Caper Acres Chain Gang: An Interview with Randall Stone

City Councilman Randall Stone, in partnership with the Butte County Sheriff, has come up with a plan to save Caper Acres. And by save, I mean keep it open and make sure that the used crackpipes are all picked up. He also filled me in on Fund 400 and how we ended up in this ever-deepening financial hole.

So, Caper Acres, with added convicts! Will they be singing prison songs on a chain gang while they work? 

No, this is not Sheriff Arpaio; this a lot friendlier Sheriff’s department. This is a collaborative effort between Sheriff [Jerry] Smith, Undersheriff Kory Honea, and Sheriff’s Captain Andy Duke. Other communities have done this already, so we can see where it’s had success or failed, etc.

These folks are otherwise incarcerated individuals who now have an ankle bracelet, and they’re supervised by a deputy sheriff. They’re trying to shave off up to a third of their jail sentence. And if these people are even late, they are considered escapees. These are people who would otherwise be in the state penitentiary, but for reasons related to AB109 are in County Jail—and the county jails are full. These are “triple-nons”: non-violent, non-sexual, non-predatory. No chester molesters, no predatory behaviors. Embezzlement is a perfect example—a financial crime that you would most certainly get years in jail for and you’d be hoping to try to work that off.

Sounds good, when can they start? 

I’ve been working on this for a couple of months now. ServPro’s contract ends October 1st, and it’s been extended to November 1st. We asked them to extend it longer because we wanted to get our folks in place. It’s going to go before council—but it doesn’t necessarily have to go before council because we’re not expending any cost. I don’t want to undermine my colleagues, so we’ll go before council in October and I’m hoping we’ll get the support. There is no set term; I suspect it’s going to work out quite well.

Where do they come from? Are they bussed in from County? 

No, no, they’re wearing ankle bracelets. They could be living right next door to you. They’re already here, they’re already your neighbors, you just may not know that they’re in alternative custody. These people are not coming from jail; they’re coming on their own, in their own cars, under their own power. What we worked out with the department heads, and what seemed logical, was having them do eight hours on Monday when the big heavy work is done, then Thursday mornings from 7 to 9 A.M. before Caper Acres even opens. And every Thursday we pressure-wash Sycamore Pool; it takes all day to do this.

Now we don’t want to get rid of jobs for city employees and replace them with Alternative Custody Supervision folks, but if there’s something else that we’re neglecting, I want people to work on that. And the pressure washing can be done by ACS. So we’re not losing any jobs. We don’t have enough money to fill the jobs; we’ve got a workload and the workload is intense, but we want to keep the staff moving and working on the things that need to be worked on. Tree limbs are the most obvious—we had to lay off tree crews. Is it possible that maybe we could shift the workload so that now we can send some people over to do tree work? Which is also, by the way, what ServPro is doing. ServPro is not actually working at Caper Acres. The work that ServPro is doing is not conducive to Caper Acres—the reason being that they don’t have HepB vaccinations, they’re dealing with needles and stuff.

So who’s actually cleaning up Caper Acres? 

City Staff. Because ServPro is volunteering to keep Caper Acres open, we were able to put ServPro on [something else] and divert staff. It costs $20,000 dollars a year to keep Caper Acres open.

Some people have wondered why the City would cut Caper Acres’ funding when it’s really just a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the deficit.

That is the situation we are in. You already see that we’re fighting for $20,000 for Caper Acres. The Big Ugly here is that we—not me, I wasn’t on the council [then]—were being told, and certain departments were reporting that we were in such-and-such a condition and that we were making necessary cuts. But in reality that wasn’t what we were doing. And I think you’re going to find that the audit reports that too. I don’t know how and why—you couldn’t, shouldn’t, and wouldn’t have known as a staffer that what was going on there was apropos. It’s outrageous. Now that doesn’t have anything to do with the tree folks, or the Caper Acres folks, and by and large our city employees bust their asses and do a great job. But you see how hard we’re fighting for just the $20,000 to keep Caper Acres going.

Lots of talk about Fund 400 in last week’s city council meeting. What happened there? 

