Straight talk about Loyalton
A Fringe Review of the 2013-2014 Grand Jury Report
Grand jury reports are often mostly fat and gristle. I’m guilty, in past, of making humorous and disparaging remarks about grand jury reports. Not so this year’s report.FINAL SIERRA COUNTY CIVIL GRAND JURY REPORT 2013-2014 2014 8 19
I find this one to be unusually pragmatic, objective when applicable, humorous when applicable, and incredibly well organized. Others might find it differently. Read it yourself:
1. The report covers the jail, of course, and makes prudent recommendations, including considering closing the jail. I hope the county doesn’t close the jail; it’s bad enough to be in the jug without being sent to bunk with the miscreants of other counties. Even so, I know the recommendations of the Grand Jury are right; like so many other things we value, we might not be able to afford this any more. Let’s hope the effort to get money for the jail from AB109 Realignment funds is successful. The report praises Sheriff John Evans and jail staff for cooperating on the investigation.
2. The Grand Jury investigated the new bureaucracy created by Realignment. This is the state effort to keep people from California’s over crowded prisons. It’s working as intended. but staff involved should do sound financial record keeping and keep good data on outcomes.
3. The GJ gave the nod to electronic monitoring: good work to Jeff Bosworth and staff.
4. Calpine Water District recommendation: Continue making the best of a bad situation. Flush the hydrants once in a while.
5. The report advises the people to thank and congratulate Heather Foster and the staff who accomplish our elections and protect our vote: “The citizens of Sierra County should thank the Clerk/Recorder and her staff for their professionalism and the excellent care in making the voting process honest and transparent. The process is open for all citizen observers.”
6. The Grand Jury tracked down the Turner table, a table made by F.H. Turner at Turner’s mill in Sattley in 1907. The family gave it to the county 36 years later. It sat around the court house and apparently ended up in the office of the Assessor. When Bill Copren, himself an antique valuable to the county, retired, it was given to him; however, the historic value of the piece was not included in the request to the Board of Supervisors to dump it as surplus. The GJ wants the court to instruct Copren to give the table back.
And no doubt the table should be given back to the county, but Bill Copren’s contribution to the county and to the preservation of the history of the county should be noted.
The Grand Jury recommends that the County take better care of it’s stuff.
7. Finally, the Grand Jury addressed the misery that is Loyalton. The story of Loyalton itself is just interesting, like a slow motion train wreck. It’s what Loyalton stands for that has a larger implication; it stands as a symbol of our shared frustration. the struggle of small towns who outlive their social usefulness.
The Grand Jury report neatly consolidates the long series of events by which the little town struggles against death. It begins with the town’s vital signs: population is down almost a hundred people from ten years before and in 2010 was 769. It might be 750 by now. The town’s population is older than average, with the median age being about 45 in 2010; the median age in California was about 33 at the same period. The town is also more poor, with a median household income of $10,000 a year less than the rest of the state, and a home value of less than half the average of the state.
In living memory Loyalton was a vital town, with a car dealership and a hospital. Loyalton is a town that worked, was proud to work, celebrated people with dirt on their hands and pitch on their jeans. The work went away. People have been waiting a long time for that prosperity to return, they waited through the mill closing and being hauled off, they waited through economic “downturns” and the collapse of real estate.
A lot of things have changed in living memory. Time was, people did for themselves. They didn’t waste money on pointless nonsense. When there was work to be done, they did it. They didn’t accept defeat.
All of those fine qualities have gotten Loyalton in trouble.
The Grand Jury report outlined the social and economic environment: it is the tenth smallest incorporated city, like other very small cities, it’s mostly broke, has few employees and relies on volunteers (poorly trained volunteers with health issues). Work to be done, people do it.
As the budget went down, they hired locally instead of getting professionals at a price they couldn’t justify. When the work on the sewer raised sewer costs dramatically, but didn’t actually fix the most problematic part of the system (the ancient services from the houses) the city leadership balked, lowered rates to what their often old and poor people could afford. It was a huge amount of money to send sewage into a cow field, sewage that would have found it’s way there anyway, as some see it (actually, it was a plan to control sewage in the wet season). The fee schedule originally set up would have paid for and maintained the system; reducing that amount means there isn’t the money to service debt and do maintenance.
