City of Willits on financial edge

Sep 3, 2020

September 1, 2020 — As the pandemic carries on and the economic fallout widens, more and more businesses and individuals are wondering how they will pay their employees, make their bills and maintain their properties. That’s true for local governments, too, especially the City of Willits, which Mayor Gerry Gonzalez says has been scraping to get by since at least the early aughts, when he started serving as chief of police. Now the city is making calculations that sound like the ones a lot of businesses, big and small, have been struggling with. 

Willits is planning to balance its budget with reserves for the third year in a row this year, and, like any enterprise contemplating whether it should dissolve or keep going on savings, the city is facing the possibility of disincorporation if it can’t come up with more revenue. Cities depend largely on taxes, and there is a sales tax initiative on the Willits city ballot this November. 

According to a recent staff report, the remaining reserves will run out in about two years. 

Gonzalez and City Manager Stephanie Garrabrant Sierra say that the city can’t declare bankruptcy like Vallejo, Stockton, and San Bernardino, because the city doesn’t owe any money. “Bankruptcy erases your debts,” Garrabrant Sierra explained. “We don’t have debts in the general fund. So bankruptcy is not an option.”

But the most pressing concern for both of them is the police force. The starting pay for police officers in Willits is pretty low, at $22 an hour, and the department’s administrative staff has been cut. Gonzalez and Garrabrant Sierra tried to imagine what law enforcement would look like in Willits if the city became another stop in a huge rural county for the sheriff’s department. 

“If we weren’t a city at all,” said Garrabrant Sierra,  “then the sheriff’s department would just sort of have responsibility for us, but we would get no more service than a place like Covelo, that has very minimal service, and that would absolutely not be enough for the residents of Willits. We would just have an occasional car come by. They just don’t have the staffing.”

Gonzalez, who is the city’s appointed member to LAFCo (Local Agency Formation Commission, “created by State law in 1963 to provide assistance to local agencies in overseeing jurisdictional boundary changes,” according to its website), says there’s not a precedent in Mendocino County for a city disincorporating “Usually what happens in other ares is that the smaller cities get eaten up by maybe a larger city...these are different times,” he noted.

Gonzalez doesn’t blame inflation for the city’s costs going up, but he does note that “everything costs more now.” That includes health insurance and fire insurance. Garrabrant Sierra said that the city’s insurance went up 40% last year. And the fire insurance deductible is half a million dollars, up from $10,000 last year. “Yeah, it was awful,” she acknowledged. “But that happened for everybody. We’re part of an insurance pool. And it happened for all the cities in the pool. Because wildfire insurance has become so hard to get, with the wildfires that we’ve been experiencing here in northern California.” With fixed costs rising and unfunded training mandates, including isolation costs for any city workers who contract covid-19, the city is teetering financially. 

 “We’ve always struggled as a city,” Gonzalez concluded. “But lately, our expenses are up, sales tax is down, and covid didn’t give us any favors.”