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City Administrator Issues ‘State of the City’ Address

Susanville City Administrator Kevin Jones laid out the City of Susanville’s civic health, along with his goals and priorities for the upcoming year in his ‘State of the City’ address, delivered to the City Council last week.

Here is his address in its entirety:

As the City Administrator, it is my hope to portray the goals of the City as guided by the City Council, Administrator, Department Heads, and staff. Although a different format that has been presented in the past, it is my hope to relay the thoughts of the entire City in this address.

The purpose for the State of the City address is to celebrate our community, recognize areas of improvement, recognize employees, and set priorities for the year to come.

It is my goal to outline the City of Susanville’s past year, along with providing an outlook of what we hope to do in the coming year. I would like our community to know where we were, where we are and where we want to be as guided by the City Council.

So much has happened in the last year; it’s hard to know where to start. As I try to outline the past year in our community, we truly need to focus on the positives that came from this last year.

For most of us, the last 7 months have been the longest of our lives. Masks, quarantines, isolation, restaurant closures, no group gatherings, Churches closing and just chaos. For the City, we’ve seen revenue loss, business closures and an incredible challenge to economic development.

After the inception of COVID, we were hit with the Hog fire that gutted our beautiful forest land. Then, several weeks later, the North Complex fire engulfed our community and resulted in the destruction of several buildings in the County and evacuation orders for a significant portion of Susanville, which has not happened in decades.

Before we can discuss where we are going, we must address where we were and where we are currently. I would join in with many of you who want to declare the year 2020 over and to move on; with hopes 2021 will be different. Unfortunately, not only do we have to address the impacts of 2020, we must be prepared for what awaits in 2021. With the incredible rise in the COVID cases in the last few months, I don’t believe anyone can predict when we will be back to our “old” normal. We have seen more challenges in the last 7 months than we have seen in our modern time.

However, our community is incredibly resilient. We continually come together and help one another through our continuing challenges.

In the past year, the City has met several challenges. The City’s General Fund has been a continual issue with the rising cost of PERS (Public Employee Retirement System) contributions and the added unfunded liability costs. I will outline how the PERS pension system is crippling local governments and creating a challenge for us all.

In the primary election of 2020, the City lobbied for a Public Safety tax of 1% on the ballot. The purpose of this was to bridge a gap between the ongoing PERS increases and the ability to safely fund Public Safety. The initiative needed to receive 66.1% of the vote to be approved but did not receive sufficient votes to pass. Although the measure did not pass, the City Council has been committed to our safety personnel for the benefit of our community, but we continue to struggle with funding our Safety departments.

The City has seen incredible reductions in revenues as a result of COVID. As an example, the City relies on almost $500,000 in tourism taxes we receive from our local motels. Since COVID-19, local lodging saw a decrease of almost 50% in lodging occupancy, thus a decrease to local tourism tax along with tax revenue.

Things like the Lassen County Fair, car shows, Blues Festival, Rails to Trails and other civic events that bring people directly to our City, were not able to operate and host these events. The lack of these events was a direct hit to the City’s financial survival.

This last year saw the departure of a short tenured City Administrator. The Council recognized the need to be competitive in the market to find a new Administrator. The City Council increased the salary of the City Administrator position in an effort to compete with other organizations, comparable to our community. The City received over 25 applicants for the position.

Unfortunately, after a lengthy process, the top-placed candidate ultimately declined to accept the position. Based on such, the City Council appointed myself to the position, while still holding the position as Chief of Police.

Although we had several challenges in 2020, we at the City felt we needed to do something to proactively get our City in connection with our community. With the cancellation of the Uptown Safe and Sane Halloween, the City of Susanville took on the project of hosting the Annual Safe and Sane Halloween in Memorial Park at Ernaga Field. The event brought out almost 50 vendors to hand out candy and over 1,500 kids who were finally able to put a costume on and get outside with others.

This was the single most attended event of the entire year. It gave our community an opportunity to get out of the house, celebrate a beautiful day with their family and recognize the incredible vendors who contributed to this event. I would be remiss if I did not include the dozens of City staffers who worked together to make that day possible.

Next, was the cancellation of the Veteran’s Day Parade. Knowing that we could not go without recognizing our Veterans on such a glorious occasion, the City organized a Veteran’s Day procession down Main Street. The event was a huge success and goes to show the City’s employees continual effort to recognize our community members for what they did for our Country.

Last, the year 2020 saw a new person being elected to the City Council, Quincy Mccourt. Additionally, with a position left vacant by Brian Wilson, the Council elected to appoint Thomas Herrera into Wilson’s vacant seat to join Brian Moore, Kevin Stafford, Mendy Schuster and Quincy Mccourt on the City Council.

