Lindsay mayor Pam Kimball begins her second term in the city council’s central seat
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
TULARE COUNTY – Unlike major cities to the north and south, the mayors of Tulare County are selected from among their fellow city council members. They have no more voting power than those to their left and right but they do play an important role in setting the tone for the council. The mayor not only signs checks for employees but is also the public face of the council to the community. They are asked to be model citizens and carry themselves with impartial pride in the largely non-partisan seats.
Every two years, city councils reorganize and select new mayors as seats change hands following the November election. In Lindsay, Pam Kimball continues as mayor for another two-year term and is longest tenured councilmember in the city’s history.
Lindsay Mayor Pam Kimball
Lindsay, if nothing else, is a resilient community and their mayor can say the same. In each decade since the late 1980s, the city has been faced with new and daunting challenges. The most controversial of those have taken place in the last 10 years during which current mayor Pam Kimball has provided a calm and steadying voice to an often conflicted and unstable council.
Kimball, who will remain on the city council at least until the December 2020, already holds the record for the longest consecutive years on the council. Kimball was appointed to the council in 2001 and has won re-election in 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016. At 64 years old, Kimball is the third female mayor to lead Lindsay.
“I’ve been in this for a long time and learned to be measured in my goals and expectations,” Kimball said. “I don’t do ‘pie in the sky’, at least not anymore! Nevertheless, I am hopeful.”
Entering her second term straight term as mayor, Kimball’s new council will face the dilemma of possibly deciding between a farmers market or a chamber of commerce, and between bankruptcy or repaying loans from McDermont and the Wellness Center to the city’s utility funds. These two innovative yet exorbitant facilities have plagued the city’s checkbook since they opened in 2008 and 2010. Even under two different city managers, the city has been forced to keep them operating in order to attempt to pay back the loans from banks, state agencies, and from city’s own accounts.
“We would be OK if it wasn’t for some issues with state agencies going back to our crazy time period of over building, mismanagement, and the Great Recession,” Kimball said. “I would sure like to clear through all of that once and for all, but it continues to be difficult.”
Kimball said there some silver linings with the city’s two massive facilities. The most expensive problem, McDermont’s losses averaging $300,000 per year, was partially solved in 2017 when the city changed tactics by privatizing the management and operation. Rebranded as McDermont X, former city employees Clint Ashcraft and his associates agreed to operate the facility as an outside contractor. In lieu of a lease payment for use of the facility, Ashcraft’s McDermont Venture Inc. agreed to pay about $200,000 per year to cover the debt service of the 172,000 square foot facility with additional payments to the city if profits reach $100,000 for the business.
“I hope, hope, hope that the fantastic amenities at McDermont will remain available to the community especially our youth that have benefitted so much.”
The Wellness Center has flirted with solvency for years and Kimball sees huge potential for a facility that not only redeveloped a portion of city park but also improves the health of the community. Last year, the Wellness Center began the Silver Sneakers program, which provides free fitness memberships to eligible facilities for seniors on Medicare. Kimball said the staff is seeing more sign ups for the program and has added an Omni Family Health clinic to its list of office leases at the facility.
“Money is not everything to me – for example, health is more important than wealth,” Kimball said. “A win for me would be seeing the Wellness Center fully utilized, and we are moving in the right direction.”
When she became mayor two years ago, Kimball said her No. 1 goal was to pass a sales tax measure to ensure the city could maintain its public safety budget for officers and equipment. City voters passed Measure O, a 1 percent sales tax increase, in June 2017 expected to generate an additional $900,000. Just four months later, the city purchased a new fire truck for $660,000 to replace one that was 34 years old and had become unreliable to fight fires. While the fire truck was a necessary purchase, in reality, all the sales tax did was prevent city hall from going bankrupt and allow city staff to bring in just enough money to cover expenses, leaving city finances one major issue from collapse.
“Unfortunately we continue to have issues that are very significant and very difficult to work through,” she said. “Putting those problems to bed must continue to be a major goal.”
Compounding the problem is a lack of public trust in the community for city hall, which may only deepen after this week’s story regarding Lindsay finances. The council has continued to put its faith in employees who were all part of city hall mismanagement during the Scot Townsend era. Every department head, with the exception of finance director Bret Harmon, was working in city management at the time Kimball references. Nearly every time a department level position was vacated, the city chose to hire from within what many felt was an organization that was either corrupt or incompetent. Despite the many issues over the last 15 years, Kimball stands by the employees at city hall calling them the city’s “greatest asset.”
“A goal I have is to do what I can to promote a healthy, happy and thus productive work environment at City Hall,” she said. “The public must be treated right too, but don’t forget the employees. They are essential.”
A new problem was presented to the council last month when staff reported that the Lindsay Chamber of Commerce was $20,000 behind on payments for use of city facilities for the Friday Night Market. The council decided to put management of the market up for bid. The chamber responded by presenting a check for half of the past due earlier this month, but too late to stop the decision to go out for proposals. Executive director Virginia Loya said the chamber will be submitting a proposal but says if the city goes with an outside contractor, the chamber would lose 85% of its budget and the city may lose its chamber. Kimball said she understands the dilemma for the chamber but says that Lindsay may be too small to support a chamber. Outside of Exeter, whose budget has been significantly cut by the city, other small cities such as Woodlake and Farmersville have volunteer chambers or no chamber at all.
Kimball points out there are other financial opportunities in Lindsay that the city can invest its time into. Available yet affordable land within the city’s urban development boundary can be a boon to the city’s need for middle class housing and a way to attract more of the professionals who work in town to live in town. Counting more professionals as residents increases the median income for the community and prevents sales tax from leaking out to surrounding cities. “I am always focused on how to invite that.”
Before that growth can happen, Kimball admits the city must improve its infrastructure. She said the city will soon begin testing for a new water well, a problem that has plagued the city for two decades. The contaminated water below the city has forced Lindsay to get up to 70 percent of its water from the Friant-Kern Canal, which increases the cost of the water to residents twofold. First, the city must purchase the surface water and then the city must heavily treat it to meet drinking water standards. Kimball said the city is also investigating funding to increase its capacity to store water when more surface water is available for years when it is not.
“Water in this state is so dicey now, but if we can improve our options and the reliability of our system, I would consider that a big win,” she said.
Curb appeal is also important for attracting upscale home builders. City Park has been remade between the addition of the Wellness Center, with its aquatics complex, new playground equipment and new landscaping. The city is now turning its attention to Olive Bowl Park. Once home to massive crowds for community college football championships, the olive bowl has become a rundown place for adult and youth rec leagues. She said plans already in the works to recapture some of the park’s lost luster have received grant funding for design and there will soon be public outreach meetings to take the project to the next step. “Then we will submit a plan for an available grant to make improvements, and keep our fingers crossed for another win.”
A major detractor for residents and visitors alike is Lindsay’s streets. While much improvement has been made in the last 10 years there are still streets that require major roadwork. Kimball said the city is planning to spend $1 million on streets this spring, much of which will be resurfacing, some of which will be to repair the foundation of the roadways, and all of which will still leave a large portion of the city’s streets in need of maintenance and repair.
“I wish a million dollars would go further,” Kimball said. “It is insane what these things cost.”
With all of the challenges faced by Lindsay year after year, many question why Kimball continues to subject herself to the stress and ridicule that comes with public office. Kimball admits the city has been on the brink of disaster for a long time but that the people of Lindsay have persevered by continuing to care, to try, to make improvements, keep traditions alive assist those in need.
“Those people have kept things going in this town that has always been my home,” she said. “I want to be one of those people, and this is a way that I have found to contribute.”