In the span of less than 150 minutes, more than 120 Mill Valley residents and business owners were given a snapshot of dozens of the City of Mill Valley’s services, programs and priorities Thursday night with City Councilmembers and City staff outlining a host of accomplishments over the past year and identifying areas for further attention and challenges to overcome in the year ahead.
The annual Mill Valley Community Meeting, typically held in the first week of May, provides a chance for the Council and City staff to update residents and business owners on the progress made on the major issues facing the City, from fiscal matters like pensions and budget allocations to day-to-day concerns like traffic, public safety, road conditions and the impact of development on neighborhoods.
“For a City of 14,000 people, Mill Valley is a small city, but we are a busy little city,” Mayor Stephanie Moulton-Peters told the crowd at the outset. “When I compare notes with councilmembers of other cities of the same size, they are pretty amazed that we can crank out all this work. We have an active and engaged community and you all volunteer to help out a lot – that’s how we get it done.”
“We want to work harder and do a better job – when things don’t work – we want to fix them,” Moulton-Peters added. “But I also want you to take a moment to appreciate what IS working in Mill Valley – there’s quite a bit that is working well here.”
The meeting began with a presentation by City Manager Jim McCann, who listed a series of 2013 accomplishments, including a massive update of the City’s General Plan, the replacement of nearly $1 million in sewer pipes, a $2.2 million improvement of East Blithedale Avenue and a successful election that produced “two great new Councilmembers.”
He also highlighted the innovative programming provided by the Library and Recreation Departments, including new arts and music classes, a new Digital Lab at the Community Center, and programs such as the Naked Truth, Sunday Special, and SeedSmart program.
McCann also noted that while much has been accomplished and there is much to be proud of, there are also areas which require further attention and improvement. He identified five specific areas for work. These include planning development review, construction oversight practices, sustained progress on Capital Improvement Projects, establishing sustainable post-employment benefit practices, implementing a strategy for significant street infrastructure repair, and enhanced communication and responsiveness.
He noted that the City is in the midst of a major analysis of the Planning Department’s review of development applications and construction project management policies, a move spurred by the impact of multiple construction projects occurring simultaneously in the Lovell Avenue neighborhood in recent months. That project is being led by interim Planning Director Vin Smith.
“This has been a topic of great concern in community,” McCann said. “We have found some flaws in our processes and errors in our review of some projects, and we’re in the midst of addressing those. We hope to restore confidence in the process, so that folks are confident that projects that are built in substantial conformance with the approval they received through the public review process.”
The City Councilmembers followed with a presentation (which you can download here) of subject-specific updates on major issues in town. Here’s a synopsis:
Implementing the MV2040 General Plan
After an 18-month process, the City Council adopted in October 2013 a new General Plan, a road map for development in Mill Valley through 2040, for the first time since 1989. The City’s new General Plan received recognition and an award from the American Planning Association’s California Chapter. In 2014, the City is beginning to implement the General Plan’s components, including the formation of a Zoning and Design Guideline Advisory Committee (ZDAC) to revise provisions of the Zoning Ordinance and to help create guidelines for multi-family residential developments. The first ZDAC meeting is May 20.
The City Council adopted in March a new Communications Strategy for the City, and the first major step towards implementing it is to understand what information is most important to residents and business owners and what are the preferred channels for people to receive information and to provide their own input.
The City is in the midst of collecting that information via its Communications Survey. More than 200 people have completed the survey to date – click here to fill it out yourself. McCann said many responses have centered on improving the City’s responsiveness to complaints and suggestions. “We simply need to do better on that,” he said.
2014-2016 Budget Update
Councilmember John McCauley said Mill Valley’s budget has long “been a well-oiled machine – (Finance Director) Eric Erickson does a fantastic job.” In the upcoming budget process, set for May and June, the City plans to implement a broader examination of its spending compared to that of other similarly sized cities in the area, primarily to benefit the two newest Councilmembers but also with an eye towards 2016, when three more new Councilmembers will be elected.
Pensions and OPEB (Other Post-Employment Benefits)
McCauley noted that covering the costs of paying the pensions of retired employees, as well as their benefits, like medical care, remains a major priority for the City. He explained the City’s traditional “pay as you go” strategy, whereby it has set aside approximately $600,000, as well as an additional $250,000, to pay for the pension and benefit liabilities the City is accruing is not sufficient and creates an unfunded liability. The City Council will study the options to fund this liability this summer.
Municipal Services Tax
First approved by voters in 1987, the City’s Municipal Services Tax (MST) generates $1.2 million in revenue annually, with $300,000 of that going toward fire prevention services like vegetation management and $900,000 of it going to maintaining and repairing streets. The MST is up for renewal in 2016, and McCauley said the Council will continue to look at the benefits of the tax and making sure the revenue from it is properly allocated. “The funds from the MST are critical for road repair. Still, the quality of our roads has declined by measure over the past few years – we want to turn that around,” he said.