City Council
As we all know, over the last several years there has been a lack of trust in our state and federal government. At times, that distrust tends to bleed into our local government. I want to remind everyone that our City government is not the state or federal government. Our Council is made up of people who were either born here or who have spent the majority of their life here. They are not being courted by political action groups; they are not raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for campaigns.

It is a priority of the Council to discuss how to move forward in these trying times. Before the Council could establish these priorities, it was crucial to create a mission statement that guides them in their decision making. A mission statement is something that defines why we exist, what our goal is and identify the goals of our local government. The Council members developed the following mission statement: “Working together to engage our unique and diverse population to build a community of the highest quality for present and future generations.”

Using the model of the Mission Statement, Council members established four (4) priorities to focus on in the next year. Although establishing priorities is important, it is essential to determine realistic methods in which those priorities can be accomplished.

I will outline these priorities set by the Council and the manner in which staff plans on accomplishing such.

1. Full-Time Code Enforcement Officer
The City recognizes the ability to work with the community to educate and encourage compliance with our Municipal Code and focus on community and economic development. However, we also
recognize the need for enforcement of violations that degrade the essence of our community. The emphasis will not be to penalize those who do not adhere to the local maintenance codes,
but for compliance. Unfortunately, for those who do not comply we will follow the procedures set forth in our Codes to force compliance.

Too many homes and businesses have disregarded the municipal codes that govern the maintenance of residential and business properties. Unfortunately, the consequences of some of these violations is the reduction of residential values and dissuades new businesses. The increased enforcement of some of these issues could result in increased home prices, better
marketable businesses and an overall better impression of Susanville.

At the November 4, 2020 City Council meeting, the Council unanimously approved the hiring of a Code Enforcement Officer. However, in our strapped economic and budget restrict times, it is a
struggle to fund a new position. Working together with our Department Heads, we have established a method which enables us to fund this position.

2. Beautification of Main Street
One of our bigger challenges identified in promoting our town and specifically our uptown area, is the visual aesthetics of the businesses on Main Street. There are dilapidated buildings, graffiti, lack of landscaping and overall public nuisances. Until we can clean up our Main Street corridor, the City will be challenged to find businesses to come to our community. Based on these issues, the City has prioritized the beautification of Main Street as a priority.

Although this coincides with the priority of a Code Enforcement Officer, it entails much more. The City wants to partner with our local businesses in helping with this process. Local Business owner meetings and collaborations will be encouraged to get buy-in from our businesses owners to join together in a partnership to solicit ideas to make our Main Street more attractive to our
community and visitors.

Ideas of mobilizing volunteers, marketing our “Gateway City”, increasing the aesthetic value of our Uptown District, we believe will encourage businesses and increase marketing ideas. The City
recognizes although we are a City of 8,900 people, we experience tens of thousands of people traveling through our community each year. Capturing and marketing the history of our community with new and eye-catching images and ideas will entice people to stop on our Main Street Gateway and will increase our chances of additional businesses and eventually increase revenues.

3. Transparency
It is the intent of the Council to have an open and transparent government, sharing as much information with the public as legally possible. Also, a transparent government in which all
citizens are encouraged to participate. In doing so, we hope that people will compare our local government as a partner and not an adversary. A government that is cognizant of local issues
that doesn’t only listen to the community but tries to solve issues in conjunction with community partners.

We began months ago to keep the public more informed of the City’s events and activities by first enhancing our social media presence and activity increasing information available on our website. We have included a bi-monthly newsletter circular for all water and gas customers. We include news on all City operations and a personal note from the City Administrator.

Additionally, we plan on posting the City’s major projects and the progression on these projects within the different City departments.

The Police Department’s new Record Management System will auto-distribute activity logs for calls for service that will be available on our website. Our goal in doing this is to attempt to be as transparent as we can with our community and reach a wider citizen base that invites our community to participate in the City’s goals and accomplishments.

4. Susan River Trail
The City recognizes the need to improve the Susan River Trail and surrounding areas. This has created a challenge to the City. A very popular and beautiful trail has become overrun with
shrubbery and has been a stopping ground for constant dumping of trash and hazardous materials. In addition to this, the challenges of people camping near the river and trail has resulted in contaminated waste and additional trash being left behind. Calls for service at the Police Department has increased due to campers and transients vandalizing businesses or harassing customers in the near areas.

Incredible community support has been shown in multiple clean-up days by volunteers and increased and consistent Police presence and City staff efforts for erasing graffiti has made positive changes to the Susan River Trail. The City established a Municipal Code that prohibits camping within 75′ of a waterway and the positive impacts of this prohibition has been noticeable.

The Police Department has been conducting constant and repetitive patrols when staffing allows.

Additionally, the City is currently in the process of applying for a Statewide Parks grant for a complete overhaul and rehabilitation of the trail.

