The City of Signal Hill invited residents to the first of two workshops March 19 designed to update the City’s 2006-2011 strategic plan.
The first of the strategic-plan visioning workshops featured presentations from the police department, Los Angeles County Fire and Public Works.
The last time the City updated its strategic plan was in 2006 and is “overdue” for an update, City Manager Ken Farfsing said. “This is part of a series of workshops and information that we’re collecting to help guide strategic planning,” he said.
The purpose of the workshops, Farfsing explained, is for residents to help the City provide a vision and goals for the community. The City will also be using the results of the resident-satisfaction survey conducted at the end of last year.
“It is really important for residents to really give us input at the City level,” Farfsing said. “If you really think about it, if we had not sat down with [the community] eight years ago to talk about strategic planning, we wouldn’t have had the idea that the community needed a new police station.”
In the last strategic plan, the City set a goal to add a new police station, which was completed in 2011.
“Strategic planning is really about developing a vision,” Police Chief Mike Langston said. “Our new police facility started as a vision over a decade ago when former Chief of Police Don Pederson brought together a group of concerned citizens, the blue-ribbon panel, who recognized the need for a new police facility and increased staffing levels within the police department.”
Council took those recommendations, though it took some time to achieve them fully– it wasn’t until this fiscal year that the department added the last officer that the blue-ribbon panel had recommended back in 2001.
Langston said that in 2012, the Police Department leadership team used input from community members, City Council, City leaders and police personnel to develop a three-year strategic plan to help guide the department.
“We realize that there are things we need to work on internally to improve our services overall,” Langston said.
Enhancing community relations was one of the department’s primary objectives, and Langston mentioned several outreach improvements implemented that made him proud.
First, the police department re-established the neighborhood watch program that had “completely fallen by the wayside,” he said.
Second, the police station will hold its first open house in May. Annually, the public will be invited to visit the facility, take a tour and observe the inner workings of the police department.
Third, it was a priority for the police department to develop a school resource officer program with the Long Beach Unified School District.
“Especially with the new middle school,” Langston said. “We knew there would be traffic issues and issues with the students.”
In addition, the police department implemented scheduling and payroll software and plans to deploy electronic ticketing, eliminating the time lost while manually inputting data. The police department also employed automated license-plate readers in the city.
“We hope and we think we’ve been doing some things right,” Langston said.
The results of a survey that the City conducted showed that the police department had a favorable rating of 84 percent.
Langston noted that homelessness was also a concern for the community. He said that the police department has partnered with the Los Angeles Department of Mental Health to prepare a mental-health initiative, assigning a police officer to “provide direct services to the homeless and the mentally ill in hopes of getting them off the street.”
Fortunately, violent crime in Signal Hill is “very low,” lower than the state average, Langston said. Property crimes, specifically larceny, are where residents and police are experiencing a problem.
According to the resident-satisfaction survey, 72 percent of residents felt it was extremely important that the police department receive the funding they need.
“If we were to lose any significant funding, it would severely impact our ability to serve,” Langston said. “We were hit with a large budget cut, and it has certainly affected us.”
Langston expressed his concerns about the department’s ability to maintain the quality of services they provide. Currently, the department is short-staffed by five or six officers.
In 2011, the police department had a collective 354 years of experience amongst 31 officers, an average of 11.4 years per officer. Today, the department employs 36 officers with an average of 8.4 years of experience per officer and two more officers are planning to retire this year.
“They will take with them, collectively, 60 years of experience, and they will be replaced by officers who don’t have any experience,” Langston said. “Our experience level will go down to 6.5 years per officer. Those are the challenges that we are facing, but we are training them and trying to help them get the experience they need to successfully do their jobs.”
Langston said it takes officers a good five or six years to become fairly confident in their jobs out on the streets.
Battalion Chief Ricky Lewis of L.A. County Fire followed Langston with a brief update on the fire department before he had to depart the meeting early after receiving reports of a fire from his radio.
Lewis explained that 75 to 85 percent of their calls are emergency-service related. The average response time for all calls is 4 minutes and 58 seconds.
In 2012, the fire department received over 900 rescue and EMS calls, encompassing everything from “wrestling cats out of a tree, to trauma and heart attacks requiring life-saving provisions,” Lewis said.
Rescues also decreased from about 900 to 800, Lewis said. He credited CPR classes and “other means of service available to the public.”
“The public can intervene prior to us getting there,” Lewis said. “And that could mean saving a life or preventing a more deadly outcome.”
The fire department also provides tours of the station. Residents can visit anytime. They offer free blood-pressure checks, and the station serves as a safe house, a place to safely surrender an unwanted newborn.
“We provide citizens with the opportunity to drop their infant off rather than drop them in the trash and leave them abandoned,” Lewis said.
