Collage of screenshots from Tuesday’s virtual Board of Supervisors meeting. Clockwise from top left: Second District Supervisor and Board Chair Estelle Fennell, Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone, Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass, Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson, Humboldt County Health Officer Dr. Teresa Frankovich and First District Supervisor Rex Bohn.

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Should McKinleyville become a real city? Residents of that northern Humboldt community — “where horses have the right-of-way” — have been considering that question for decades. Its population has grown to more than 15,000 people, making it the largest unincorporated town in the county, and community leaders are actively engaged in civic governance via the McKinleville Community Services District (MCSD) and the McKinleyville Community Advisory Committee (McKMAC).

The debate has long hinged on speculation about the financial implications — whether the town’s tax base could cover the expenses of inherent in forming a municipal government, with functions such as a police force and planning and building services. 

Shortly after assuming office early last year, Supervisor Steve Madrone, whose Fifth District includes McKinleyville, fulfilled a campaign promise by pushing county staff to conduct a fiscal analysis to determine how much revenue the town generates and how much the county spends providing services there.

At today’s virtual Board of Supervisors meeting, county officials took up the matter once again, taking a closer look at what incorporation would entail and agreeing, via a unanimous vote, to start collecting more detailed fiscal information in hopes of answering those questions. 

The discussion made it clear that even if McKinleyville residents do want to become the county’s eighth incorporated city, it’s not going to happen anytime soon. The incorporation process, which in California is governed by something called the Cortese-Knox-Hertzberg Local Government Reorganization Act of 2000, is long and involved. 

Madrone began the deliberations by recalling that when he first brought this issue up, in February 2019, his fellow board members asked him to “do additional homework,” and he said he’s done so — speaking with numerous business owners, residents and agencies such as the McKMAC and the Arcata Fire District, which has a station in town.

Madrone said he’d like staff to track the McKinleyville-specific expenses of both the Sheriff’s Office and Public Works for a year. “My hope is [that] a year from now we can have community meetings and ask, ‘What does that data tell us about incorporating or not?’”

First District Supervisor Rex Bohn expressed some skepticism about the prospect of incorporation, noting that it typically doesn’t benefit new cities financially. He speculated that McKinleyville businesses would wind up paying more in taxes, and he asked where the geographic boundaries might fall. Would Fieldbrook be included? Dows Prairie?

Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass said she worries about the accuracy of any financial information gathered during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is hitting cities hard. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some cities decide to un-incorporate,” Bass said.

As for the region of study, Madrone said the city boundaries would likely overlap with the service area of the MCSD, meaning the exclusion of communities such as Dows Prairie, Westhaven, Crannell, Glendale, Fieldbrook and Little River.

During public comment on the issue, MCSD board member John Corbett, speaking only on his own behalf, said he was neutral on the question but in favor of collecting more detailed financial information. “Our relationship with the county is the best it’s been in 30 years,” he added.

McKinleyville resident Maya Conrad agreed with the call for more information, as did Greg Orsini, general manager of the MCSD.

When the matter came back to the board for further discussion, Bohn indicated that he would be voting “no” on the proposition because it didn’t include a cap on spending. “There’s so many layers to this; I”m just trying to figure out the costs,” he said.

But after hearing assurances from Sheriff William Honsal, Planning & Building Director John Ford and Public Works Director Tom Mattson that total costs are unlikely to exceed a few thousand dollars, Bohn himself made the motion to accept staff recommendations and start tracking county expenses in McKinleyville in more detail starting July 1.

“I look forward to McKinleyville City,” he quipped.

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In other business, Humboldt County Health Officer Dr. Teresa Frankovich delivered an update on conditions surrounding the COVID-19 emergency and the county’s in-progress reopening. In a bit of positive news she announced that it has been 14 days since anyone tested positive at the Alder Bay assisted living facility, where a breakout was responsible for all four of the county’s COVID-19-related deaths. That specific outbreak is now officially over. “That is certainly progress,” Frankovich said. 

But she also cautioned that the pandemic is by no means over. She projected a graph from Johns Hopkins University showing that the five-day moving average of new COVID-19 cases continues to climb. 

“Locally, we have had what I would describe as some smaller waves of cases,” she said, adding that our epidemiological data, including our doubling time for the number of cases (about 74 days) and our positivity rate (about 1.5 percent) are “looking pretty good.”

She added, however, “In the last week or so we have not been testing as much as we’d like to.” County staff did recently gain the ability to conduct mobile testing, allowing staff to visit congregate living settings and remote parts of the county and perform tests on-site.

County staff continues to adapt state guidelines to local conditions, Frankovich said, and staff hopes to post guidance online this week for county campgrounds looking to reopen. They could be granted permission to reopen as soon as next week.

Bohn expressed concern for “the harm we’re doing” by not allowing regular kids’ activities, such as youth sports. He also complained that the public health information is generally a downer. “All we hear about is the negatives,” he said.

Frankovich replied, “What you would call negative spin I just call reporting the data.” And she added, “As a pediatrician I’m very aware of the need for activities for kids.” She emphasized the importance of moving forward in “a thoughtful and deliberative way.”