Flood Improvements and Watershed Management
Councilmember Garry Lion noted that the County of Marin’s Southern Marin Flood Protection and Watershed Program is evaluating ways to reduce the risk of flooding along the creeks in Mill Valley, and to improve water quality and wildlife habitat. The City contracted with Stetson Engineers to study flooding in Mill Valley. Part One and Part Two of that study are available on the City’s website. In June, the City will host a community meeting focused on the possible infrastructure improvements that could be pursued to reduce impacts from flooding.
Miller Avenue Streetscape Project
The City Council approved the Plan in 2011. In 2013, the City refined the project as a realization that “we didn’t have enough money to build everything the plan said we were going to build,” Vice Mayor Ken Wachtel said, noting that while some features of the original plan might not be developed right away when the project begins in 2015, they’ll be kept in the plans for when funding becomes available.
In 2014, the City will be making some interim improvements to Miller Avenue, including a pilot program of “back-in” parking between Reed Street and Camino Alto, a trial of narrowing the “Passageway” section (the section near the former lumberyard) to one lane for cars in each direction and the creation of bike lanes by changing the striping along the roads – an interim step prior to formal road construction in this area.
“A project like is going to be disruptive to the residents and businesses and our goal is to make it as little disruptive as possible so that it facilitates the success of the businesses on Miller and has as little impact on people’s commutes as possible,” Wachtel said. Click here for the latest on Miller Avenue.
“I really can’t believe how much our Fire and Police Departments do in our town,” Councilmember Jessica Jackson said, noting a number of key services, including the Police Department’s Vacation Watch program and the Ready Mill Valley Backyard Campout, the City’s new family-friendly emergency preparedness event on June 7. She also mentioned the two new additions to the City’s public safety fleet – the new fire truck and police cruiser – both of which are equipped with the latest state-of-the-art safety features.
Traffic and Transportation
McCauley highlighted the City’s scheduled construction of bicycle-pedestrian paths along both Camino Alto and on Sycamore Avenue, projects that will connect Miller Avenue and surrounding neighborhoods to the Mill Valley-Sausalito Multi-Use Path. He also noted the City’s upgrade of and changes to the timing of the traffic lights along Camino Alto and East Blithedale Avenue to reduce traffic backups on those roads, particularly heading out of town. Those changes go into effect May 5.
Councilmember Lion serves on the City’s Parking Advisory Committee, which is looking at ways to make parking downtown more convenient. The plan is still in a conceptual phase, but components could include: overhauling parking meters to include multiple forms of payment like credit cards and smart cards; and adding overtime rates so that people who go over the limit simply pay a higher hourly rate instead of getting a parking ticket. “We’ve got to evaluate the technical and financial feasibility of this right now,” and the committee will come with recommendations later this year, Lion said.
Environmental Sustainability Initiatives
Moulton-Peters listed a number of initiatives, including a 20 percent reduction in the City’s water consumption, the consideration of the installation of solar panels at the Wastewater Treatment Plant and City’s Corporation Yard, efforts to provide recycled water to the City’s Golf Course and ball fields. Click here for more info on the City’s Sustainability Initiatives.
The Community Meeting concluded with a round of Q&A, with most questions focusing on the aforementioned issues. A notable collection of questions related to:
Small Town Character
Several residents expressed concern about the changing demographics and increased residential development in town, and whether “we are reaching a tipping point on the unique character of our very desirable little town,” McCann said.
Mayor Moulton-Peters said the biggest impetus for the spike in development is that the economy has improved. “The economy has picked up,” she said. “It’s manifested itself in two ways: the small remodeling projects continued to happen through the recession but the large-scale reconstruction and remodels have significantly picked up in the past two years. The other way is traffic. Our population hasn’t grown much in the past 35 years, but the number of cars here has grown by 20-25 percent. The drive everywhere thing – we’ve hit the wall on this. This cannot be our only way.”
“We do work to preserve the community’s character – if you think we’re failing at that, I urge you to let us know,” she added.
Councilmember Jackson, who grew up in Mill Valley, noted that while the issue remains a concern, the quality of life has also vastly improved in many ways since she was a child here. “Look at this Community Center we’re in,” she said. “This is incredible – we didn’t use to have this – we had a shack where I took gymnastics classes. There have been a ton of improvements to the quality of life in Mill Valley, and it’s important to recognize that.”
A Thank You from the City Council
Councilmembers and staff want to thank all the community members for participating in a productive and informative evening, and encourage all residents to contact the City if they have further questions, comments or suggestions. Also - Please take our Communications Survey!