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31-point action plan unveiled for Auburn Blvd; funding questions remain

ABBA, Richard Hale
Richard Hale, chairman of the Auburn Boulevard Business Association, holds up a sheet with several funding options for a 31-point action plan during a Nov. 14 meeting at city hall. // CH Sentinel

Sentinel staff report–
A long-awaited action plan for improving a heavily trafficked commercial section of Auburn Boulevard in Citrus Heights was unveiled to a group of about 50 business representatives, city leaders, and property owners during a Nov. 14 meeting at city hall — but the group remained undecided on how the extensive plan would be funded.

The 31-point action plan was presented by a pair of consultants hired by the Auburn Boulevard Business Association, which represents business and property owners along the boulevard from Sylvan Corners to the Roseville border. Action points revolved around three areas of focus: maintenance and security on the boulevard, land use and advocacy, and marketing and communication.

Specific action items include coordinating litter removal and weed abatement, exploring the hiring of private security or off-duty police to enhance security, working closely with code enforcement to address concerns, potentially hiring an advocate to represent local businesses before state and local governments, marketing the corridor to help fill vacancies, and working with the city to explore hiring a dedicated “navigator” for the boulevard to help address what business owners listed as their number one concern: homelessness.

Related: Read all 31 action items planned for Auburn Boulevard

The action plan followed a survey that was sent to property owners in August and more brainstorming and input provided by business and property owners during a pair of meetings held in September. The meetings were led by MMS Strategies, an area consulting firm hired by ABBA using a $25,000 grant from the City of Citrus Heights.

Top issues and problems identified during the process were related to cleanliness and safety, vacant store fronts, homeless-related concerns, and lack of a brand or unique identity for the boulevard.

Based on the input received, MMS crafted the action plan as a way to address the concerns and issues raised, but funding remained the unresolved question of the night.

“That’s all great, but how do you fund it,” MMS Consultant Michelle Smira asked rhetorically to the audience, before delving into three funding options.

Funding options
According to MMS, fully funding the action plan would run an estimated $275,000 to $400,000 annually, but Smira said costs could be lowered if funding came from grants and other sources. All 31 points also wouldn’t have to be fully implemented in order to lower costs, she said.

Two main funding options presented were to build the business association’s current membership up from its current total of 21 businesses, or forming a Business Improvement District like the Sunrise MarketPlace did back in 1999. A third hybrid option would be a mix of the two main options.

The first option would focus on increasing membership and influence with ABBA, although the estimated revenue presented for the option would only raise about $5,000 annually. Discussion quickly focused on the second option of forming a Property-based Business Improvement District (PBID), where property owners in a defined area vote to pay a tax to fund specific additional services and promote their district. The tax would be tacked on to annual property tax bills on any properties located in the business district, which in this case would be about 127 parcels that lie along Auburn Boulevard from Sylvan Corners to the Roseville Border.

Business Improvement Districts have risen in popularity during the past several decades in California, following the state legislature’s authorization of the districts, beginning with the Parking and Business Improvement Area Law of 1989. According to Smira, there are currently 15 such districts in the City of Sacramento and four in Sacramento County.

MMS consultants said key benefits of a PBID would include ensuring that all property owners contribute financially to improvement efforts in the area and that, unlike other taxes, money would go straight to the PBID for use only on projects that benefit the area being taxed.

Business owners present at the meeting appeared to resonate with the idea of each property owner being required to chip in — contrasted with trying to increase ABBA’s membership, which would be voluntary. However, PBIDs also require a majority of owners in the district, weighted by assessment, to approve the plan.

A local example
The Sunrise MarketPlace formed as a business improvement district in the city in 1999 and is currently the only PBID in Citrus Heights. The city recently funded a joint effort with the MarketPlace, agreeing to contribute $300,000 towards a new pop-up stadium as part of a four-year $2.6 million investment the marketplace and mall have planned to attract consumers to Citrus Heights’ primary shopping district along Sunrise Boulevard.

Mayor Jeff Slowey, who attended the Nov. 14 meeting at city hall, has previously spoken favorably of the business improvement district model. In his 2017 State of the City address in August, Slowey said “when businesses vote to tax themselves and spend that money on promoting themselves… as the public partner, I am willing to go in and spend money with them.”

Related: Sunrise Mall to get new 2,500-seat stadium for outdoor concerts, events

Kathilynn Carpenter, executive director for the Sunrise MarketPlace, told The Sentinel in an interview on Friday that her PBID enjoys popular support from businesses and has successfully renewed its assessment district three times by a vote of property owners in the district. Although PBIDs are free to calculate assessments in various ways and at various amounts, Carpenter said the cost to property owners in her district is 3-cents per square foot for office-zoned parcels and 6-cents for retail, which raises $750,000 a year from a total of about 120 parcels in the district.

Carpenter, who has served as executive director of the Sunrise MarketPlace since its inception, said she is a “a big believer” in PBIDs.

“It’s something organic and the property owners have to say ‘yes’ they want it,” said Carpenter. “To me, it’s just a perfect funding mechanism to do what really a public sector city can’t do — that we can just do better in the private,” she said.

Asked what the MarketPlace would look like without the PBID being formed, the executive director said things would look “much different.”

“I can’t think of anyone who’s shined a brighter light on the city than us,” said Carpenter, citing concerts, media awareness, generating traffic, and improving cleanliness and safety. “It’s usually us who’s doing something big.”

She also said keeping an eye on local policies and state legislation that affect local businesses has been a key benefit to forming an improvement district.

“Advocacy is a big part of what we do,” said Carpenter. “When we call the city, it’s 440 business and about 80 property owners… That’s one of the strongest reasons for forming a BID; having that advocate for you at city hall.”

Although a passionate advocate of Business Improvement Districts, Carpenter said some property owners disagree and have voted against her PBID, which legally must be renewed by a vote every 5-10 years. She also said initial startup costs to get the PBID going can be significant, estimated by MMS Strategies to run about $60,000.

“Some will be fine and some will be opposed… depends on whether they’ll see the benefit,” she said, recalling the initial vote to form her area’s PBID nearly 20 years ago. “The good news is the smaller properties which may say ‘I don’t see how this benefits me’ will also see a very low tax assessment.”

Primary objections and concerns raised about pursuing a PBID during the Nov. 14 meeting revolved around how much each land owner in the district would actually be taxed, and whether property and business owners should be voting to tax themselves any more than they already pay.

“The question being asked here is can we tax ourselves to pay for what we’re already paying for,” said property owner Chris Airola, referring to the city’s code enforcement and police services as those already best-suited to handle concerns like homelessness. “The services already exist.”

In an interview following the meeting, ABBA Chairman Richard Hale sought to respond to Airola’s objection, calling it a matter of “priority.” He said while police and other municipal services are responsible for the entire city and have to prioritize service calls, a PBID would always have Auburn Boulevard businesses as its sole priority.

The question of how much each land owner would be need to be taxed to raise necessary funds remained unanswered during the meeting, but Hale told the group several options for how to calculate a PBID assessment tax would be presented at ABBA’s next meeting on Dec. 12th.

Although a funding option was not decided on, Hale said he anticipates a path forward to be decided over the next 60 days.

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