Monday, June 14, 2021

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Colusa to decide on new economic development director

The Colusa City Council is a step closer to making a decision on whether to create a permanent position for someone to work on economic development, tourism, communication, and community events full time.

Since the proposal was first pitched in July, the action recommended by City Manager Jesse Cain to skip the recruitment process has been dropped, as the council agreed that “flying” the position was more ethically appropriate than making the preferential appointment of Kristy Levings outright.

At Cain’s direction, however, the position has been allocated in the city’s deficit budget, with a start date of Oct. 1, and a final decision is expected at the City Council’s Aug. 18 meeting.

Meanwhile, the City Council voted unanimously at their Aug. 4 meeting to expand the city’s current contract with Levings, principal of Golden Oak Business Services, to provide the grant writing services that she would be doing as the new director, at a cost of $100 per hour.

Levings is under contract to create a biomass project at the old Pirelli Cable site on Will S. Green Road. She has also received $15,000 for the Community Economic Development Strategy (needs) report, which is nearing completion, and $7,000 to write two other grants for the city, which are awaiting decisions.

“I think that there is an opportunity here for us to take care of a few things under the same umbrella,” said Councilman Greg Ponciano, who was in favor of Levings’ expanded contract. “This format that we are looking at here has the continual pay of $6,800 a month, and the grant writing on top of that. Jesse has talked about that the Pirelli dealings are stop and go due to COVID; people aren’t available or working from home, etc., so I have to think there would be time (for her to do this), with just an hourly contract, and that it would not be some huge cost to the city.”

Since the proposal to create a salaried position specifically for Levings first appeared on the July 7 agenda, community support has been divided.

Cain believes the position will pay for itself with grant funding, although it is unclear if Levings, if hired, will completely replace the grant writing duties performed by the city’s contracted civil engineer for major infrastructure projects, and other writers currently used. The city has used the same firm for services on major projects since 1994, according to city engineer David Swartz.

Because Colusa City Council meetings are allowed to restrict public attendance during the COVID-19 pandemic, under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order, Colusa residents and business owners have been writing letters both for and against the proposal.

While many expressed enthusiasm for a new city staff position dedicated entirely to economic developement, tourism, and event planning within the City of Colusa, others expressed concern about local taxpayers being on the hook during uncertain economic times with lifetime health benefits and pension debt.

The position starts at $154,000 annually in combined salary and benefits, and quickly escalates to $200,000, which is higher than the salaries of both the Police and Fire Department chiefs, city officials said.

“This proposed position does not appear to be performance based,” wrote Elizabeth Yerxa. “I would be much more inclined to keep someone on as a consultant, based on grants-received-results, rather than create a high-paid new position with benefits that never disappear.”

Some expressed support for a volunteer committee or commission to drive economic development, while others supported the idea of a volunteer steering committee working alongside a permanent economic development director.

“Allowing the compromise of an economic development committee is almost a certain way to fail,” wrote Colusa businessman, Doug McGeoghegan. “We all know committees can’t accomplish work – individuals do. While a committee may be a good place to gather opinions, we all know that things get done by individuals.”

Offered as an alternative to both the City Council creating the economic development position (with an estimated $290,000 city budget shortfall) or relying entirely on a consultant, Ben Felt and Jenifer Diaz, of the Chamber of Commerce, reminded the council that the cities of Colusa and Williams, along with the County of Colusa, once funded the Colusa County Economic Development Corporation, which still exists within the Chamber.

Diaz and Felt said if the three entities paid just $3,750 a month, then the EDC would have $135,000 per year to spend on a qualified individual(s) to focus their attention on economic development, communication, tourism, and grant writing.

“In addition, there is no justification for the City of Colusa to carry the full weight of economic development on their shoulders,” Diaz and Felt wrote. “Like it or not, the two cities and the county are one regional economy. Economically speaking, there is nothing that happens in the county that doesn’t have an effect on all of us. We already have the vehicle that can get us where we all want to be, we just need a little gas money from the three passengers.”

