Leaders in law enforcement, government, education weigh in on top issues for new year
This is the time of year when many people lay plans for the next 12 months.
Nevada County’s law enforcement agencies, along with local governments and educators, are no different.
For the county’s top law enforcement entities, the over-arching theme for the year to come is — no surprise — keeping the community safe. PG&E’s continuing Public Safety Power Shutoffs, fire danger in general and finding workable solutions to homelessness and quality of life crimes rank high on the agenda.
Managing increasing needs with limited resources is a primary concern for Nevada County’s fire agencies, some of which still operate with largely volunteer personnel.
“The biggest challenge is, how do we keep up with the demand for service, with budget constraints?” said Nevada County Consolidated Fire Chief Jim Turner. “We have to take a look at what we can do locally between the allied agencies, that we can either share services, enhance opportunities to work together and reduce some costs where we can and put that back into staffing. That is going to be our largest focus this year. … How do we enhance the service we provide to the public while also staying fiscally responsible?”
Wildfire concerns are not going away, according to Turner and Grass Valley/Nevada City Fire Chief Mark Buttron. Education, preparation and vegetation management are all top priorities.
“It all goes hand in hand,” Buttron said. “We will be making sure we provide education and outreach … keeping it all in the forefront of people’s minds as we head into the new fire season.”
Buttron added that Grass Valley will be focusing on pursuing compliance with the city’s vegetation management codes.
A proactive response to the power shutoffs was cited by a number of agencies.
“It’s not just about preparation for the community, but for the city and the services it provides,” Buttron said. “The issues can be many and varied and we have to be prepared for the foreseeable future.”
The power shutoffs also were cited by Grass Valley Police Chief Alex Gammelgard as a continuing area of concern.
“No single entity wields the power (no pun intended) of PG&E,” Gammelgard said in an email. “It is incumbent on each of us to be prepared, but it will take the leadership and creative thinking from many disciplines to ensure public safety, power grid resilience, fire risk mitigation, and a path forward with reliable and affordable energy in light of extreme fire risks in wild-urban interface communities like those in Nevada County.”
Nevada City Police Chief Chad Ellis agreed, saying, “We will be working very close with all city departments to come up with better strategies to assist the community and business owners during the PSPS events that will likely continue as the weather dries up.”
Ellis, Gammelgard and Nevada County Sheriff Shannan Moon all highlighted the need to work with the cities’ homeless population.
“Although homelessness is not a crime, we in law enforcement are often the agency handling the calls,” Moon said. “Our collaboration with our partners in Social Services and Behavioral Health, our nonprofits, and our other law enforcement agencies is critical in dealing with the complex issues surrounding this issue.”
Ellis said Nevada City has hired several new officers who have filled long time vacancies to bring the police department to near full staffing levels, and he is looking forward to focusing on issues surrounding Nevada City’s growing homeless population and the many struggles that come with that.
“I believe that homelessness and addressing its root causes, coupled with the human, environmental, and fire concerns, will continue to be of paramount concern,” Gammelgard noted. “Locally, we have an opportunity and must act in a meaningful way to establish a community standard to avoid fire danger and environmental damage related to our most program resistant individuals living in our undeveloped wildlands.”
Moon also stressed the challenge inherent in mental health calls.
“The challenge is to separate out the need for law enforcement or a need for crisis intervention by a trained mental health professional,” she said. “While incarcerated, this population tends to remain in custody longer. The collaboration between our jail staff, county behavioral health staff, county public health and our contract medical provider is critical in providing the best service.”
From the prosecution’s standpoint, Nevada County Assistant District Attorney Chris Walsh said a top issue is dealing with low-level, but very active, repeat offenders who commit quality of life type crimes such as theft, trespassing at businesses, car burglary and vandalism.
“These are not serious or violent crimes, but when particular offenders constantly pile up new offenses it has a definite negative impact on the overall quality of life for citizens in our community,” Walsh said in an email, noting that many of the offenders have substance abuse and/or mental health issues and/or are homeless.
“Changes to the law over the past several years have greatly limited what prosecutors can do with defendants who commit these type of offenses – even repeatedly,” Walsh said. “The truth is that prosecutors are rarely successful these days in getting anyone locked up for any significant period of time for committing what are now considered low-level crimes.”
