When Tabatha Miller started as Fort Bragg’s city manager in March 2018, getting the city to stick to a consistently balanced budget and handle its pension obligations better was at the top of the to-do list presented her by the city council.
As Miller departs just under four years later, Fort Bragg has weathered a pandemic and the accompanying economic hit, survived a historic drought with equally historic cutbacks on water use and, a few months ago, witnessed the town’s largest chunk of real estate, the millsite that has been its core for 140 years, change hands from Georgia-Pacific to Mendocino Railway, after a months-long effort by the city council to negotiate a public sale.
The Skunk Train’s purchase of the southern portion of the millsite (the company bought the part north of Redwood Avenue in 2019) is a major event. But when Miller — who is leaving the area once her job with the city ends — laid out for the city council what she views as Fort Bragg’s biggest challenges during remarks at her final council meeting last month, she focused on one thing: housing.
“Without housing, we’re just never going to get anywhere here in Fort Bragg,” Miller said in a recent interview. “The city can’t hire people; the school district can’t; the hospital can’t. It’s a challenge on every level. We need workforce housing.”
During the past few years, Fort Bragg has developed programs to make building new homes easier, but it has faced the constant headwind of an economy and region where it is nearly impossible to make a buck building truly affordable housing. The lack of affordable places to live is becoming more and more of a burden.
Miller told council members it’s time for the city to take a more active role and create its own de facto housing authority.
“The city still has the three-eighths of a percent to add on to its sales tax,” she said. “Of all the taxes we could pass, if we passed a three-eighths of a cent sales tax that was dedicated to workforce housing, it could make such a difference. We’ve got the community land trust already set up, so we’ve got the mechanism to create essentially a housing authority. We’re talking workforce housing that would be subsidized, but it would still create some revenue, so you could sell units, you could rent units. There are a lot of models out there across the country of successful workforce housing programs.
“If the city does it, they can maybe encourage the county to do likewise. Because if you solve the issue in Fort Bragg without addressing the rest of the county, you’re not really solving the issue.”
Miller acknowledged that it will take years before such an effort bears fruit. In the nearer term, she said, one of the first steps is to start to reverse the conversion of so many rental properties to short term vacation rentals.
“That’s a huge issue,” she said. “If they continue to allow that, then the pressure comes back to the cities to provide housing.”
Miller said there is no one solution to the housing shortage and the important thing is to get a variety of approaches started.
“Even adding 10-20 units a year makes a difference,” she said, “and if you don’t start now, in ten years you’re going to be nowhere… And you continue to push — if there is big development on the millsite, then they also have to provide a certain number of workforce housing units.”
Miller’s other parting suggestion to the council also had to do with the town’s basic livability — to use $78,000 in state parks recreation funds to build a small-sized soccer field at Bainbridge Park. The idea first came up a couple of years ago, suggested by local youth who said Bainbridge would make an ideal practice and gathering spot for the town’s many soccer players, especially given the gopher-plagued state of existing soccer fields, which are already the subject of a multi-year, multi-million dollar rehab project. Miller said the state parks money will bring quicker results.
“You can add a small soccer field that will support pick-up games and kids playing, and even adults for that matter.”
The money, she said, will be available next year. “If you match that with TOT funds (local bed tax revenue) and other finds, you could build a nice little multi-use court.”
Regarding the millsite negotiations in which she played a key role for the city, Miller said:
“I know there has been some gossip and rumors about why I’m leaving. It doesn’t have anything to do with the mill site.”
Though negotiations did not result in a city purchase, Miller defended the way city government proceeded, and noted the millsite development process is still far from over.
“I think it’s really important to know that one of things the city was working on all through negotiations that we started last May with Georgia-Pacific,” she said, “was trying to put on protections for the city for the environmental cost. You’ve got a lot of cleanup that’s happened and you’ve got a lot of unknowns, and then you’ve got the millponds, which is somewhere between $3 million and $30 million in cost alone, depending on the alternative.
“We hired an environmental insurance broker, we did a Phase I environmental assessment on it, we were looking at EPA grants for cleanup. We were not going to take it on until we had the protections in place. The last thing I wanted to do, and the city council too, was to end up bankrupting the city because we made a poor investment, or we jumped on it because we wanted to beat the Skunk Train. Obviously, Georgia-Pacific didn’t want to allow the time to do that. They wanted out…
“There are some real benefits to the city not being tied to that. Even the eminent domain — we could have tried to fight the Skunk Train on that, but once you’ve bought a property that’s a brownfield, once you touch it, you own a part of that. There is a liability.
“Even our attorney said the city cannot create a liability that’s more than a year’s operations in your general fund, which is about $10 million for the city. Even just the cleanup of the mill ponds could be $30 million, and that doesn’t take care of the other unknowns. So there is still a pretty significant liability and risk associated with the cleanup of that property. Whatever the Skunk Train does, that’s their issue, and I’m sure Georgia-Pacific is not off the hook.”
A question on many people’s minds is how local regulation is going to apply to Mendocino Railways millsite plans, since the company has stated that its railroad operations, and construction directly related to those plans, are under the jurisdiction of the federal, but not state and local governments.
The lawsuit that the city has filed challenging the Skunk Train’s status as a freight railroad may answer some of the questions about jurisdiction. Another early indicator could be whether the Skunk Train applies for city permits — as Georgia-Pacific did in the past — for remediation work, digging and disposing of contaminated soil from the site.
“I don’t know that it’s a done deal,” Miller said about the millsite cleanup and its cost. “I think there’s still a lot of remediation and cleanup to be done, who regulates it and what parts of it. The city is not the only agency involved.”
During her time on the Mendocino Coast, Miller also took a hands-on role in the transfer of the region’s hospital from public oversight to private operation under Adventist Health. She sat on a committee that looked over the nuts and bolts of the agreement between the healthcare district and Adventist before the transfer took place, served on Adventist’s community advisory board after the transfer, and co-wrote a column on local pandemic-related issues with the hospital’s chief of medical staff.
The many unprecedented events of the past couple of years, Miller said, have changed what people expect of local government.
“The pandemic has made folks have higher expectations of government in general, at all levels. To be fair, the federal government stepped up and added a lot of benefits — the extra unemployment, the rental assistance, the additional funding at all levels of relief. That passed down through the states, the state added benefits, they added programs. You think of public health — nobody paid attention to the Public Health Officer until two years ago. We didn’t even know who it was. And we had underfunded those programs and those departments for a long time.
“We implemented rental assistance, utility billing assistance, employment loans… We did a lot of the same things and I think the expectations have hung around. We stepped in — not just the city but governments all over the place — with the moratorium on evictions. So, that extra layer of protection, that extra layer of social safety net that was laid down at every layer of government… Those kinds of things are going to be expected to stay. The challenge is going to be to fund those going forward.
“And yet, if you look at the world, certainly here in the US, there’s definitely a need for that. There seems to be that ever-widening gap between those folks who have money and those who don’t.”