In closing regarding the City Council’s main priorities, it is the wish of the Council to embrace our City as a gateway for residents and visitors to an area of wildlife, recreation, and the mountains. Overall, a year around playground for all to enjoy.

Having covered the top priorities and methodologies to complete these, let me address some of the major projects facing our City departments.

Police Department
The Police Department is comprised of 18 personnel, comprised of an Administrative Assistant, Police Officers, Police Sergeants, Captain, and a Chief. The Police Department has undergone a major overhaul of their Record Management System (RMS). This $200,000 investment by the City replaced an antiquated RMS that was put into place in 1988. The new RMS will enable the Police to track specific crime trends, different areas of crime within the City and among many more abilities, automatically distribute activity logs to the community.

Over the last 2 years, the Police Department added four (4) new vehicles to their fleet, a very much needed project to retire older police vehicles that were continually in need of repairs. Two of these vehicles were purchased in a partnership with the Susanville Indian Rancheria.

With these successes, the Police Department still has goals of obtaining some type of UTV to assist in patrolling the Susan River Trail. This would enable the Police to more efficiently enforce the City’s Camping Prohibition and enable them to identify people on the trail who are committing crimes that effect our businesses adjacent to the trail, as well as create a safer environment for people who access the trail.

The building the Police Department is housed in was purchased in 1988. Although a fantastic facility, there is a need to focus on renovation of the facility in order to occupy the building for many years to come. Long term plans are being developed for both interior and exterior renovations.

Last, as almost any Police agency in today’s era, it is essential to continue to make efforts to retain the personnel we have. Over the last several years, the Police Department has suffered cuts of personnel that create continuing challenges to successfully perform their duties. We will continue to seek alternative funds to increase personnel to do such.

Fire Department
The Fire Department is comprised of 9 personnel, comprised of an Administrative Assistant, Assistant Chief, Fireman/Engineers, Captain and a Chief. The most exciting news from our Fire Department is the award of almost $900,000 in grant funds to purchase a new, fully equipped Ladder Truck. Although the Fire Department currently possesses a Ladder Truck, it was received from another department and is over 20 years old. The acquisition of this piece of equipment will enable the Fire Department to better serve our community, specifically on higher level homes/buildings, which our City has many of.

As other facilities in the City, the Fire Department has a need to harden their facility. This entails a process in which a barrier is put in place in the public entrance of the facility to help employees from direct contact with the public, for obvious health and safety concerns.

The Fire Department resides in a large older facility but is in need of a renovation to accommodate their staff and building improvements. The building’s HVAC system is decades old and has no air conditioning or filtering system to combat standard impurities in the air that is common with fire gear that is in need of sanitization after being exposed to fires. Additionally, with an older building, the Fire Department will be in need of a completely new roof within the coming years.

As any public safety department, the Fire Department is in constant need of improving their safety gear for their fire employees and volunteers. Chief Moore is constantly seeking grant funding to assist in the improvement and replacement of safety gear, but although grant funds assist in this it does not completely bridge the gap of the total costs.

Last, as other Fire agencies, the primary focus of the Fire Department is recruitment and retention of the personnel that currently work there.

Public Works Department
The City’s Public Works Department is comprised of 21 personnel including 2 support staff and staff spread through the Streets, Water, Natural Gas, Engineer, Air Quality personnel and a Public Works Director. The Public Works Department are charged with the oversight of the City’s streets, water system, Natural Gas system, water system, air pollution control and many other ancillary duties.

Some of the major projects planned for the City through the Public Works Department include an overlay of portions of Richmond Rd., Springridge Dr., and Paul Bunyan Rd. A complete water infrastructure replacement on Richmond Rd. and Cross Bore Assessment. Additionally, Public Works has been working with the State on a Gateway project on the eastern entry to Susanville with the goal of making our City more attractive to those who come into our City. Also, is it important to note that the City’s Natural Gas Division recently put into effect a 14% reduction in Natural Gas prices.

We are currently working on a reorganization plan that would combine several of our Public Works employees and services, integrating those services into the Administration area at City Hall to make it more convenient for our citizens to access the Public Works Department. This would result in more efficiency to the City and easier access to the community.

As with our other City facilities, the Public Works department is also in need of hardening to their entry foyer to protect their employees from health hazards.

Administrative Services
The City’s Administrative Services Division oversees the City’s Finance Department, Community Development, Building and Planning, Parks and Maintenance, City Clerk, support staff and the City
Administrator. The City Administrator, among many other duties, is charged with the oversight of the Golf Course and the Susanville Municipal Airport. A contract to operate the Susanville Municipal Airport is in the process and a major overhaul of the City Hall structure process has begun due to several years of water damage.

