Crippled By Debt, Isleton Struggles to Plan Ahead

C.A. Giacoma
Staff Writer
February 24, 2016

River News-Herald

Commissioners Bulahan, Samano, and Pene, with Vice Mayor Jankovitz and Mayor Bettencourt
held the February 2016 Isleton City Council meeting last Wednesday evening. City Manager Hinrichs began his report by announcing that the former bank building has been purchased by an investment group and that they plan to create a regional wine tasting center in the building once some cosmetic work and ADA compliance is completed to the interior.

Hinrichs also stated that he wants to have a new general plan made for the City of Isleton, calling it a community design, even though there is a completed plan in place that has yet to be realized. Vice Mayor Jankovitz questioned whether it was a good idea or necessary, recognizing that little has changed and that if the general plan is changed all of the zoning codes would also have to be changed. Hinrichs acknowledged that this is true and suggested that wording could give the appearance of having considered the original plan. As discussed the previous night by the Planning Commission, the general plan was written, voted on and memorialized by Resolution #87-2 and remains to be implemented.

Councilwoman Samano, referring to recent discussions regarding emergency response and the possible reorganization of Fire Districts, specifically separating Isleton Fire Dept. from the City, asked Mayor Bettencourt for clarification on the issue. Bettencourt explained that this is just one of many different possibilities being considered and that everyone would have to be in agreement before that could happen. Explaining further, he stated, “to me the goal is to get the fire department out of the City, to form a separate fire district. The fire agency will be controlled by the fire board, it won’t be at the whim of the City budget, where it suffers. It would be a completely separate entity and the priority would be only for the people.” Mayor Bettencourt explained his rationale: “we’re generating revenue for a resource that does (just) a little bit when we can all bring our resources and our money together and serve everybody better.”

Referring to the issue of merging the local separate districts and resistance by some to doing that, he described it as “hitting two brick walls on either side,” separate fire districts clinging to their identity don’t want to merge. Bettencourt stated that he feels it’s not about identity, it’s about what’s best for the community and its citizens, adding, “that’s what is important.” He concluded, “now the door is open and we’ve got everyone at the table, we need to talk about it, not just look the other way.”  The next public meeting with the County on the issue will be at the beginning of April and will probably be held at the community center where there is more room. The public, especially all residents of Delta Fire District, River Delta fire District and Isleton Fire District, are strongly encouraged to attend. Notices will be posted in March with the date, time and location of the meeting.

The issue of the insolvency of the City and what to do about it remains “the elephant in the room,” casting a long shadow on recovery for Isleton. The City Manager for the past several years, Dan Hinrichs, is calling for hiring a financial expert he knows, Ken Dieker, who has handled the bankruptcies of Stockton and San Bernardino to advise “how we can fix this.” Vice Mayor Jankovitz responded that his concern is with the fact that the City is over $2,000,000 in debt. Mayor Bettencourt responded, “now we have a real good idea where we’re at, I think it’s time to sit down with the County.” Bettencourt suggests that Isleton present what assets the City has and ask of the Board of Supervisors: “How can we save the citizens of this town a big debt on their taxes and turn everything over to you? Buildings, sewer system, it all has a value,” suggesting disincorporation of Isleton. Bettencourt added that they are obligated to try to get ahead of the financial problems, to stop the rising debt and “not allow it to reach the point that every property in Isleton is encumbered with a $3000 lien/bill.” Bettencourt recommends that Isleton prepare an accounting of all of the assets of the City and get an appraisal so they can make an offer to the County.

Hinrichs, returning to his previous position to hire a financial expert, admitted that this can’t happen until past, overdue audits are completed, adding that the auditor “is really close” to completion and that it should be ready soon, as he has stated at each meeting for the past several months. Hinrichs then went on to say that when there is an audit it should be presented in a closed session, out of public view, in case it involves a potential lawsuit, and then he will “get it right over” to his financial expert, a Mr. Dieker so he can determine what Isleton should do. Hinrichs suggests Isleton form a Community Utility District or Public Services District instead of disincorporation, stating, “I want to do everything I can to prevent disincorporation.”

Citizen Lauren Doyle, attending the meeting for the first time with her husband Zach since moving to Isleton recently, inquired of the Board whether they had considered applying to the Economic Development Administration for federal grant monies to address infrastructure needs, offering that this agency has funding opportunities such as economic grants (not loans).“If we’re trying to improve the community we should probably start with infrastructure,” she said. Hinrichs answered that he has someone to do that. Mrs. Doyle continued to attempt to explain: “They have funding opportunities. They have planning technicians, people who come out to cities to help you plan to improve the community, give you plans, give you an idea how much it would cost and funding opportunities which would accommodate that. These are grants, they are not loans. They are grants, grants that would give back.”

Glenn Giovannoni got up and spoke about the positions that the Chairman and Vice Chairman hold and that they do so by appointment and as such are subject to removal at any time if the commissioners are dissatisfied with them.

The issue of unpaid revenue taxes and business license fees was addressed amid considerable confusion. City Manager Hinrichs stated that he failed to charge for a 15-month period instead of a 12-month period and that this is because he “screwed up.” He then claimed his assistant, Sandra, didn’t get it done and suggested it should be put it off until next year. Vice Mayor Janovitz quickly interjected that this is not acceptable and asked, “What is the problem? And if she couldn’t get it done why didn’t she come to us and let us know? And why didn’t you know?” Janovitz reminded Hinrichs that he had given her three forms and Councilwoman Samano had provided a fourth form to choose from and that the last thing Sandra had told him was that she had decided on a form and was going ahead with sending them out. Hinrichs repeated that she hadn’t had time to do it and that she said she would collect those fees next year, circling the entire conversation back to its starting point. Hinrichs became confused regarding revenue taxes versus business license fees at this point and Janovitz reminded him that the license fee and the revenue tax are two separate things that are collected at the same time, repeating for clarity that they are in fact two separate things. Janovitz enquired whether Sandra is looking for someone to bring in to get this done.

Hinrichs answered yes and Janovitz responded that he had directed an experienced person with the knowledge to do this work who had put in an application two weeks ago but has not received a response yet. He recommended that Hinrichs send out a letter of apology with a bill for the underpaid amount, but this was opposed by the Mayor as well as a member of the public. Janovitz responded: “For being 2 million dollars in debt, you guys seem a little cavalier.” Samano supported Janovitz and suggested that Hinrichs get the billing form mailed out with a letter explaining what had happened, reminding everyone present that they are in a condition of hurt and need the money. Councilman Pene stated that he also agreed that the letter needs to go out now and then the billing for the past due fees.

The final item on the agenda was Rules of Decorum and the Role of City Manager; this was tabled until the next meeting following a request by the City Manager to do so.

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