Ed Hulbert, chief executive officer for Colusa Industrial Properties, who has been involved with the Chamber and EDC for 35 years, said that because that entity has always struggled with funding and capacity to support the city and the county, he believes collaboration between all agencies would allow the city and CIP to do so much more over the next 10 years.

“The Chamber, One Stop, USDA loan program, grant writing, and the Economic Development Director working in cooperation will put Colusa in a more competitive position for projects and companies looking at Colusa,” Hulbert wrote.

Although some people confuse Community Developement (Planning and Building) managers, which Colusa already has, to Economic Development managers, Cain said the position he proposes combines economic development with tourism, communications and grant writing, which would be unique, not only for Colusa, but in the state.

“This is basically three jobs wrapped into one doing multiple things,” Cain said. “It would be helping to administer grants, train to administer grants, working with our businesses and working to bring positive stuff (events and new businesses) to Colusa.”

Cain said while it was one thing to write grants and get grants (giving CDBG grants as an example), which the city currently does and receives, it was another thing to actually administer grants.

“We might end up getting two, three, or five grants and it is a lot to keep up with the administration of just those particular grants,” he added. “(The City’s) talking about a position that can do everything.”

While the community is likely to stay divided on the issue, residents encouraged their elected officials to research, ask questions, and then make decisions to the best of their abilities that do the greatest good for the greatest number of residents.

While most people agreed that greater economic development efforts by the city would be good for the community, some questioned the expediency to have this position filled during an economic downturn with the availability of future state and federal grant funding is questionable, the salary that has been proposed, and the determination to have only Levings on the payroll, even though the city intends to go through the motions of open recruitment.

Ponciano said his apprehension did not indicate that he was against economic development.

“If someone suggests that, it is simply not true,” he said. “But I’m realistic enough to know that when you live in a small town, you must live within your means, and as council members, we have a fiduciary responsibility. We are in the midst of a pandemic and an economic downturn that we still don’t know the ramifications of Jurisdictions all around us are downsizing and cutting budgets, and laying people off, but somehow we are suppose to believe that we live in this immune little bubble of Colusa and that’s not going to effect us.”

Ponciano did recommend the city keep an amended contract with Golden Oaks, thus not binding Levings to only the Pirelli project, for a certain period of time to see if her success justifies the position later.

“Instead of getting married after the first date, why don’t we date a while,” he said.

But Ponciano also added that he was deeply concerned about how the permanent position for Levings was initially proposed, and questioned why Cain and possibly a majority of the City Council were, before the process blew up on the public stage, been adamant about creating a full-time director position during a budget deficit, creating the position at a time when the public cannot attend meetings, creating the position without wanting to discuss any options or consider viable alternatives, creating the position (initially) for a particular individual, and establishing an arbitrary salary schedule with no comparative investigation, but based upon a sales pitch and theory.

During the discussion, Ponciano dropped a bombshell that Cain told him on July 9 that he already had three City Council members who agreed with him about the proposal, although Cain denied the allegation.

“This is not in any attempt to change any votes,” Ponciano continued, as he read from a prepared statement. “This is more for my own conscience and my oath to represent the people of Colusa. This council will shortly invent a brand new position without adequate analysis, and adopt a pay scale with no market research, but rather a side deal between the city manager and the heir-apparent.”

(This reporter has also publicly expressed concern at two separate council meetings that the city’s decision-making process as a result of routine closed-door meetings between the city manager and two members of the council at a time, do not meet the spirit, if not the letter, of the Ralph M. Brown Act, based on years of experience as a government reporter. The Brown Act explicitly prohibits the use of “direct communication, personal intermediaries, or technological devices to develop of collective concurrence as to any action that is to be taken on an item of business before the legislative body. When the actions of legislative bodies fail to meet the Brown Act “smell test” they ultimately, even if government maleficence has not occurred, result in costly Public Record Act requests, grand jury investigations, etc.)

Following a lengthy discussion, Mayor Josh Hill continued the matter of the Economic Development Director position until the Aug. 18 meeting so that staff could verify how much other jurisdictions pay economic development and event planning personnel.

If the City Council approves the position at its next meeting, Cain said he would immediately open the recruitment process and then put together a panel to do interviews.

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