So, we book administrative time. We book overhead. Say employee A is going to be working on a project, some Capital Project. So staff works on it, and we say staff is going to have 10 hours on a Capital Project out of 40 hours of their week. We book staff-time of 10 hours that’s supposed to come out of the Capital Projects budget. Well, let’s say there’s only 5 hours worth of work in Capital Projects. We’ve billed 10 hours. That means that 5 hours has to come out of somewhere, and where does it come out? The General Fund. That’s how we incur a debt. So employee A shouldn’t have been billing 10 hours to Capital Projects. It’s fraud, really, when you do that. I mean, fraud is the wrong word because it’s an f-word… but what you’re doing is overbilling to a particular account. So we created work for staffers to work on things. We were 2.5 million dollars in deficit, and now it turns out we were 3.3 million dollars in deficit because we can’t account for almost $800,000 of those 10-hour slots. So that has to be paid back from somewhere, and it always has to be paid back by the General Fund. That type of double billing, back billing, incorrect billing of hours… they asked me if I was surprised if this was the case and I said, yeah it was surprising, but I wasn’t shocked. I don’t know how you can be shocked.

There are a few funds that are our big behemoths. If you’re looking at these [budgets] like they’re big rocks, and Fund 400 is one of those huge rocks—you see a whole bunch of crap going on with the General Fund, and you see a whole bunch of crap going on with the Redevelopment Agency—guess what’s gonna happen when you turn over that rock? We know Fund 400 is going to be messed up. When you have three cookie jars and one’s been stolen from, and you see a kid with chocolate all over his face and he says, “no I wasn’t in the cookie jar,” but it’s all over his hands and face, what do I think I’m going to see when I open up the other cookie jars? I’m guessing, yeah, they’re going to be taken from as well. So no, I was surprised, but I wasn’t shocked.

We’re in crisis mode and we need to address the problems. The ship is going down and I’d rather get the ship back up, fill the holes, and make sure everyone has life rafts in case we do have to bail out. We’re not going to have to do that; we’re not going to declare bankruptcy, so that analogy is a little bit bad. But the ship is taking on water, and I can’t get into the mix about who/why/how right now; I’ve got to address Caper Acres. I’ve got to keep these things moving.

Aside from the Caper Acres Chain Gang and the Fund 400 problems, you’re also working to bring the smokes and suds back to Bidwell Park Golf Course. With all the issues surrounding alcohol and licensing, why this crusade and why now? 

So here you are, going to Bidwell Park, paying user fees. [We’re] paying a fee to somebody for the right to go play on a bunch of grass, and they maintain the grass so that [we] can play there. Well, if I don’t have a secondhand-smoking issue on a golf course because [we’re] so spread out, then it’s a clean-up issue, a fire issue. We’ve had smoking on the golf course before, and there is so much irrigation out there that they police that activity and they’re able to keep an eye on fire suppression. I’m all for smoking bans; I support it, including downtown, where you’re impacting other people. But at the golf course, none of those issues apply and [we’re] paying an organization that will police that. If their fees need to go up in order to appropriate the security on that, fine, so be it. [We’re] paying for that privilege.

The city owns all of Bidwell Park, including the golf course. Bidwell Park Golf Course is a non-profit organization that leases the golf course affordably from the City of Chico. Any money they make, because they’re non-profit, goes into the golf course at Bidwell Park. So the city hopes the golf course is doing well and it’s managed appropriately. The golf club does not do any management maintenance, so they hire Empire Golf in order to maintain the golf course. This is a relatively new relationship.

I was sitting next to Rob Metzler at an awards ceremony for Bidwell Park and I said, “I’m going to bring alcohol back to the golf course, would that be important to you?” And he said, “You bet; I’ll tell you right now, I would easily turn 15-20% on green’s fees. Just in that fact alone.” The money that they raise goes back into the golf course. And for a city that spends 2.6 million dollars on its park that only brings in $103,000? Anything that we can do to bridge that gap would be fantastic. That alone makes it worthwhile and sensible. And remember, any problems that they would have with alcohol at the golf course? You’re paying a user fee for them to police the activities. So this was absolutely a no-brainer to me.

So the alcohol sales would be money earned above and beyond what the golf course is currently pulling in? 

Yeah, and people are already buying the booze, stuffing it in their bags and going out on the course. I talked to Chief Trostle about it back when we were in the middle of all this alcohol discussion. I said, “Hey look baby, I’m bringing this on board.” We’re not anti-alcohol. We’ve got some concerns and we’ve got some hurdles to overcome, but isn’t insurmountable. We should be looking at these concerns but we’re not anti-alcohol. Nobody on the council is. A lot of that was just driven by particular interests.

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