That ominous cracking sound you hear is the Noyo Center For Marine Science cabal falling through the ice. Can't hear it? Maybe you're not in the club.
The Noyo Center, Fort Bragg’s ocean-oriented, not-for-profit whalebone museum has always been a monument to failure. Run by old guard politicians and administrators who ran the Fort Bragg City Council for the better part of two decades, racked up a series of blunders and scandals that would have disgusted any city on earth and eventually scandalized Fort Bragg.
Millions of dollars in financial misallocations, more millions down the drain on endless mill site planning debacles, pension-padding bloat at City Hall, almost ZERO in infrastructure investment and eventually a flat out confession of impending insolvency over government pension payments all basically imploded Dave Turner's City Council and a dirty real estate deal involving the Old Coast Hotel - and a scheme for social services expansion put a fork in it.
The whole happy group got kicked out of office and the City Manager was subsequently fired.
But the roots of power had grown deep over two decades - and even out of office, the behind the scenes influence of the Fort Bragg power elite was still enough to cobble together a scheme for continuing participation in the city's cash flow.
They called it the Noyo Center For Marine Science. Reluctantly, and against their better judgment, the new City Council signed on to temporarily support the project. Note that “Temporary.” No one could quite define what the project was, which was the essence of its of its charm. A “Great New World Center” for the study and protection of the ocean they told us. Something that can bring massive grants to the city and a whole new industry of oceanographers, biologists and deep thinkers of every kind. The Noyo Center was born out of a sense that somebody HAD TO do something.
Since powerful people that had failed to invest in infrastructure, failed to develop the mill site, failed to overcome our economically disadvantaged city status, failed to balance the budget for 10 years and were now out of a job - the new City Council, in a gesture of sympathetic collegial compassion, entrusted them to do out-of-office what they had signally failed to do in office. Something.
They got 12.5% from the TOT (transit occupancy tax), one of the two sources of funds on which the city fundamentally depends. So far, they have siphoned off roughly $145,000. Like many addictions, it was originally supposed to be just a short term thing. The big grants were supposed to come rolling in.
So far no grants, but the city has been privileged to pay for a keen whale skeleton. We are told that the people that have been coming to Fort Bragg for years now come just to see the skeleton. It really is very nice. How big a tourist draw it is, is a matter of opinion but what is not disputed is that the city of Fort Bragg has been quietly pushed to the extremities of insolvency by the Noyo Center. Fort Bragg has been hovering at right-next-to-broke ever since the project started sucking money.
It is one of the more endearing characteristics of our “everybody likes each other” philosophy of local government that no one ever really takes the blame - certainly not in any sense that would involve real consequences.
When the old guard let the former City Manager misallocate $3 million dollars out of the water enterprise, our lovable Finance Director declared that it was a bookkeeping error. He made the pronouncement from the same desk he occupies to this day. Nobody got mad and nobody went before the Grand Jury (I consider myself to blame for that). Part of the sensibility of forgiveness and overlooking is that - matters too painful to be openly discussed, are not discussed even when the matter is under formal discussion. But an attentive observer of the city budget process would have observed that the payback of the misallocated cash has dogged and burdened the city finances ever since.
Funding in perpetuity for the Noyo Center has been tolerated with similar forbearance and grace.
When the City Council finally got dragged into the reality last month that we would face a budget deficit in an election year, there was understandably considerable dismay. And Councilman Lindy Peters (of all people) mentioned, almost under his breath, that when all was said and done, the TOT money could be reallocated - and after all, the Noyo Center was originally supposed to be a temporary thing.
City manager Tabatha Miller instantly threw oil on the water and assured the council that juggling the books to cover small change like $78 thousand bucks was nothing to sweat. No doubt they thanked her in their prayers. That was THEN.
In the staff report prepared for the second post coronavirus virtual City Council meeting, the staff report from the Finance Director stated with an admirable absence of outright panic.
"In previous years the City has collected upwards of $700,000 in TOT in the fourth quarter of the fiscal year. Staff is assuming a loss of more than half of that amount or approximately $360,000. Staff is further assuming a loss of approximately $200,000 in Sales & Use tax. In total, staff is now assuming fourth quarter revenue losses of $560,000. Once actual fourth quarter results have been tallied, this assumption very well may appear overly optimistic. … staff is now projecting a likely operating deficit of approximately $640,000."
In terms of life lost - it is beginning to look like Fort Bragg, nestled in our wilderness, might have ducked the CCP virus altogether.
There have only been four (4) cases in the County, all recovered and no cases in Fort Bragg.
We missed the cataclysm and all of us are profoundly grateful. However, the financial tsunami is impending and City Manager Tabatha Miller, for all of her subtlety, cannot stand in the breach this time. The old guard almost sank the city with their pretensions and promises for a Noyo Center and no one had the bad manners to mention its destructive impact on city finances.
It’s gone now baby. You read it here first.