A consultant who’s done work for the cities of Merced, Los Banos, and Morro Bay will assist the City of Sonora in starting the process to develop an “economic development action plan.”

The Sonora City Council voted 4-0 on Monday, with Councilwoman Connie Williams absent, to hire Chico-based Chabin Concepts for $7,500 to gather information and create a report that will serve as a guide for the city’s economic development efforts.

“We need to build trust, build support and re-engage the community,” said City Administrator Tim Miller. “This is a process we came up with to do that.”

Miller was referring to the loss of public trust from the recent debacle involving the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority, a partnership between the city and county governments formed in 2008 that ended earlier this year.

The TCEDA was the subject of a Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury investigation last year that detailed concerns regarding the agency’s oversight, questionable uses of public funds, and a lack of accountability.

While the county has opted to hire a permanent in-house economic development director for up to about $120,000 a year, the city’s approach was described by Miller as a “ground level” or “grassroots” approach.

Chabin Concepts bills itself as an economic development and marketing firm that has assisted small cities, large regions and businesses with strategic planning since 1989.

Miller said he recommended the firm because he’s worked with its president, Audrey Taylor, on a similar plan for the city of Merced. He’s spoken with Taylor over the past several weeks to come up with the proposal that the council approved on Monday.

The process is expected to take several months and will involve gathering and updating data on the city's economic conditions and interviewing stakeholders in the community about what they would like the city to do.

A findings report will then be presented to the stakeholders and council in hopes of identifying the city’s economic development goals and coming up with a plan to achieve them.

John Williams, owner of Mountain Home Gifts in downtown Sonora, gave his endorsement of the city’s approach.

Williams talked about how the cities of Merced, Los Banos, and Morro Bay are similar to Sonora in that they have historic downtown district and strip malls or big-box stores in outlying areas.

“I like the idea of the one-time expense from people with good experience in economic development,” he said.

The city previously was paying $103,000 a year to be part of the TCEDA with the county, which was paying about $344,000 annually itself.

Miller said about three quarters of the money the city was paying to the TCEDA will be available in future years for economic development efforts, though the rest will be going to pay off the city’s portion of the $618,000 in unfunded pension obligations for the TCEDA’s former staff.

Mayor Jim Garaventa said he supported the approach because it directly engages with people in the community to see what they want as opposed to someone telling them what’s best.

Mayor Pro-Tem Matt Hawkins talked about how the city never forgot about economic development despite having few formal discussions on the topic since voting to end the partnership with the county in February.

“It’s just that we really want to take another calculated approach instead of just going along and not appearing to be transparent,” he said.

Councilman Mark Plummer said he believes the essential question that the approach should answer is what people want the city to accomplish with regard to economic development.

“We need to decide what we want it to accomplish, and that’s what we’ll measure,” he said.

The council also passed a balanced $8.8 million operating budget on Monday for the fiscal year that begins on July 1.

Most of what the council has authority over is the nearly $5.8 million in the city’s General Fund, which pays for a major portion of the funding for police, fire protection, public works, and employee salaries and benefits.

The budget also includes $200,000 for public restrooms on South Stewart Street next to the parking lot that hosts the Sonora Certified Farmers Market, though there are still questions about whether the roof will need to be replaced.

Miller said there should be enough in reserves to cover the additional costs and expects to have the final bids for the initial work on the project back within a matter of weeks.

Hawkins noted how the city’s budget is balanced and maintains the same staffing levels and services, something that the county is currently struggling to do and plans to restructure over the next several months.

Miller, however, warned that the city too is dealing with revenues that are failing to keep up with escalating costs for things like health care, pensions, and cost-of-living increases for employees.

The finance committee will likely need to meet over the coming year to start preparing for the future, Miller said.

“It’s going to continue to be a challenge for the city to maintain the current staffing and current level of services with the demands that we’re going to be seeing in the future,” he said. “It’s time to start being vigilant, because we don’t want to end up like some of our partner agencies.”

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.