Dog wags tail in Council Chambers

Five priorities top policy list

After nearly three decades of reactive policy making, the Mammoth Lakes Town Council this past week attempted a turnaround.

In unusual back-to-back special meetings, the council on July 8 and July 9 began to set priorities in advance of policy decisions—a reversal of the past process whereby policies often were set in reaction to circumstances at the time, both in good times and in bad.

In that sense, town government priorities as directed by the council often were etched into stone, with a life of their own, even after the causes for the policies were long gone.

The tail wagged the dog.

As his first act as new town mayor, however, council member Rick Wood, along with Town Manager Marianna Marysheva-Martinez, called for the special meetings to set priorities in advance, commanding the dog to wag the tail instead.

“The strategic planning sessions met my expectations in several respects,” Wood said after the council agreed on the top five priorities of town government.

“First, council members stated specifically what were their most important priorities; second, the council as a whole, after honest and straightforward debate, came to consensus on what its priorities are for the coming year; third, the council sent to the community and town staff a clear message that in this tough fiscal climate, several areas are of critical importance to fund as funds become available.”

It was, said Marysheva-Martinez, an important exercise, particularly in light of some bleak financial storm clouds on Mammoth’s immediate future.

“The fiscal years beyond this fiscal year are not balanced,” she reminded the council at the start of the two days of meetings.

“We anticipate a $400,000 shortfall annually in 2014-15 and in the next four-year cycle.

“It’s important to keep in mind that unless the financials improve dramatically, and our hopes are high, we’ll need balancing measures for those fiscal years, and having council priorities clearly articulated is going to help us in that.”

She said if there is any optimism at all it lies with the proposed Tourism Business Improvement District (TBID) proposal that the council will address at its July 24 meeting.

Whether the TBID passes or not, each item before the council now will pass through a filter system to see if it meshes with the priorities, which begin with the continued funding at current levels of all the council’s “political commitments.”

That includes its baseline funding to Mammoth Lakes Tourism (MLT), Eastern Sierra Transit Authority (ESTA), and Mammoth Lakes Housing.

Second on the list of priorities to emerge from the meetings had to do with generating revenue by filling a permanent community and economic development director position; and by finalizing the zoning code update.

Also within the revenue priority is a focus on educating property owners and renters of all regulations and laws in connection with the Transient Occupancy (bed) Tax, and a push toward making the TBID work efficiently for all.

The third priority set by the council was all about recreation, and to settle the question of whether to establish a nonprofit NGO similar to Mammoth Lakes Tourism to administer it.

The name of the NGO would be Mammoth Lakes Recreation, and the council insisted the process be completed by this coming summer or autumn.

The fourth priority was a broad-based notion under the umbrella term of “Effective Management.” This would be “to provide sufficient resources and support to the town staff to effectively do their work,” effectively staunching the flow of talent leaving town for less burdensome pastures.

In addition, “Effective Management” includes getting a grip on the town’s use of technology, particularly in the area of finance, where a full system replacement would be logical.

The fifth and final priority is in maintaining and building needed infrastructure, such as roads and sidewalks. The council concurred on enhancing the infrastructure budget of $750,000 in the current fiscal year, with an increase to “at least” $1 million a year when it becomes available.

None of the top five priorities are more important than the other, Wood said.

“Our objective was to have a ‘Top Five.’ They are of equal priority.”

The odd timing of the two meetings, coming as they did just two weeks after the council approved a 2013-14 budget, was not lost on Marysheva-Martinez.

“I think the challenge is going to be that we approved a budget for the next year, and here we are, clarifying our priorities for that year,” she said.

However, it’s necessary for two reasons. First, the budget is just a plan, and in reality, things will change during the year.

“There may be a surplus, there may be a shortfall; depending on whether we need more money or we have more money than we anticipated.

“The council’s direction up front on the priorities is going to be necessary for the staff to develop either balancing measures or measures to spend the surplus or use the surplus.”