Rohnert Park officials are scrambling to prepare for a great unknown that has been years in arriving — what will happen when a 24-hour, 3,000-slot-machine casino opens on the west edge of the city?
"We have no idea what the impacts will be," Vice Mayor Joe Callinan said Tuesday as the council reviewed the report of a city task force that is trying to answer that question.
After a decade of controversy, environmental studies, lawsuits and bureaucracy, the $800 million Graton Resort & Casino is expected to open Nov.1, Assistant City Manager Darrin Jenkins told the council. Traffic congestion, the rate of certain crimes including traffic violations and "vice," and requests for emergency aid are expected to rise in tandem.
The task force's plan, Jenkins said — which is essentially to create a new city department — is intended to address changes that will occur immediately after the casino opens, a long-anticipated event that, in many quarters, has been long-dreaded, too.
"This is not the plan for next year and the year after; this is just for this first coming year," Jenkins, who heads the task force of city officials, said prior to the Tuesday meeting. "We're working on a plan for the future."
Under a $251 million, 20-year revenue-sharing deal with the casino's owner, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, money started flowing into city coffers last week with a $2.6 million payment. The first of four payments totaling $500,000 is due in July, for public safety purposes.
That is to last until July 2014. After that, the city is to get roughly $11 million a year. The tribe has a separate deal with Sonoma County under which the county is to get at least $9million per year.
Council members, who are confronting a $2.3 million general fund deficit next fiscal year, on Tuesday sought to tamp any expectations that the money could help shore up the city's finances.
"If the public's listening, this is not extra money," Mayor Pam Stafford said. "This is money for mitigation."
The city task force proposed opening a "special revenue fund" to account for all payments from the tribe, which will be issued through the state, and their expenditure.
The task force also said a staff person should be hired to oversee the fund, monitor the casino's impacts, and ensure the state properly directs to the city the money it is promised.
"There are millions of dollars at stake; we want to have someone at the table with the state because we believe other parties will have someone at the table," Jenkins said. "We need someone who this is their primary function."
Both proposals won the council's strong support.
"I think it would be very, very important for the city of Rohnert Park to keep close tabs on and to be open to the public about the money and how we spend it," said Callinan, who accounted for most of the council input Tuesday.
The council also supported hiring a traffic sergeant and a traffic officer, acknowledging concerns about fierce traffic congestion. The report anticipated an "opening crush" of 20,000 visitors a day to the Wilfred Avenue casino.
"We can't get through what we're going to be dealing with without some new people dedicated to traffic," Stafford said.