At Wednesday’s meeting of the Nevada City Council, Sally Harris began her second nonconsecutive one-year term as mayor, one she anticipates will hold some challenges for the city that will include continuing the fight to retain the county’s courthouse operations, stewarding the city’s financial stability and crafting plans to replace antique pipes throughout the historic Sierra Nevada foothills mining town.
After more than a decade of being involved in Nevada City government, Harris ascended from vice mayor to mayor Wednesday, taking the reins from Duane Strawser. Terri Andersen was unanimously selected as the new vice mayor by her council peers, as is the annual practice.
In Nevada City, the mayor is the executor of the council meetings and facilitates its proceedings, while the role of administrator of the city’s daily operations is the city manager’s, who is hired by the council.
“The role of a mayor is two things,” Harris said. “One is running the meeting … the other is ceremonial. People really appreciate it when there is a ribbon cutting or something and the mayor comes … It makes them feel valued in the community.”
Harris is a partner and business manager of BYOB Wine Seller and was first elected to the council in 2004, having served on a finance committee for two year prior to that, she said. In addition to previously serving as mayor, Harris is a member of the Nevada County Transportation Commission and the Nevada County Transit Services Commission and has served on numerous city committees, including parks and recreation, among other endeavors. She is also the former finance director of The Union.
“I found that over time, it has gotten more and more meaningful for me,” Harris told The Union. “I’ve always done some sort of volunteer work. I find it helps with balance and perspective in life. It’s something where I feel I can make a positive contribution to my community and that’s where it becomes meaningful.”
In the last year, Nevada City has had no shortage of tumultuous changes, including the implementation of a homeless-curbing camping ordinance, outlining the allocations of the first revenues of a new tax measure to stabilize the city’s finances and a revamp of the town’s police force, including engaging in a cooperative trial arrangement with Grass Valley that has that town’s officers patrolling Nevada City streets in the early morning to allow the latter agency to have its own detective on staff.
Looking to the next year, Harris said that one of the most important endeavors for the city is the continued battle to retain the Nevada County Courthouse at its current location, overlooking downtown Nevada City from Church Street.
“It is key to the vitality of our downtown,” Harris said.
In 2009, the Administrative Office of the Courts first determined Nevada City’s courthouse to be “unsafe, substandard, overcrowded and functionally deficient” and outlined a $108 million budget to either rebuild the 148-year-old facility or possibly move it, a prospect that the town’s municipal leaders have said would destroy its downtown economy.
After a couple of years of fighting to keep the courthouse downtown, Nevada City’s project was indefinitely delayed in January as the state’s courts dealt with the loss of more than $5 billion in funding over several years that was originally planned for statewide courthouse construction projects.
Rather than wait for construction funds to be allocated, Nevada City’s elected officials directed municipal staff in May to pursue an estimated $94,000 feasibility and cost engineering study to kick-start a renovation of the Nevada County Courthouse. The city has already allocated the first one-third of that cost and is reportedly actively engaging other county entities to contribute, as well.
“Sometimes I ponder why people don’t understand how important it is,” Harris said about the courthouse’s impact on Nevada City’s economics. “I think they only think about the first level.”
That first level, Harris said, is the argument that if court operations were moved elsewhere besides Nevada City, its businesses would suffer.
“Some of our restaurants couldn’t make it if they didn’t have that Monday through Friday bump,” Harris said. “It wouldn’t be good enough to have just weekends and summers.”
But Harris said there is a less understood second tier, the secondary effect that failing restaurants would have on the rest of the town.
“They aren’t seeing the interconnectivity of everything,” Harris said. “… after we lose those restaurants, then we would not be as attractive to the tourists who come into town or even the residents who are drawn here by the restaurants and bars. So then it starts to affect the overnight accommodations and the shops.”
In the next year, Harris said it is crucial that the city continue to focus on the courthouse.
“Until we really have something clear and formalized that we know is the go-forward plan from the state level, we are going to keep on top of that,” Harris said.
Also integral to the city’s future in the next year is ensuring its financial stability, Harris said.
In November 2012, Nevada City voters overwhelmingly supported Measure L, which increased the city’s sales tax by 3/8 of a cent, up to 8.5 percent for five years, and that tax measure is expected to bring in approximately $390,000 in the first year alone.
When Nevada City adopted its nearly $4 million general fund budget for fiscal year 2013-14 at the end of June, City Manager David Brennan noted that the projected $136,124 general fund balance is the first substantial positive balance in a number of years and is a strong indicator of reaching a sustainable operations budget. The next step, Harris said, is to craft a plan for the next few years that will ensure the city’s financial stability for years to come.
“A key part of our job is the financial oversight of the city on behalf of its residents,” Harris said, noting that the goal in the next year is to continue the momentum.
Some of that financial oversight will manifest next year in the form of hiring a full-time city manager and police chief in the face of rising costs to the state’s employee pension system, Harris said.
“In general, you have one big lever you can pull to make your money work, and that’s your head count, your absolute FTE number,” Harris said.
“That’s your big lever. We need to keep the head count where it is.”
Another important planning endeavor for the city in the next year is crafting a plan to manage and replace the city’s antiquated pipes for water and sewers, Harris said.
“We need to make sure there is a long-term plan for how we are going to replace and upgrade that infrastructure,” Harris said. “Those are the unseen things that people don’t think about.”
There are other matters, Harris noted, that will require city attention. Some of those aren’t easily anticipated.
“Of course what will happen is new things will pop up that we don’t even know about yet,” Harris joked.
To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4236.