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Fort Bragg Pulls Together

With about a million and a half dollars worth of spending cuts made from its $3.3 million general fund budget — mostly layoffs, furloughs, early retirement, cancelled job offers, and salary and benefit givebacks from city workers and police — the Fort Bragg City Council set about addressing the uncounted but undoubtedly severe economic toll of COVID-19.

Even though the coast's second COVID-19 case was announced Tuesday — a traveling nurse at the newly renamed Adventist Health Mendocino Coast hospital in Fort Bragg — the region and city have been spared any COVID-19 surge — so far. Local government's attention has been turning more and more to long term and immediate economic cost.

But the health and economic aspects of COVID-19 can't he separated. Before anything like a normal retail, let alone tourist, economy can resume, there has to be a set of rules in place that satisfies county and state health officials.

At Monday's meeting, the council set enforcement rules that they hope will make that reopening an uninterrupted path, without having to double back if there is a surge in cases, so far avoided.

That process is where things get very complicated, some would say (though no one did Monday) impossible, since there are still not nearly enough testing capacity to genuinely track the virus' spread.

So, all across the country, governments large and small are having to make policy decisions based on guesswork, as the Fort Bragg council did this week.

After hesitating two weeks ago at imposing fines on individuals over not following state health orders, council members unanimously flipped, swayed mostly by the argument that, if business owners have to be responsible for what happens on their premises, they need the option of some enforceable backup on their recalcitrant customers.

The discussion followed a week where local business people, mostly on Facebook, described an increase in abuse of their employees over trying to get some customers to wear masks in stores. Tales circulated of workers and proprietors being cussed at and even spit on and threatened by irate customers staging impromptu freedom tantrums at local establishments, mostly refusing to wear masks.

Council members ended up voting 5-0 for a set of fines on both businesses and individuals designed to make a sharp impression on repeat offenders and the belligerent. Most of the enforcement effort, said City Manager Tabatha Miller, would go into persuasion and education, with fines reserved for the most obstinate.

What to do about longer term relief and recovery was not so clear cut. 

Council members refocused a set of hoped for federally funded economic endeavors and projects — the sometimes locally reviled Community Development Block Grant program — on post-COVID-19 priorities.

CDBG grants have paid for a range of projects in Fort Bragg, some popular and some not. Now, though, CDBG and other federal money is very likely where federal stimulus will come from. Council members sorted through earlier priorities and came to a batch that is more focused on economic assistance and loans, though the fire station roof is still on the list.

Though council members did not specifically mention this either, it was hard not to notice how small the amounts they have to work with are. Maybe not in normal times, but in the face of what looks to be widespread and possibly longterm economic devastation — and no sign yet of a reopened tourist economy for this year — a little under $2 million for economic development seems a drop in the bucket.

There was plenty of hope at least in Fort Bragg Fire Chief Steve Orsi's message to the council, thanking them for not pulling funds from the roofing project on the 1947 firehouse.

Three good-sized development projects are also squarely in the council's sights: the Avalon Hotel project north of town, a Grocery Outlet on the far south end of Franklin Street, and the millsite proposals of Harvest Market's owners and California Western Railroad (the Skunk Train), both of which remain active.

It seems unlikely that any project that promises a boost to economic activity is going to get much resistance from this council post-COVID-19. Council members Monday generally signaled their interest in seeing millsite planning go forward. Council member Jessica Moresell-Haye asked if the city might send plans to the California Coastal Commission for the north half of the site only. City Manager Miller gave a very qualified “yes.” As with all Coastal Commission dealings, it is very complicated.

But the intention was clear: do everything possible to get cash and technical help to business owners now and put the city in a better position for project-related federal aid in the near term. Miller said it might be that "shovel ready" projects will be first in line when the federal government passes an infrastructure package.

That, she has said, is the light that cities are waiting for, that will truly address the unprecedented economic shock that communities and local governments are seeing now.

Recent cuts will affect city services pretty noticeably. City Hall will be open four days a week instead of five; parks, bathrooms and other public facilities are likely to have more limited hours.

But police staffing and fire department resources have held steady and the city's new wastewater treatment plant has been brought online over the past month without incident. Miller said the present spending cuts ought to last through fall, when it's hoped things like actual tax revenues and the economic outlook will be clearer.

Until then, the city council — Mayor Will Lee, Vice Mayor Bernie Norvell, Lindy Peters, Tess Albin-Smith and Moresell-Haye — seems to be taking a United We Stand approach, with plenty of discussion but rarely a split vote these days. There's a lot of reliance on things like Fire Chief Orsi's words of encouragement: "I believe there's not much we can't do if we're all pulling in the same direction."

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