The hottest thing on the agenda for the Salinas City Council meeting of Aug. 7 seemed easy to identify: The city had struck a contract for just over $99,000 with the Center for Public Safety Management to figure out how to reduce overtime in the Salinas Police and Fire Departments – most specifically, the fire department, which has gone $1 million over budget each of the past two years. The consultants were presenting their findings, and dozens of firefighters showed up en masse, wearing their Local #1270 union T-shirts, in a less-than-subtle show of solidarity. The presentation of the CPSM report, plus public comment from the audience and questions and comments from the council, took almost the first two-and-a-half hours of the meeting. When it was through, the firefighters departed and the rest of the meeting commenced.
Who could have known the real heat was yet to come?
It came in the form of what was supposed to be a discussion and rote approval of the Salinas Downtown Community Benefit District, operating as the Salinas City Center Improvement Association, or SCCIA. The 501(c)(3) public benefit corporation formed in 2015 and is funded by assessments levied on property owners in the district that encompasses most of Oldtown. Those property owners include the county, which pays an assessment of about $120,000, and the city of Salinas, which pays about $80,000 per year.
Those government payments comprise a healthy portion of SCCIA’s 2017 revenues of $443,134.
That heat came for a couple of reasons: The lone SCCIA board member at the meeting, property owner and association President Catherine Kobrinsky Evans, had already waited more than two hours to make a presentation to the council. The overtime discussion took so long that she couldn’t wait any longer and left. In her stead, the association’s government affairs director, Kevin Dayton, began to talk about SCCIA to a City Council that was already irritated because no SCCIA board members were at the meeting and the council had a lot of questions before they approved SCCIA’s annual report and budget, allowing the group to continue levying assessments.
And one of the questions they wanted answered was this: Why should the city allow the association’s continued existence when the association is gearing up to sue us?
That lawsuit threat has loomed since last September, but will come to a head this month with a deadline of Aug. 31 for the parties to negotiate.
At issue is whether the city should be allowed to give $500,0000 in Community Development Block Grant money to the First United Methodist Church to expand and modernize its kitchen, from which it serves meals to up to 200 homeless and impoverished people a day. SCCIA argues the kitchen project should be subject to California Environmental Quality Act and National Environmental Policy Act oversight, and also argues that the church’s current use is nonconforming and should be subject to a conditional use permit.
If that’s the case, it would add massive cost to the project and may render it undoable; a conditional use permit, meanwhile, is normally not required of an existing church.
Councilman Scott Davis took Dayton to task over the report SCCIA filed, decrying what he called a lack of detail. He wanted to know where the city’s return on investment was – with analysis to back it up. He wanted to know what SCCIA had done other than threaten to sue one of its largest members.
“Some of this stuff is ‘new board member recruitment,’ ‘sent a letter to the city of Salinas regarding legal counsel over the Methodist church,’” Davis said. “So aside from sending the city threatening letters, can you give any specifics on the accomplishments of SCCIA in 2017?”
Dayton told the council the issue of homelessness and “anti-social behavior” of some homeless people is a serious problem – for downtown property owners and the city itself in downtown – and that SCCIA would take a stand on it where it was appropriate.
“I know some of you are unhappy about that,” Dayton said, “and I’m sure the board is unhappy that I’m going on about it, but yes, we have a homeless problem and we’re going to deal with it.”
Mayor Joe Gunter questioned whether SCCIA had also gone after the county, which operates a homeless shelter that was supposed to be temporary but has gone year-round. He also asked why SCCIA has asked the city to police certain properties, including the Greyhound building, which has fallen further into blight with broken windows, graffiti and a sign that reads “Please don’t pee here” on a prominent window.
“We pay a fee to be a member and now I understand people want us to be the enforcement edge for your organization,” Gunter said. “Maybe we should get a discount on how much we pay if we’re going to do enforcement.”
In the end, the council tabled SCCIA’s report while confirming its budget, with a caveat: It asked SCCIA representatives to come back to the Sept. 4 council meeting, give a full and detailed presentation about the association’s activities and be prepared to answer questions.
If the City Council doesn’t like what it hears, Gunter said, it can do two things: vote to withdraw its membership in SCCIA or vote to disband SCCIA altogether. Either action would take a year to take effect.
Kobrinsky Evans declined an interview about the meeting, but in a tweet, she wrote: “I’d like to remind the Salinas City Council that the creation of this [district] was all their idea – they ENTICED prop owners to assess their property in order to supplement (not replace) the City’s efforts to implement the (downtown) Vibrancy Plan. Making threats shows bad faith.”
Davis, though, says that sentiment is mutual.
“It makes it very difficult to move forward when you have an entity threatening to sue one of its largest members,” Davis says. “They’ve taken this very abrasive approach with the city and I don’t think it’s very beneficial.”
Steve Lundin, the pastor of First United Methodist, says the threatened lawsuit has nothing do with the church, but everything to do with the city.
“We’re frustrated. It would be a shame for us not to get this grant but we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing regardless,” he says. “It’s not the condition of our kitchen that drives what we do.”
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Source : http://www.montereycountyweekly.com/news/local_news/a-business-improvement-district-battles-the-city-of-salinas-and/article_485bd2e2-a0df-11e8-abc3-db7fff7e29b0.html