On Wednesday night the Mammoth Lakes Town Council continued to revise and prioritize staff work plans and related budgets in its effort to keep the Town running as Hot Creek settlement negotiations continue to play out. On Thursday morning, Town Manager Dave Wilbrecht took a moment to check in with The Sheet and talk about what’s really going on within the Town offices.
Sheet: Explain your idea of floating a special tax to pay for the settlement.
Wilbrecht: It was actually a community idea that was brought to me to try to get the settlement done quickly and not damage the General Fund any further. It would basically be like monetizing a loan. The Town would take out a loan to pay off the settlement and then the tax would be used to pay off the loan. It would probably need to be broad based and I would think the community members who brought it up would want it to have a sunset, but there aren’t any specifics and that’s all I’ve heard of it.
Sheet: Is bankruptcy really being explored as a fast way to disentangle the town from the settlement?
DW: There is no debate about whether we won or lost the litigation. The question now is how we get this completed. We cannot qualify for bankruptcy until negotiations are completed in good faith. Bankruptcy is looming out there but we can’t use it as a negotiation. It would be like holding a gun to someone’s head and asking if they liked the food.
On the flipside the creditor has a lot of control. They could demand payment of the $41 million today, but they are negotiating and agreed to a stay agreement. If they demanded payment now, it would trigger bankruptcy for the Town. It is a benefit to both sides to go through the process.
Sheet: What is the timeframe for getting real information out to the community about what is going to happen?
DW: By the end of this month we should be finished with the information-gathering segment. We’ve been meeting with the creditor this week and have more meetings scheduled in September. We haven’t even begun to talk about how to resolve things. I would think we would realistically know before December whether we are on the path of settling or not. Our goal is to settle.
Sheet: So after all the employee cuts that the Town has gone through, who is left and what are they doing? It seems like there are an awful lot of civil engineers and community developers while we are lacking code enforcement officers.
DW: Our main divisions (Public Works, Community Development, Recreation, etc.) are still intact. We are looking to move some planners into TOT work and enforcement. We want to put an emphasis on this because there is revenue there. We currently only have two permitted engineers, Peter Bernasconi and Haislip Hayes. John Milne’s job will terminate with the completion of the Lake Mary Road Bike Path.
Sheet: Why is the Town looking to hire new positions, and why has it already hired interns when things are so uncertain with the Hot Creek settlement?
DW: We are looking to hire a Budget Analyst and a Finance Clerk. Basically we are splitting up the position that Council approved when former Finance Director Brad Koehn and former Risk Management and Human Resources Director Mike Grossblatt were let go.
We have hired two interns at about $15/hour because we have work to do and it makes more sense to pay interns to do basic tasks rather than a full-time employee. For example, one of the interns was just out measuring asphalt. It’s cheaper to have that intern doing that than to send Peter Bernasconi out. And it’s good for the intern, too.
What it comes down to is that even though we’ve gone from about 125 employees to about 70, the workload hasn’t changed, except perhaps in Community Development because there are fewer building permits, etc. Everything else still has to get done.
Sheet: How’s the morale among employees? Do you find people being lazy because they feel like they are next on the chopping block once the settlement gets sorted out, so who cares?
DW: Someone not doing his or her job would become apparent very fast because of the work that would pile up. I think the volume of work is just making people tired.
Sheet: Often we’ve heard that Town staff and the Council do not put the community first in decision-making. Will that be a higher priority for the Town going forward?
DW: A town manager in Whistler once told me, “we always forget the community and we have to be reminded of it.” The community has desires and to get those things it often has to rely on others. The fact that the community has spoken to say that it is willing to pay for things itself and not wait for developers shows that it has matured. Being willing to use a tax initiative to pay for what you want is a wonderful sign that the community is taking charge of itself. It’s always a question of who follows and who leads. The community, the Council and staff take turns leading. It goes back and forth in a collaborative fashion.
Sheet: Has all the hype surrounding your hiring as Town Manager put extra pressure on you?
DW: It’s not a burden but an opportunity to do the right thing. We have a wonderful community and that’s what motivates me.