The Grand Jury discovered Loyalton doing what other poor towns and indeed, poor people, do, robbing peter to pay paul, assigning money to projects they hope would arrive, misusing some funds.
In an effort to spur growth the city fired the county from building inspections and hired a private firm. That engenders extra cost, but doesn’t actually give the city more power to build houses. Building inspections are part of a greater system, which includes insurers, and lenders; play funny and nobody will stamp your work.
Then, the Loyalton Hotel burned down. For decades it has been a symbol of the end of prosperity, sitting vacant and concrete as a grave marker, at the kink in the road, making it visible from a distance coming from either direction. The owners should have fixed the building, torn it down, or given it to the city. Instead, they did nothing and the city took care of the problem.
At the very least, the city took it on itself to haul off, before proper inspection, remains of the building, and to make the site safe by putting some dirt down on on the ashes. When there’s work to be done, do it: haul the stuff away, put some dirt down and an eyesore is gone, risk to citizens is gone, and thousands and thousands weren’t wasted on experts who could only tell everyone what everyone could see: there was some lead paint and such because it was an old building, and it burned down.
But, this isn’t 1950. The stuff is going to hit the fan on all of these things, and the city is poorly prepared for any more trouble of any kind.
The Grand Jury came to an not very surprising conclusion: the City is one month from bankruptcy. So are most Americans.
Some would say that some local loonies took control of the City Council and, through arrogance, bullying, and denial, have run the city in to the ground. The GJ found, to no one’s surprise, that Brookes Mitchell and Craig McHenry had trouble with the truth. The report found enough to make charges possible. The two ran Loyalton, breaking laws left and right, or, if you like, quickly getting things done, and done wrong. But, that’s what happens when no one better cares to run for office, when there is no one local to do better, when people with those skills have moved, or invested in something else.
The Grand Jury recommended: The best recommendation that the Grand Jury can make is for the citizens of Loyalton to become involved with the city and watch everything they do.
From the outside, that certainly does seem to be the case that the council got drunk and made some very bad decisions, but pretty clearly things wouldn’t be much better if the state legislature had been running Loyalton. The town is in a hard way. In fat times, even bad city governments govern pretty well. In lean times it’s hard to make headway regardless of who is at the helm.
Loyalton, the town and its citizens, haven’t done anything to deserve this fate. They’ve been as hard working and decent as they were in good times; it’s as pretty a little town as you could ask for, and the people who have stayed out the hard times don’t deserve to have their houses made valueless. But they will. If the state starts to fine them for sewer violations, and the city can’t afford to fix them, that will be the end.
So, it looks like Loyalton is crazy, like when someone who is dying of hypothermia takes all their clothes off. From the inside it’s the decay of a town that deserved a better end. Loyalton’s craziness comes from a reality which is simply not acceptable. It’s the same inability to accept reality that has driven people in Downieville to start spreading their clothes on the snow. It’s gripped a lot of little California towns. It isn’t so much Loyalton that has changed, it’s the times.
Is there nothing Loyalton can do? Maybe, maybe not. It wouldn’t be the first town in California to be abandoned because of sewer or water problems. If people with enough money to pay the tariff on the sewer, the problems caused by hauling the old hotel away, and to hire qualified city staff, then perhaps the little town could be saved. But, why would such marvelous beings invest in Loyalton when where are even more picturesque little towns going bust all over the mountains of the west? That’s how extinction can happen.
When the City of Loyalton is gone, there will still be people living in town, still be a post office and a store, but it’ll cost a dollar to poop, and the county will call the shots. Maybe that’s enough, maybe something will happen with the cogen plant, or some other unforeseen event will bring a gush of money to the town, a good town, one that deserves to live.
But, that’s my opinion, and not part of the Grand Jury report.
Others may differ, but I find this to be one of the best GJ reports in a long time.