One of the major projects in the Administrative Division is the replacement of the Finance Manager position, left vacant from a recent retirement. Additionally, as with several of our departments, the Administrative services Division has suffered staffing losses over the last several years due to decreasing budgets. What was once a division of 16 people is now 11. This decrease severely hampers our ability to serve our community at a level we strive to commit to.

However, we have been successful in completing some very prideful goals over the last year in this division. During this year we successfully completed a renovation of the Fruit Growers Park that brought a new basketball court, energy efficient lighting within the park, a new bathroom and other improvements that has proved an immediate positive impact for our community. Within the upcoming months, the City will be making online bill pay for the City’s Natural Gas and water bills.

After over 3 and a half years, the City reached a settlement with two past Police Officers with the Police Department. Although the City does not comment on litigation matters; the end result is a resolution that is agreed upon by all parties and hiring practices within the City have been amended.

Citywide Challenges
The absolute most important challenge to the City is our depleting budget. We are continually chasing the rising costs of PERS, without significant revenues to cover these costs. With the increasingly rise, combined with the addition of the “side fund” and unfunded liability, we are finding it harder to bridge the gap without using one-time reserve funds, which will run out in several years to come.

In 2020, the City refinanced the “side fund” debt to a significantly lower interest rate which indicates a savings of approximately $400,000 of the $3.39 million dollars owed to PERS. However, although a financially wise decision, it is still a band-aid on the wound.

Staff will continue to try and find ways to increase revenues within the City by economic development, grants and any other opportunities that might arise. However, beginning last year and the years ahead, we will be forced to transfer monies from our reserves in order to get by. As all administrators and managers know, the highest cost of employment are personnel costs. You can
work on cutting back on expenses or reducing as much operation costs as possible, but the only significant cuts are done through personnel reductions, better known as layoffs.

Over the last several years, the City has seen over a 20% reduction in the General Fund staffing, that includes Administrative Services, Fire Department and Police Department. To be frank, there is no more meat left on the bone. Any type of layoffs or lack of filling positions on employee departures would result in a significant reduction of City services.

For Police, layoffs would result in a responsive department, where the public might not see a Police Officer unless it was a serious event. The Fire department could go to a primary volunteer organization with a few full-time administrators and a manager. The result would be a lack of response to medical calls and foregoing a response time that is currently under 5 minutes, to over 10 minutes.

As a City, we must prioritize our Public Safety services. Without Police and Fire, we cannot function. With all budgetary concerns, at some point we have to prioritize what keeps our City safe. This is a daunting task and at times not a popular one. Our Administrative Services and Public Works departments are not a lesser concern or priority, but Police and Fire must top the list. Retention of safety employees is a challenge but is essential.

Citywide Successes
So, you always want to end on a positive thought and talk about positive things. I’m going to end this address by talking about the City’s many successes experienced throughout 2020.

One of the prouder projects was the successful completion of the renovation of Fruit Growers Park, made possible through grant funding. This improvement included upgraded energy efficient lighting in the park that greatly improves the safety and aesthetics to our park. A new well-lit basketball court along with an additional bathroom, have been great additions to continue to keep our park beautiful and safe for our community.

We are currently in the process of putting in an electric vehicle charging station in Pancera Plaza and another charging station is planned for mid-town. We successfully sponsored and organized a Safe and Sane Halloween for our youth, attended by more than 1,500 kids. We are in the process of hiring a Code Enforcement Officer, with the primary focus of the beautification of our community. We have reduced Natural Gas rates for our customers by 14%.

Although not an incredible relief, but still a positive note; the City has received $167,000 in CARES relief funding to assist with the struggles of COVID. The vast majority of these funds have been applied to Safety departments to assist in funding of staff to safely respond to the needs of the community during this time.

Approximately $100,000 has been dedicated to the General Fund for salaries and benefits.

For the first time in over 5 years, and with credit to our community; the Golf Course budget finished the calendar year season in a positive balance. This is mostly due to the incredible volunteer support received from local supporters of the course, anonymous donations and a substantial donation commitment from Susanville Auto Center over the course of 4 years.

The Susanville Municipal Airport finished the 2019/2020 fiscal year with a positive budget, a significant change from the past years. Additionally, we foresee a growing revenue source for the airport as we move forward in the future. Plus, we are entering into a planned rehabilitation to the runway and taxiways with funding from the FAA and government.

One of the larger successes in our City, is our employees. The City employees continue to do more and more with less personnel. Yet, they continue to show up for work and take pride in their duties. When addressing the priorities of the City Council, they cannot be completed without our dedicated and talented City staff.

I thank our community for their ongoing faith and support in our local government, City leaders and employees.

We at the City wish God blesses you all for a very different and hopefully normal 2021.

Kevin Jones, City Administrator/Chief of Police

Jeremy Couso
Jeremy Couso Publisher/Editor
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