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City learns of big changes to come to water ordinance

Mayor Phil Oels hands young citizen Merlin Allingham a letter of recognition and appreciation from the Portola City Council on Wednesday, Feb. 26, thanking Allingham for his courage, empathy and decisive thinking when aiding a severely injured dog named Duke. Photo by Lauren Knox

The Portola City Council held its regularly scheduled meeting Wednesday, Feb. 26, with a number of items up for discussion.

Public comments

Dave Rudolph said the first Firewise meeting of 2020 would be held Thursday, March 19, at 6 p.m., at the Portola Branch Library, and strongly encouraged all community members to attend.

“We will be viewing footage of the 1988 Powerline Fire that burned near Portola High School at the meeting, and I feel that it is important for everyone to see it,” Rudolph said.

Local Larry Douglas followed with a comment regarding community development, and his concerns revolving around the past performance of city management, and concerns about long-term water resilience in the state, and the potential for water shortages with increased fire danger.

City communications

Councilmember Pat Morton reported that since the last meeting of the city council, she had attended two ad-hoc fire committee meetings, a finance and administration meeting, and had met with the Local Emergencies Services Study Group on Feb. 4.

The group is comprised of committee members from area emergency services, including Beckwourth Fire Department, C-Road, the city of Portola, Gold Mountain, Sierra Valley Fire Department and Eastern Plumas Rural Fire Protection District.

Morton noted her involvement at a recent LAFCo meeting and added that Beckwourth Fire would be dedicating a fire engine to the memory of long-time volunteer George Bundy.

Mayor Pro Tem Bill Powers reported that he had kept busy, with attendance at the recent LAFCo meeting, a letter to Senator Robert Hertzberg, and a Rotary Club of Portola lunch meeting, where he updated the group on current affairs in the city.

Powers also joined the board of directors of Mountain Circle Family Services in the last week and invited the community to a ribbon cutting April 4 of the newly updated western entrance to the Sierra Valley Preserve due to the work of the Feather River Land Trust.

“I want to give a warm welcome to the five new businesses in Eastern Plumas County,” Powers added.

Councilmember Stan Peiler reported that he had been familiarizing himself with his new position as a member of the Portola Community Development Committee and had been working to identify community needs.

“I am eager to take this on,” Peiler said. “We are looking at the growth of the community, and even small things like shrubbery and trees blocking views as you drive along certain areas. We want to clean up and make the area safer, and presentable to visitors.”

Peiler said that he had spoken with several residents, and there were concerns about empty lots, as well as items such as homes with debris in the front yards.

Councilmember Tom Cooley, attending remotely from Dauphin Island, Alabama, reported that efforts to tackle the issue of abandoned vehicles in the area were ongoing with the Abandoned Vehicle Abatement (AVA) program, with Susan Scarlett and himself recently attending a board meeting of the AVA Service Authority.

“We are making progress, slower than I had hoped for, but we’ll get there before too long,” Cooley said.

Cooley also noted his attendance at a recent finance and administration meeting, as well as several ad-hoc fire meetings, and his involvement as chair of the Local Emergencies Service Study Group.

Mayor Phil Oels concluded with his report on attending two meetings of the Transportation Commission and his involvement with Fire Safe activities. “We’ve got 132 acres of the Portola 192 project scheduled for mastication in March,” Oels noted.

Fire chief report

Chief Bob Frank of Eastern Plumas Rural Fire Protection District reported that there had been 12 medical calls and zero fires in the city during January, and that there had been 16 medical calls and a house water leak in the Eastern Plumas district.

Frank noted that the grant truck would be put into service during the upcoming month, as the truck is currently out for repairs.

City manager report

City Manager Lauren Knox informed the room that the Heidi Fredette memorial bench had been ordered and was due to be delivered to the city March 11.

“Following receiving the bench, staff will finalize plans for landscaping and plan an unveiling ceremony,” Knox explained.

Knox went on to state that former City Manager Jim Murphy had volunteered to cast Fredette’s handprint from a print left in the cement in front of Fredette’s family home, to be incorporated into the memorial bench site.

Knox then reported on a number of meetings attended, including a meeting of SKOR, a meeting with Jennifer Stevenson of LAFCo, and a meeting with Sheriff Todd Johns.

“We have received the SB-2 grant in the amount of $160,000,” Knox said. “The next steps are coming soon.”

