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Newly elected Ridgecrest City Council members seated at dias

By Susan Read News Review Staff Writer

Near the beginning of the Ridgecrest City Council meeting of December 21, City Clerk Ricca Charlon administered the oath of office to councilmen, including re-elected Mayor Bruen, re-elected member Scott Hayman, and newly elected member Skip Gorman. Nominations and appointments at the council level took place, resulting in Vice Mayor Solomon Rajaratnam and Mayor Pro Tem Scott Hayman retaining those roles. 

The final meeting opened with a hearty “Merry Christmas” greeting from Mayor Eric Bruen, and a dais filled with floral bouquets for outgoing Council Member Peggy Breeden. Presentations were made by council members and others who recognized Breeden for her many years of service on the council and in the community (related story will be published next week in The News Review).

City Manager Strand reported that a meeting with the pool consultant was held. Citizens will be most interested in the series of upcoming town hall meetings for the city to present concepts to the community, and for the community to provide significant public input. The first town hall meeting will be held during the third week of January 2023, and the second will be held the first week of March 2023. Exact dates, times, and locations are forthcoming.

The California State Auditor report was delivered by Cheri Freese, the city’s Director of Finance. The state audit monitors assesses and identifies any risks in the finances of every city in California. In 2015, the audit notified Ridgecrest that its general fund and reserves were at high risk. By 2018, the audit stated that the city had made significant progress in addressing risk factors, but more work was needed. Freese displayed charts listing the risk indicators and the much-improved ranking of Ridgecrest between 2016 and 2021. Mayor Pro Tem Hayman complimented Freese for her leadership and the finance department team for working so hard to improve the city’s fiscal situation. Vice Mayor Rajaratnam commented on the financial team being good stewards of the city’s resources. Council Member Kyle Blades noted that the amount of financial management work is impressive, and the public deserves credit also by voting and placing trust in the city and the council, with an appreciation for the city manager’s leadership.

During council announcements, Mayor Bruen said the Veterans Advisory Council will convene today, Friday, January 6, 2023, at 10 a.m. for a special meeting addressing veteran housing.  Vice Mayor Rajaratnam reminded that with Measure P funding of 5.9 million dollars over the next nine years, the council is committed to doing what the citizens have asked them to do. He went on to pose the question of rising rents for tenants of the Stater Brothers mall complex, rent increases that have caused the Big Lots store to close. Council Member Gorman also expressed concern about the number of empty buildings and increased rents by owners. He asked if there was a tax break for owners if a building sits empty. City Manager Ron Strand said that several years ago, perhaps in the 2016-2017 timeframe, City Council tried to pass an ordinance to set fees on vacant buildings. He stated the issue could be brought up again in the new year to be considered by the City Ordinance and/or Economic Development Committee. Strand stated that the rumor that rent in the Stater Brothers mall has tripled is untrue. He went on to say the city is looking at the larger vacant buildings in town and how they are managed to get a truer picture of the situation.

Ordinance 22-06 of the Ridgecrest Municipal Code was read for the second time to add a division and article to Chapter 9 and for the title to be adopted. The ordinance, which was on November 8, 2022, ballot, imposes a transactions and use (sales) tax locally controlled. Council Member Gorman inquired about the tax, which goes into effect on April 1, 2023, and City Manager Strand confirmed the tax amount remains at 8.25 percent until April first.

Committee reports included IWV Groundwater Authority from Hayman on budget amendments, board rotations, and the ongoing purchase of water; Finance Committee from Bruen on budget forecasting and the scoping of Measure P projects; and Infrastructure Committee from Blades on a pedestrian hybrid safety beacon in front of Las Flores School, and continuing discussion about the Bowman bike path.

In closing, Mayor Bruen thanked the city staff for its dedication and hard work and said the council will continue to focus on the quality of life and water in the year ahead.