A Conversation with Vernonia Mayor Josette Mitchell
Josette Mitchell was elected Mayor of Vernonia and took office in January of 2011. She was re-elected in 2013 after running unopposed. At the age of 38 she is one of the youngest Mayors in the state of Oregon. In December of 2013, following the dismissal of City Administrator Bill Haack, Mitchell assumed the role of temporary City Administrator, a role she filled once before when Haack was fired in 2011 before he was re-hired several months later.
Vernonia’s Voice decided to check in with Mayor Mitchell about the most recent shake up at Vernonia City Hall and get her perspective on what’s happening in Vernonia as we start a new year.
1. How is the City doing financially this fiscal year? Are there any major deviations from the adopted budget?
In regards to the City budget, it is another tight year. The economy has not yet rebounded, we have quite a few foreclosed and bank owned properties in town and that equates to a lower amount of property tax income. Property tax income is the primary source of revenue that makes up the General Fund for the City. The County informed us that there would be a $90,000 reduction in property tax revenue coming to the City from what was forecasted. Fortunately, the City Budget Committee had decided last year to budget $50,000 below the forecast, so the City’s real reduction in funds was $40,000 less than we expected, troublesome but not as devastating as it could have been. We would have potentially had to reduce staff had we not made that decision to budget less than forecasted.
As far as deviations from the adopted budget; since we have had changes in staff, along with that comes payouts on banked vacation time, etc. All still within the budget, however some of the money that we would have used to pay payroll may be reduced, limiting the options for replacing said staff.
The City Council and staff are focused on providing the essential services the community deserves while maintaining the cost effective strategies we need to follow to be financially prudent. I think this next budget cycle will be difficult, hard choices will have to be made. Funds will have to support themselves or make cuts. The involvement of the community will be vital as the Budget Committee discusses and makes these decisions.
2. Is the new Health Center still on track to begin construction this spring?
The Council recently had an update from the Health Board members regarding their project. We were told they plan to break ground in February. The City Council and Health Board are currently working together to draw up a 50 year lease agreement for the City land the new Health Center will be built upon. The process has been longer than we all would like, however it is important to acknowledge that this lease will need to layout all potential issues that may come up over 50 years, and the intent in which the current players had planned to resolve any and all issues. I feel encouraged that the two entities will have a document agreed upon that can come before Council for approval this month.
3. How about other major City projects—What can you tell us about the progress on the Wastewater Treatment Upgrade project? How about the New Spencer Park Construction? Anything else the City is working on that you think people should know about?
The City has many small and a few larger projects currently going on. The upgrade to the Wastewater Treatment Facility may be the biggest. The City has to remove the biosolids that exist from the sewer lagoons; that Request for Proposals is going out this month. Once those biosolids are removed the City must elevate the dikes around the lagoons, it helps to protect the dike edges that are vulnerable during flood events and is required by DEQ. The last part of the project for completion is the construction of a building to house the new filtration system and digging of discharge trenches. The filtering system will allow us to make an affluent product that then can be released into the trenches which will allow it to slowly be released back into the water table. This whole project is to solve the problems we have with vulnerability, storage, and discharge of wastewater.
Another big project that the City is involved in is the New Spencer Park, on the old school site. The building of the replacement fields is actually the responsibility of the Vernonia School District; however the City is a partner. The School District will be replacing the fields that existed at the old Spencer Park where the new school now sits. The City has projects they are working on in the same plan; a restroom facility to serve the new fields and a covered picnic shelter area are in the works using grant funds from Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. The Parks Committee is working through plans and the hope is that these amenities will follow field construction.
4. Are you comfortable with the way the City Council handled the firing of previous City Administrator Bill Haack?
5. Did the City Council do the right thing when they rehired Bill Haack in September 2011?
At the time I think it was the right decision. There was a lack of communication within the Council when he was fired in 2010. The newly formed Council felt that he was the best candidate.
6. With the firing of Bill Haack, should the people of Vernonia expect any other major changes, not necessarily personnel related, in the operations of the City?
I don’t see any changes that will affect the community from the recent termination. Council and Staff are continuing the work the City has going. Staff has been working hard to continue to serve the community with all the services they would expect.
7. Is former Police Officer Mike Kay finally gone? How much did all the legal issues surrounding him cost the City?
The City prevailed in the arbitration case with Officer Michael Kay. The entire case cost the City $227,561; the arbitration alone cost $86,054.
8. What is your “big picture” vision for the City of Vernonia. Where do you see the City in five years? In twenty years?
In 5 years I see Vernonia having a thriving new Senior Center, Food Bank, and Health Center on the Rose Avenue property. The downtown businesses are successful. People are walking the downtown, frequenting the local shops. No empty storefronts, perhaps new services we don’t have currently. We have more companies providing living wage jobs, perhaps making some product in Vernonia. The utility rates are stable and we are paying down the debt of our system upgrades. The parks and public spaces are being used by citizens for community events. I hope citizens still feel about Vernonia in 5 years the way they felt when first coming here or growing up here. It is a fantastic town in the woods; I hope it continues to be the place we all love to live.
In 20 years I see the same as my 5 year vision, but still with the small town feel; knowing your neighbors, safe for children, nature all around.
9. What do you see as the biggest challenges to making the City successful?
There are many challenges to making the City successful, however, if as a community we stay focused toward moving forward together to better our community, I feel we can overcome all the challenges before us. We have done it before, we can do it again.