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A special series by Sarah Reith about the financial realities of Mendocino County governance.

Fort Bragg passes budget, says goodbye to Police Chief & City Manager

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Fort Bragg City website
Fort Bragg City Hall

Fort Bragg passes budget, says goodbye to Police Chief & City Manager

July 1, 2022 — Fort Bragg bid farewell to Police Chief John Naulty and Interim City Manager David Spaur this week. At Monday’s City Council meeting, the Council also passed the 22/23 budget, with the assurance that it can be amended as labor negotiations proceed. The city labor union, SEIU Local 1021, is advocating for a 5% COLA, or cost of living increase, but the city has budgeted 3%. Union leaders also argued that the compensation and comparison study was not realistic, as Fort Bragg was compared to Lakeport, where the cost of living is much lower.

Naulty and Spaur came out of retirement to serve as heads of the police force and the city. As public servants, they receive CalPers benefits, which would be reduced if they worked more than 960 hours after retirement. But while the city is facing what could be a lengthy recruitment for a new city manager, a new police chief is expected to start work later this month, on July 25. According to a city press release, Neil Cervenka is a veteran of the Air Force and the Turlock Police Department. He also serves as Treasurer on the Executive Board of Directors for the California Peace Officers Association. Cervenka’s salary and benefits will be $110k a year.

Council members credited Naulty with improving the culture at the police department and highlighted the grim day when he traded gunfire with the man who killed Sheriff’s Deputy Ricki Del Fiorentino in 2014.

Naulty said he expects the new chief to improve the department further, by focusing on training and technology. “It’s just going to flourish even more,” he promised. “We’re fortunate in Mendocino County to be fully staffed, one of the few departments. I mean, some don’t even have a chief anymore, and some people barely have enough officers to cover all the shifts, but we’re one of the fortunate few. It’s thanks to you guys for listening to me, and the investments that you’ve placed into these people, so you guys deserve a lot of credit.”

The new fiscal year starts July 1, and the council approved a $38.1 million budget. That’s a $740k decrease from last year, mostly because of upgrades to the wastewater treatment facility and the water meter replacement project. However, the budget for salaries and wages increased by $744k to include packages for high-paying positions like police chief and city manager, as well as two social services workers and an engineering technician.

Public Works consumes about 12% of the budget, coming in third after General Government at 19% and police, at 35%.

Assistant Director of Finance Isaac Whippy told the council the city has a surplus of $175k, with a projected $3.4 million general fund balance for the upcoming fiscal year. But he warned that a widely predicted recession could knock out the city’s strong ToT (transient occupancy tax, or bed tax paid to lodging establishments) and sales tax revenue. “We could see a decline in our tax revenue, particularly our sales tax revenue, by 10-15%,” he predicted. “And similarly for ToT taxes. So if a recession were to happen in 23/24, we would see a decline in fund balance by $510k, and then in 24/25 there would be a slow recovery from that recession.”

The approved budget includes the 3% COLA increase for most city workers, but Assistant City Manager Sarah McCormick’s salary is going up by about $5k. Outgoing Interim City Manager David Spaur summarized the budget implication. “The proposed change in this item, 5G, authorizes an annual salary for the position of Assistant City Manager up to the amount of $120,972.80,” he said. “There will be some salary savings from not having a City Manager for a period of time, as this week will be my last week.”

John Ford, of Humboldt County, had accepted the city manager position, but asked to be released from his contract earlier this month, citing family reasons. In a brief interview, Council Member Lindy Peters explained that Spaur had served Fort Bragg at $76 an hour for the 960 hours allowed by CalPers. Peters said now the city is facing a choice. The city can look for another manager through a recruiting agency, which could leave the Council trying to hire someone right after the election, when there might be brand-new Council members. He said the city could also mount its own recruitment efforts, or work its connections through the League of California Cities to try and find another retired city manager who could give Fort Bragg another 960 hours.

Meanwhile, city workers lined up during public comment to petition for a higher COLA. Merle Larsen said his reduced earnings as inflation climbs would have an impact on the city’s finances as a whole. “What you’re doing, is everywhere that I shop downtown, they're not gonna get the money,” he vowed. “You're not penalizing me. I’m gonna go online. I’m gonna go over the hill. I’m going wherever it’s cheaper to buy something. So you know what that means here? Less tax dollars. Less for you, when you make that decision.”

Vice Mayor Jessica Morsell-Haye said approving the budget was awkward while the city is in negotiations with the union, but Spaur and Whippy assured the Council that they could adopt the budget and retroactively award workers a higher COLA if that is the final result of negotiations.

In a final fiscal decision, the Council voted unanimously to approve a resolution granting a three-year waiver of water and wastewater capacity fees for restaurants, cafes, and food service businesses in the Central Business District. According to a staff report, the fees can be as high as $50,000 for a restaurant moving into a location that has not been used for that purpose before. Staff analysis calculated that the fiscal impact for waiving the fees could add up to more than $120,000 over the three years, but that it could be balanced out by sales taxes from the new businesses, with ongoing positive revenue.

The City already allows businesses to request a waiver, but in order for it to be granted, it must pass the test of being a public benefit. Council Member Tess Albin-Smith asked that that proviso be spelled out in an upcoming resolution waiving the capacity fees for the rest of the city.

Morsell-Haye summed up the feeling on the council, saying, “For years, we’ve talked about how to be business friendly, and I think right here, we’re actually accomplishing it for once. So thank you.”

Local News
Sarah Reith came to Mendocino County in 2008 and worked as a reporter and freelancer, joining KZYX as a community news reporter in 2017. She became the KZYX News Director in March, 2023.