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Petaluma City Council delays vote on $8M spending package amid resident pushback

The Petaluma City Council this week delayed a vote on a proposal that would have funneled millions in incoming federal pandemic recovery dollars to a host of city projects after residents roundly criticized the plan, which they said was developed without public input.

Residents and council members critiqued city plans to spend some of the $8.3 million cash infusion on city hall upgrades, police department renovations and one-time, $1,000 bonuses for city workers.

“My concern is that we’re growing this gap between the haves and the haves-not in our community when we have an opportunity now to actually narrow that gap with this funding from the federal government, and I don’t see us doing that,” council member D’Lynda Fischer said.

The one-time funding stems from President Joe Biden’s $350 billion American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law May 11 and meant to help local governments respond to the COVID-19 emergency and its economic fallout.

Council member Kevin McDonnell was absent from the meeting, leaving a divided council to debate the proposal well into the night Monday and forcing council members to delay a vote until their next meeting, Aug. 2.

City Manager Peggy Flynn said Wednesday a modified ordinance, providing more flexibility, will be on offer when the discussion continues early next month.

That meeting will also feature a full council, and give McDonnell an opportunity to weigh in on the current divisions.

The proposal introduced Monday night divvied up spending priorities into three categories: $3.05 million for resident and business assistance, $853,000 for community projects and programs, and more than half of the total funding, $4.4 million, for upgrades to city facilities and city operations.

While the first two categories elicited praise from council and members of the public, plans to use the money to improve city buildings garnered stern pushback from nearly a dozen residents who spoke out during the meeting.

A planned $500,000 remodel of the Petaluma Police Department proved to be the thorniest funding proposal outlined by city staff, which cited space concerns as reason for the spending.

“This is not one of those industries that was negatively impacted by COVID, the negative impacts were households, small businesses and nonprofits,” said a resident named Sarah, who did not provide her last name. “This is not what these funds are for. They’re for people negatively impacted by COVID.”

Petaluma resident Ben Peters slammed the city for categorizing the funding allocation proposal as an “urgency ordinance,” even though the city has until 2024 to spend the money, and asked for the council to incorporate public feedback.

Others praised the city’s plan to commit $313,000 to a new skate park for Petaluma youth, repair a river dock to promote water recreation and applauded the $3 million for a range of community programs to help low-income earners, families and small businesses.

But despite these programs, distaste remained over the proposal to spend more than half of the federal recovery funds on upgrading and repairing city buildings for COVID-19 safety requirements and devoting $350,000 toward city staff bonuses, citing their status as essential workers.

A few council members, including Mayor Teresa Barrett, defended the allocations for city building improvements and one-time staff bonuses.

“People are working in those buildings and it’s our responsibility to keep them safe,” Barrett said Monday. “These aren’t really frivolous paddings for people who didn’t lose their jobs during the pandemic. These people are people who have been working, I think practically around the clock. A $1,000 stipend for what the people on this staff have done is not only justified, but perhaps not enough.”

Council members Dave King and Mike Healy sided with Barrett, while Dennis Pocekay and Brian Barnacle weighed approving some investments in the broad ordinance, though disagreeing with others.

Fischer criticized the lack of data in the proposal, and asked for more information about how residents were adversely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Like Fischer and some residents, Barnacle said such a large chunk of money demanded closer analysis and public input before anything could be rubber-stamped.

“We don’t know who all has been impacted and how we can help them, we don’t know if the end is in sight,” he said Monday. “I think the thing we do know is we’re not going to get another drop of $8 million from the federal government like this again.”

Petaluma’s $8.3M spending proposal

City Facilities and Operations: $4.4M Total

City Hall Renovation: $2.5M

Fire Department Truck: $800,000

Police Department Remodel: $500,000

City Staff Payments: $350,000

Council Chambers A/V Upgrades: $250,000

Community Assistance: $3.05M Total

Homeless Housing Program: $1.7M

Assistance to Utility Customers: $650,000

Small Business Loans & Outdoor Dining: $500,000

Boys and Girls Club Funding: $100,000

Assist Local Food Pantries $100,000

Community Projects: $853,000 Total

Skate Park Relocation: $313,000

Petaluma River Dock Repair: $200,000

FEMA Flood Modeling: $178,000

Climate Campaign Outreach: $162,000

Contact Kathryn Palmer at kathryn.palmer@arguscourier.com, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.

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