After Lewis’s early departure, Director of Public Works Steve Myrter shared with community members some of his department’s goals and challenges.
The Public Works overall department budget is about $7.8 million, with about half of that going to the water utility.
The Department of Public Works also implemented the Capital Improvement Program. The City will receive $14.9 million, 95 percent of which was not funded from City sources. For example, $6.2 million of the program comes from grant funds from federal sources, intended mainly for road construction.
“A lot of our program has been through our hard work in achieving and receiving grant money to help extend our capital dollars,” Myrter said.
The Public Works Department oversees the maintenance and improvement projects in the city. The park-maintenance division is responsible for 29 acres, and the City trims over 2000 trees annually. Public Works also maintains playground equipment, grounds, public art, and in turn, graffiti removal. In addition, Myrter said his department manages more than 50 structures and 80,000 square feet of space.
Public Works repairs and replaces sidewalks, maintains alleyways, manages the city’s sign inventory and updates street markings on a 35-mile network of streets and residential roads with 32 signalized intersections.
New environmental requirements on the paint used for street markings, for example, is one of the kinds of challenges that the Public Works Department is facing.
“We used to use paint that lasts five years. Now it lasts two years,” Myrter said. “Our work only increases with every new regulation in terms of the paint we are able to use.”
Myrter mentioned another new regulation that is proving to be a challenge for the City.
Stemming from the Clean Water Act of 1972, MS4 storm-water permits are meant to decrease the toxicity of storm water. Through the years, the acceptable levels of toxins in storm water have decreased.
“Public works directors used to lose sleep worrying about large storm events. Will a storm event overwhelm our system? Will we able to protect property?” Myrter said. “And it’s actually more complicated now. Now we have to also worry about what’s in the storm water. Will the contaminants in our storm water get pushed down the drain? Will it violate the law?”
Storm water hits the ground covered with contaminants, and it is swept up into the storm drain.
“This newest permit requires us to make sure the contaminants do not enter the storm drain,” Myrter said. “We are now required to come up with plans to remove these contaminants over the next 10 to 20 years.”
The risk of non-compliance to this law is real and very expensive. If a city is found in non-compliance, it would be fined $10,000, as well as $10 per gallon of storm water at unacceptable toxin levels.
“You can imagine how many gallons go down the storm drain, and how quickly, so there are real consequences to non-compliance,” Myrter said.
The City spends about $700,000 annually to improve storm water quality, now. And Myrter projects that over the next 10 years, this figure could triple.
“Ultimately, we’re going to need some kind of water-treatment system for storm water over the next 10 to 20 years to meet the requirements as they stand today,” Myrter said.
Each department concluded that the City needs to go into planning mode and seek input from the community regarding the challenges addressed in the workshop.
The City of Signal Hill hired a facilitator to help guide and collect information and input from the workshop attendees. Bill Kelly of Kelly Associates Management Group is a retired city manager, and his firm does consulting for cities, counties, special districts and nonprofits with a focus on public service.
He led a brainstorm at the conclusion of each department’s presentation and asked the residents how they would update the ‘06-‘11 strategic plan.
“The world has changed a bit since the plan was done,” Kelly said. “And what I’ve been told is that we’re in the worst recession since the Great Depression in the 1930s, and that has had an impact on all cities in the US, especially California. Sales tax has taken a beating, your property taxes have probably taken a big beating, but more importantly, the third leg of the stool has fallen off, and that’s called no more redevelopment.”
Kelly said most people think that property taxes pay for city services, but only six cents per dollar actually goes to the City of Signal Hill, about $770,000 annually.
The police department spent $7.7 million a year, which is 43 percent of the general fund budget, Kelly said. Another large portion is Public Works, about $4 million, 23 percent, and the remaining is allocated for other city services.
Currently, sales tax produces only about $8.3 million.
“When the economy goes bad, people don’t buy things, and revenue from sales tax goes down,” Kelly said. “That’s a huge impact. Your sales tax basically only pays for your police department, now. What pays for Public Works, libraries, etcetera? You have a very fragile budget in terms of how you can put this whole thing together.”
However, Kelly said that the strategic plan for the city is predicated upon dreaming big. He asked residents to think about the city’s strengths and weaknesses, opportunities for projects, and some threats that might get in the way.
“Too many citizens in too many cities think they want to base their visioning on how much money they have, and that’s a mistake,” Kelly said. “Money can be found, but you have to create the vision first. Don’t think small. You’ve got to think big.”
Next week, the Signal Tribune will provide information on the feedback the community shared after the aforementioned presentations. The City will host its second visioning workshop at 7pm on Wednesday, April 2, at the Signal Hill Community Center, 1780 E Hill St., with topics including community services, community development, economic development and finance.