Knox also noted that staff had been looking at the process of putting liens on properties with delinquent utility bills, with some local properties severely overdue.

City Finance Officer Susan Scarlett gave a brief update on her involvement with the AVA proceedings, as well as interactions with the transportation commission and a look toward upcoming Caltrans projects.

Letter of recognition

The city of Portola recognized young Merlin Allingham of Portola, who bravely came to the aid of Duke, a small Chihuahua mix, who was severely wounded.

“By staying with Duke and comforting him until help came, you demonstrated courage, empathy and decisive thinking,” Mayor Oels said to Allingham at the front of the room.

Oels went on to read the letter into record, saying to Allingham, “Your ability to respond quickly and remain calm in the difficult situation you were faced with is commendable and sets a good example for others. Our community benefits from the positive contributions of citizens, like yourself, who are willing to help make Portola a better place for everyone.

“We thank you for what you did on January 31 and encourage you to continue to be a positive influence and help others each day.”

With that, Allingham shook the hands of all council members to much applause.

West End Park non-motorized boat launch update

Knox reviewed the potential project, with a Grant Scope Summary received from the Department of Boating and Waterways identifying a permanent ramp structure to be placed on the Feather River, that deviated greatly from the city of Portola’s initial application.

The permanent structure would require a CEQA review, which would cost the City a minimum of $67,000. The cost combined with the concerns about flooding in the area and the impacts that could have on a permanent structure gave all council members pause as they discussed whether the grant application for the non-motorized boat launch at Portola’s West End Park should move forward.

After some discussion, council unanimously voted not to accept the grant from the Department of Boating and Waterways.

SB 998

In September 2018, through Senate Bill 998, the state legislature amended California law related to providing water with the overall intent of minimizing the number of Californians who lose access to water due to an inability to pay for water services.

The new law requires the city to amend its utility billing policies and expand procedural protections to utility account holders.

These steps include the city changing its billing timeline, water shutoff timeframes, ensuring that policies and notices related to discontinuation of services are online and provided in English, Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese and Korean.

It also requires that the city offer a plan for deferred or reduced payments, alternative payment schedules and a formal mechanism to contest and appeal a bill.

In addition, water cannot be discontinued if a customer is willing to enter into a payment arrangement and submits certification from a primary care provider that discontinuation of water is life threatening and provide evidence that they are unable to pay with the normal billing cycle.

Staff is currently working to address the required changes and will provide the finalized documents for consideration at the March 25 meeting of the city council.

“There are a lot of moving pieces to this policy change,” Knox explained. “This is a heads up.”

Financial update and audit presentation

Finance Officer Scarlett began by reviewing the current year financial information with the room, first focusing on the trends in property tax apportionments.

“Looking from 2013/14 to current, based off of the first payment of secured property taxes each year, there is a really positive trend,” Scarlett said. “We’ve come a long way from the days of 2008.” From 2013/14 to current, the property tax apportionment went from $108,588 to $122,507.

Scarlett went on to note that expenses are trending up as well, reporting that there is currently $2,943,480 in total cash and receivables in the general fund.

Expounding further upon Cooley’s comments regarding the AVA situation and earmarked vehicle abatement monies in the amount of $48,541, Scarlett said, “The city vehicle abatement money is the money that will be used when all of the contracts and ordinance are in place, and we can’t really get back into the abatement program until about half of that money is spent.”

Funds may be spent on items such as towing, administration time and dismantling of abandoned vehicles. “That falls into our Code Compliance Officer Kevin Sankey’s department,” Scarlett added.

Scarlett went on to note that the streets and snow fund were always in the negative this time of year, and that snow removal monies are not in yet. “Another exciting thing is that the solid waste fund is in the black for the first time in 22 years,” Scarlett added.

Moving on to the 2018/19 audit, Scarlett reported that the city had received an unmodified opinion, or a clean audit.

“There were no deficiencies identified, and no difficulties with management,” Scarlett said. “There were also no material adjustments made as a result of the audit.”

Local Bob Morton thanked Scarlett for her hard work, and council moved to accept the budget and audit as presented, with a unanimous roll call vote.

The city council regularly meets on the second and fourth Wednesday of each month at 6 p.m., and interest and participation is encouraged and welcome. For more information, visit cityofportola.com or call 832-6803.

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