by Leslie Layton
The Chico City Council, in a special Tuesday meeting, after several failed motions adopted a preliminary plan for spending more than $22 million in American Rescue Plan funds in a 5-2 vote.
A Council majority agreed to remove a jobs training program designed to get unhoused people into the local workforce when they adopted the plan brought to them by City Manager Mark Orme, who called it a preliminary “framework,” or a “road map.”
Roughly, the plan allocates about 50 percent of the funds to improvements in infrastructure, 30 percent to government services and 20 percent to local businesses.
Councilors Kami Denlay and Alex Brown opposed the plan, which was adopted in a motion made by Councilor Sean Morgan at a special 4 p.m. meeting.
“This meeting was a mess, and it was bound to be a mess,” declared Brown as the panel struggled to get a motion that would pass.
“Bringing a $23-million spend to us and to the public [in this way] was absolutely the wrong way to spend American Rescue Funds,” Brown said, contacted by telephone today. “We didn’t get a good understanding of what the money could go to and neither did the public. That’s incredibly problematic.”
The jobs training program that was removed from the framework had a hefty $500,000 price tag, but was the only piece that would tackle the problem of homelessness with a solution-based approach. Morgan’s motion re-directs those funds to youth activities.
Morgan said he was removing the work training program not because he dislikes it but because “my colleagues don’t seem to like it.”
The framework adopted by the Council includes the possibility of using $1,050,000 in federal funds for a “resting site” for unhoused Chico residents and for park rehabilitation, an allocation Morgan wanted left in place so the city isn’t obliged to spend general fund money on some type of homeless sheltering project required in a court settlement.
Legal Services of Northern California (LSNC) has filed suit against the City of Chico and Chico Police Department regarding treatment of homeless residents, and a federal judge has imposed a temporary injunction stopping the city from more eviction sweeps at encampments until it has proved that it can offer adequate sheltering options.
Councilors have not explained what the city means by “resting site.”
Councilor Denlay opposed the inclusion of the resting site without having more information. She argued that it may be illegal to use federal rescue funds for the resting site if it’s part of a court settlement.
Morgan warned the Council against removing the resting site option prematurely from the plan: “If whatever is worked out in this pending litigation requires that we do something, which is somewhat likely, in order to move to enforce our ordinances again, which is where I would like to go, if you remove that as a possible means of paying for that, it has to come from the general fund…”.
The ordinances that Morgan referred to have been criticized by LSNC as an unconstitutional “web,” and by U.S. District Court Judge Morrison England as “overly broad.”
Deputy City Manager Jennifer Macarthy told the Council that the work training program price might be reduced by half in the future.
“There are a lot of costs related to this program,” she told the Council, “but it’s always a greater cost the first time you do it. It’s a pilot program. Hopefully the end is that we’ve created a pathway to employment that wasn’t there previously.”
The program, if it were to come back, would involve a series of skills and vocational training workshops in partnership with other city organizations and agencies. Some 30 unhoused individuals who show up for the series and demonstrate “commitment to the process” would receive further help preparing for employment; assistance would be given to local businesses that provide temporary jobs in covering worker’s comp and other costs.
Macarthy said the meeting Tuesday was meant to “give staff a general idea of Council’s support for a variety of items.”
But councilors, at different points, indicated frustration with the lack of detail or the presentation; Morgan, however, defended city staff, saying the panel “will be here till August” if it demands detail on each item.
Brown said she was “bewildered” by the scope of the meeting and noted that budget decisions traditionally come after many hours of presentations. She called Macarthy’s proposed job training program “interesting and innovative.”
“There were plenty of projects I was excited about, that I could get behind,” Brown said. “But the process by which this was presented was problematic. The conversation was muddled by the amount of projects and the public didn’t have an opportunity to weigh in.
“There should be a clear statement about what we’re willing to invest in the homelessness crisis, not just because of the litigation, but because people are dying on the streets,” Brown said. “Homelessness solutions were a footnote.”
Macarthy noted there are restrictions on how the funds are used. She said the funding can be used, in many cases, for supporting business and industry in becoming more “resilient,” in providing broadband or encouraging tourism, and in assistance to unemployed residents.
Orme’s proposed framework includes allotments for a sewer line in southeast Chico, city-wide broadband and improved virtual-meeting capacity, centralized dispatching, landscaping at the new BMX site, and improvements to downtown. The council said support to small businesses should be provided throughout the city, not just downtown.