him. “There just aren’t a whole lot of alternatives at this point,” Larrieu said. “The people of Portola voted not to fund the fire department.”

Mayor pro-tem Morton spoke, saying that she had been discussing the topic with locals, and there were three main reasons for the fact that the majority voted no.

“First, there are many older voters that recall the PVFD promising not to ever raise the fire tax. Second, the cost of living increase was an issue for many that wished for a flat fee that they could count on. Finally, many touched on the negative talk about the department itself,” Morton noted.

Councilmember Tom Cooley said, “There was a significant change of leadership throughout this entire process, and that may have affected the results. I feel that we need to closely examine the management and leadership of PVFD, because we really need standards and consistency. The rumor mill here is very effective, and to combat that, we must publicly demonstrate greater involvement. Leadership must be held accountable and report to the city council.”

Cal Patterson pointed out that the city manager is actually considered the head of the PVFD and said, “Their failure is your failure.”

Meacher responded, stating that to date, acting fire chief Kurt Duff was performing his duties, also adding that losing former PVFD chief Ron Jacobson, Jr. was a huge blow to the effort.

“We also still do not know how much money FEMA will actually release for storm repairs,” Meacher pointed out. “With public safety as our number one priority, funding the fire department will end up really taking up a large chunk of the general fund monies.”

Meacher also pointed out that Quincy failed at its first attempt to pass a similar tax, and that hindsight being what it is, he could see how there was a need for more meetings and community outreach.

Finance Officer Susan Scarlett suggested that the finance and administration committee review the budget in depth, with Larrieu proposing to table the issue for future discussion. “This will be a continuing item,” Larrieu stated.

Renewing contract with Sheriff’s Office

The council discussed the 2017-18 contract renewal for services provided by the Plumas County Sheriff’s Department (PCSD) in the city, with two significant changes in the contract.

The first change states that the city would hereafter be responsible for the maintenance on the Community Services Officer vehicle, with the other notable change stating that if the CSO is absent for 14 or more consecutive days, the Sheriff will no longer provide replacement, as the department is short staffed.

Local retired law enforcement officer Bob Morton spoke during public comment about the contract,  “I’m hoping that the committee was actually in negotiation with PCSD, and not just letting them call all of the shots. … I feel that we are paying way too much to the department and we’re not getting our money’s worth. I haven’t seen PCSD pull anyone over for years, it feels like. I see more activity locally from the CHP.”

Morton went on to voice his concern that the Sheriff’s Office did not include anything regarding dispatch calls in the contract and wondered if the department would be answering those calls.

In response, Sheriff Greg Hagwood stated, “First and foremost, the city of Portola doesn’t spend one dollar of their general fund money to pay PCSD. Over the last several years, law enforcement services have been funded by the COPS grant, which is state funding. In comparison, the county spends approximately 25 percent of general fund monies to support law enforcement services to the citizens of Plumas County.”

Hagwood went on to list the full complement of services that PCSD provides to the city, which includes animal control, 24/7 fire and medical dispatching, patrol services, investigative services, coroner’s services, civil processing, subpoena services, search and rescue, free county jail bookings, inmate care, criminal and patrol case investigation, trial preparation and testimony.

“The city gets all of these services at a zero cost to their general fund,” Hagwood stressed. “To suggest that the city is paying too much is laughable. Statistically, Portola represents about 10 percent of the population of Plumas County, but utilize a significantly disproportionate portion of services.”

Hagwood also stated that the CSO that he provides to Portola is not paid for by the COPS grant, and instead comes out of PCSD general fund monies.

Anyone interested in looking into the statistical data at PCSD may contact Hagwood directly at 394-7809.

Fire engine bid

Council members discussed the recent 14-CDBG-9885 grant awarded to the city in an amount not to exceed $201,850 for the purchase of a Type 5 fire engine.

Because Community Development Block Grant  funds are federal monies, the city is required to adhere to federal bidding standards and solicit bids for purchase of the fire truck through a sealed bid process.

The bids for the engine were solicited and due to the city by June 1, with bids being opened at the required time and reviewed by city staff. The city received four bids from responsive bidders: a bid of $196,350.58 from Rosenbauer, $199,485 from Weiss Fire, $165,968.31 from US Fire and $197,300.94 from Golden State.

All of the bids were determined to be responsive. As a part of the contact award process, federal bidding standards require that all qualifying bids are reviewed and the selection must be based upon the criterion stated in the request for proposal, and that the city determine and select the lowest, most responsive bidder.

City Clerk Melissa Klundby stated that the council has until October 2018 to spend the grant funds, following federal bidding procedures. During public comment, Cal Patterson asked if anyone has been looking not only at the price tag and delivery date, but also at the actual specs required for the fire engine. Morton commented that Patterson had a legitimate point and the best thing would be to get a report from Public Works Director Todd Roberts.

Council member Phil Oels asked to ensure that there is a warranty on the bids and Council member Thomas Cooley ensured that members of the PVFD are actively engaged in the process. After more discussion, the entire council decided to take affirmative action on the acceptance of the lowest bid from US Fire, at the amount of $165,968.31, with a delivery time estimated at 120 days.

The city council welcomes the public to regularly held meetings at the Portola City Hall on the second and fourth Wednesday of each month at 6 p.m. Participation is encouraged and welcomed. For those with any questions about agenda items discussed, contact City Hall at 832-6803 or visit cityofportola.com.