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Council closes "dark chapter" in Mammoth history

December 7, 2012

The Mammoth Lakes Police Department lost longtime officer Jesse Gorham this week, and the town won't be quite the same. Gorham, who received his 15-year service award at Wednesday's Town Council Meeting, is retiring to Clendenin, W. Va., with his wife, Valerie, and three children, leaving Mammoth with a big gap on the force. Photo/George Shirk

The Mammoth Town Council on Wednesday voted for a new government restructuring plan, with an eye to the long-range future but with its thumbs also fixed on vexing, short-term problems.

In making the decision, the council sought to put to bed some of the more controversial elements that have divided the town ever since it began its five-month-long tightrope walk back from the edge of municipal bankruptcy.

At its root, the council’s unanimous decision put into place a plan for the town to meet its obligations for paying off the $29.5 million, 23-year settlement of the twin legal settlements with Mammoth Lakes Land Acquisition (MLLA) and the Terry Ballas Entities group.

“This is kind of a closing of an important, difficult and somewhat dark chapter for the town,” said Town Manager Dave Wilbrecht at the start of the council’s final deliberations.

“I don’t want to have anybody think that somehow this is an easy next step,” he said. “The restructuring plan has many, many elements to it that have to be considered. But there are some things that I think are important to talk about relative to what we need to do.

“First off, we need to have a long vision. It can’t be short. The plan is a five-year plan. We need to stay the course. It’s really important to stay the course and be disciplined in our approach.

“From my point of view, we are certainly going to look at, and maintain, a very compact and efficient government.”

The vote by the council was uncontentious. The council reached a compromise to keep Whitmore Pool and the adjacent ballfields open, and to keep late-night transit from the Village open until 2 a.m.

The council held firm, however, on its position in the ongoing police department dilemma, ensuring that the MLPD would either cut costs by itself or lose as many as seven sworn officers by July 1 from a force that used to number 17.

In a long soliloquy from the dais, Councilmember Rick Wood defended the council’s position.

“This is a budget decision,” he said. “We’re trying to approach the cuts we must take in a rational way.

“One could argue that we’re picking on the Police Department. One of the reasons for that is that we’ve picked on every other department for the last three years, not hearing as much as a whimper from the other departments. They accepted what we presented and levels of service either changed or were different or, in some instances, were lower.

“This is a very tough problem, so let’s talk about the numbers. I have the 2012 numbers what it costs for the personnel in the Police Department. It is $3.45 million. We are asking for a pretty dramatic cut.

“That $3.45 million is for the uniformed personnel. The least expensive compensation package, that is, for the least tenured officer, is $146,000. The most expensive is at $289,000, with an average compensation package of $192,000.

“So in very rough terms, it costs $200,000 per police officer. That’s what it costs the town.”

Wood challenged the department, which is represented by the Police Officers Association, to figure out how to make do.

“We’re not happy about this,” Wood said, “but it is not for me to say to the police chief, ‘My solution, Chief, is for you not to have an officer on duty from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m.’ That’s not my duty, and it’s not this council’s duty. “

“It is the duty of the department to determine how it wishes to organize itself.”

It seems unlikely Wood’s remarks would assuage the remaining members of the force.

In an open letter to the public on Nov. 30, Sgt. Paul Robles, the outgoing president of the local Police Officers Association (POA), wrote, “With this limited number of patrol officers, it will not be possible to provide 24-hour police service. Police service and presence will be significantly reduced.”

Police Chief Dan Watson said he would deliver a new mobilization plan soon.

“I’ll be coming to you at the next meeting with a report on what the impacts are going to be in service reductions,” he said to the council.

“Probably in early January I’ll come to you with a plan on developing a reserve program and how we’re going to move forward on that.”

He also said he has begun preliminary discussions with Mammoth’s neighboring “law enforcement partners” in shoring up any gaps in service.

“It’s going to be a little more complicated than we thought,” he said, “but we’re trying to move forward on that.”

Another rankling issue before the council Wednesday was finding a way to keep Whitmore Pool and its adjacent ballfields open, which the council solved neatly.

Barely one hour after the Recreation Commission grudgingly recommended the council use Measure R funds as an emergency fund to make up for an expected $87,000 shortfall, the council instead took the money from the road maintenance fund within the Public Works Department.

In making the move, said Assistant Town Manager Marianna Marysheva-Martinez, the council will have to re-visit its five-year plan once the new budget process kicks into gear in mid-February.

The town is working from a position of strength, however.

With transient occupancy tax revenue now pouring in from last summer’s banner season, the town acquired approximately $1 million in unbudgeted revenue, some of which will be used to pay off loans made by Mammoth Lakes Housing, with the rest going into a reserve fund.

The moved saved the Recreation Commission from making a tough choice on recommending Measure R monies, as it explained in a message to the council.

“We believe the intent of Measure R was to improve and enhance recreation, parks and trails and not to replace general fund monies dedicated to those uses. So while the Recreation Commission has recommended Town Council adoption [of the Measure R plan], we feel very strongly that the council only adopt the resolution if there are no other general fund monies that could be realized to fund the Whitmore Recreation Area and the parks maintenance position for a period of two years, beginning Jan. 1, 2013.”

In the final piece of short-term action, the council authorized the Eastern Sierra Transit Authority (ESTA) to return to late-night winter service.

The action, which would guarantee service until 2 a.m. during the ski season, came after an impassioned plea from Mammoth Mountain Ski Area vice-president Bill Cockroft, who said the proposed cutoff of 10 p.m. would place Mammoth somewhere “between Big Bear and Crested Butte,” and that it would be untenable for a town that strongly believes in a “feet-first” approach to mobility.

ESTA leader John Helm said his agency could not achieve that goal unless the council could find more money than it allowed last summer, when the council made first round of proposed cuts.

In response, the council on Wednesday diverted $25,000 that it had allocated for its unspecified (as yet) volunteer programs throughout the town.

Marysheva-Martinez said it was an easy fix, in that the allocation was not cutting a program; rather, it was using money for a program that has yet to get off the ground.

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