Prosecutors have to embrace these challenges, Walsh said, citing addressing underlying issues as one avenue.
“One potential idea is to establish a court that specifically focuses on these type of offenders, with the idea to help those who actually need services and have interested justice partners be a part of the solution,” he said.
“I think homelessness is always an issue and it is always going to be an issue, but we have made such great strides in the last year,” said Nevada County Public Defender Keri Klein, citing such collaborative efforts as the county’s HOME team and the placement of a Behavioral Health-funded personal services coordinator in her office who helps clients get connected to resources. “We are making a difference and we really hope we continue to make a bigger difference. … It is incredibly collaborative as a community, to work this way.”
According to Grass Valley Mayor Lisa Swarthout, some of the biggest issues that Grass Valley will face in 2020 will include the Dorsey Marketplace project; parks and recreation upgrades; and the November election with three seats potentially up for grabs on the City Council.
Late this month, the Grass Valley City Council will decide whether to follow through on the Dorsey Marketplace, a residential and commercial space meant to create a walkable community that has been modified and on hold for years. The project passed the city’s Planning Commission with a recommendation to go forward with the higher density housing option.
“The planning commission did a really good job of vetting out what they felt the issues were,” Swarthout said. I’m sure it’ll be a lively discussion at the City Council.”
Swarthout said the city will also continue to improve its park and recreation facilities, with plans to open a mini-park playground early in the year.
“We’re waiting to find out about a couple of different grants, one to purchase a piece of property to put in another regional park and the other to put a new swimming pool in over at Memorial Park,” Swarthout said. “We’re able to do that because the voters passed Measure E.”
Next year in Nevada County, the issues important to the community will remain largely the same as last year, with wildfire prevention, economic development, housing and homeless at the top of the county’s priorities, according to County Executive Officer Alison Lehman.
Last year, the county secured more than $3.5 million in funding for the Ponderosa West fire break project and will look to continue to look for ways to reduce fire risk.
“Responding to critical wildfire conditions will continue to be a high priority in 2020,” Lehman said in an email. “Nevada County Office of Emergency Services (OES) is stepping up fire inspections in addition to encouraging fire safety preparedness with innovative community events and stakeholder collaboration with Ready Nevada County. OES plans to reinvigorate the community to take on wildfire preparedness while listening to the community’s feedback, encouraging CodeRED sign ups, and issuing a 2020 version of the Ready, Set, Go! Guide.”
On the economic development front, the county focused last year on projects that will provide infrastructure improvements, including broadband access, and will see more of the same this year. The county expects to complete the Higgins Marketplace project in 2020 that will include road and sewer upgrades.
Last year the county prioritized housing and homelessness issues, and in 2020 will focus on funding the Brunswick Commons Housing project, completing affordable housing projects, emergency shelters, and expanding supportive services.
“Addressing homelessness truly takes a community approach in partnership with the cities, local non-profit, and community advocates,” Lehman said. “In 2020 the county will continue to leverage county resources to expand opportunities to address housing affordability issues for all target populations in Nevada County through partnerships with other jurisdictions, potential developers and the Regional Housing Authority.”
Education and business
There are a number of issues swirling around Nevada County education in the year 2020.
Those include curriculum changes and school infrastructure remodeling.
But according to Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Scott Lay, the most important education issue will be related to adjusting school calendars due to missed school days from the PG&E power shutoffs this past fall.
“This will also include capital outlay for generators,” Lay said in an email.
Pivoting to business, Nevada County Economic Resource Council Executive Director Tim Corkins believes the biggest issues related to the economy in 2020 will be about housing and high speed internet.
“You can see the fiber optic cable up on the poles (they have it hanging in coils on some poles) and in the Loma Rica Industrial Park and going up Idaho Maryland towards Banner Mountain,” Corkins said in an email.
Corkins also said home construction will begin in a big way in 2020, topping over 450 units. Neighborhoods like Timberwood Estates, Loma Rica Ranch, Berryman Ranch and Gilded Springs are just some of the places that will see a significant rise of homes.
Staff Writers Liz Kellar, John Orona and Sam Corey contributed to this report.
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At approximately 4:43 a.m. Sunday firefighters responded to a three alarm, commercial structure fire that ignited in the 2000 block of Nevada City Highway.