In his year as Nevada City’s mayor, Duane Strawser has seen no shortage of monumental changes in the Sierra Nevada foothill mining town’s municipal xgovernment.
“It’s been a crazy couple of years, actually,” Strawser said.
Since Strawser’s summer 2012 mayoral appointment, Nevada City has wrangled with its fair share of homeless issues and revamped its police force, including engaging in a cooperative arrangement with Grass Valley that has that town’s officers patrolling Nevada City streets in the early morning to allow the latter agency to finally have its own detective on staff.
Strawser pointed to the city’s finances and its efforts to retain the Nevada County Courthouse at its current downtown location as the governing body’s most important efforts during his tenure.
In Nevada City, the mayor is the executor of the council meetings, facilitating its proceedings.
The role of administrator of the city’s daily operations is the city manager’s, who is hired by the council.
At the council’s meeting today, Vice Mayor Sally Harris will begin her second term as mayor, and a new vice mayor will be chosen, as is the common annual practice.
Strawser, owner of Tour of Nevada City Bicycle Shop, was first elected to the council in 2010. His current term will expire in June 2014; he said he has not yet decided whether he will defend his seat.
“The role of the mayor is to facilitate the meeting fairly — making sure everybody gets a say, no matter how minimal their complaint or question may seem to the outside world,” Strawser said.
“To that person, it is a critical question that plays a huge part in their life. To me, that is what I focused on.”
The mayor is also the ceremonial figurehead of the town and represents the city at other cities’ and agencies’ meetings or events, Strawser said.
Strawser also noted that the title of mayor helps open doors, whether it was when he wanted to meet higher-up political figures to advocate for local issues or when he worked with cycling agencies to lobby for their routes to include Nevada City.
“More important than anything, the mayor should be cooperating and communicating with agencies,” Strawser said.
Strawser pointed to the implementation of regular breakfast meetings with the leading administrators and elected officials from Grass Valley, Nevada City, Truckee and the county as crucial in working together, leading to mutually beneficial relationships.
“We have to partner up, because there is strength in numbers,” Strawser said. “It is to our own advantage, as well as theirs.”
Strawser said the city’s stabilization of its finances has been among its most crucial endeavors. To the outgoing mayor, that effort started with raising the city’s water rates.
“People don’t realize how critical that was (to) … stopping the bleeding,” Strawser said. “(Former City Manager Gene Albaugh) warned the council that if we didn’t start at least breaking even and being fiscally responsible, we were going to bankrupt the town. And our water services was probably the biggest glaring representation of that.”
Starting in 2010, the city council enacted a multi-year series of rate hikes to stabilize a water fund that was itself under water from years of neglected rate adjustments. Because of the changes, the water fund deficit went from $250,000 to $70,000 by 2012, prompting the council to delay another year of increases because customers did not decrease their water usage as projected when rates went up and the fund was more flush that expected.
“This should have been changed in the ’60s and ’70s,” Strawser said. “To me, this set the precedent for everything else we need to fix.”
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. Measure L is expected to bring in approximately $390,000 in the first year alone.
“The last thing you want to do as a public servant is to raise taxes,” Strawser said. “No matter how much it is needed, it is a big red flag because governments have set such a bad example in the past. It makes us look wasteful. But this is anything but that. We’ve trimmed everything to the bone.”
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 budget is everything; without that being balanced properly, you are digging a grave,” Strawser said. “For the first time in I don’t know how many years, we are approaching finally having a reserve (fund).”
Outside the success of passing Measure L to stabilize the city budget until it expires after five years, Strawser said the city’s ongoing efforts to retain the Nevada County Courthouse was the other highlight of his tenure as mayor.
In 2009, the Administrative Office of the Courts first determined Nevada City’s courthouse as “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.
“People don’t realize how critical that is financially, on a Monday through Friday basis. It’s a massive percentage of the town’s business,” Strawser said. “A quarter of our restaurants would not survive, potentially (without the courthouse).”
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 originally planned for statewide courthouse construction projects.
Until funds are allocated for courthouse construction projects, Nevada City and courthouse advocates have continued to fight to ensure the project’s success.
In January, the county disclosed plans to purchase the abandoned site of Bank of America, instead of moving the District Attorney’s office to a business park in Grass Valley.
The city passed resolutions supporting the purchase, arguing that retaining court-related services near the courthouse would solidify argues to retain the courthouse itself at it current location on Church Street, Strawser said.
“The biggest achievement this year was keeping the (Nevada County District Attorney’s) office downtown,” Strawser said. “It took a lot of effort to keep the county there and it sent a message to the state.”
Most recently, 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.
After funding the initial one-third of that study, Nevada City is looking for other area agencies to help pay for it, noting that it will increase the likelihood of the project getting funding if that initial step is already completed. Because the mayor doesn’t run the daily operations of the city, Strawser said the accomplishments of the last year would not have been possible without the work of the city’s staff.
“My whole goal this year was to leave the town better than when I came in,” Strawser said. “As long as you walk away in equal or better condition, I think you have achieved something… I feel pretty good about this last year.”
To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4236.