Businesses fed up with Rohnert Park’s response to sanctioned homeless camp

Rohnert Park has agreed to beef up police presence around a sanctioned homeless camp near Highway 101 but left other proposed efforts to mitigate theft and vandalism at the nearby commercial plaza largely up to the businesses.

Several business owners at Rogers Plaza and the adjacent commercial property said they’re fed up with what they see as inaction on the city’s part to address the camp in the fenced-off commuter parking lot on Roberts Lake Road across the street.

Rich Henderson, a commercial property manager who manages the three buildings behind the plaza, said the city allowed unhoused residents to camp at the site and should be responsible for helping businesses struggling with crime as a result.

“It’s frustrating and disappointing,” Henderson said of the council’s decision. somebody else’s problem, not ours.’”

The Rohnert Park City Council on Tuesday directed staff to look at creating a satellite Department of Public Safety office at Rogers Plaza to increase police oversight around the camp and more broadly improve response times in the northern part of the city.

The camp, which has grown to about 100 tents since city officials first allowed unhoused residents to set up camp there in February, is believed to be the largest camp in Sonoma County.

The city provides trash pick-up, portable toilets and hand washing stations, which are paid for through its existing contract with waste hauler Recology, and spends about $ 6,000 to $ 8,000 a month to remove hazardous material from the encampment once a week.

But the council opted against funding upgrades at the plaza, such as installing security cameras, dumpster locks and locks to prevent people from connecting to outdoor electrical outlets and water spouts. Those steps were recommended by staff as interim measures while the city establishes the new police office.

The council also didn’t support hiring a daytime security guard to patrol the plaza or fulltime security at the camp, which was estimated to cost up to $ 2 million.

The council’s stance frustrated plaza business owners. At least one has hinted at taking legal action against the city to force it to address concerns.

Cully Williamson, owner of Mary’s Pizza Shack, which opened 30 years ago at Rogers Plaza, said camp residents have vandalized his business, harassed customers sitting on the patio and made his employees feel uncomfortable.

On a few occasions people have come into the restaurant, ordered food, sat down to eat and then were unable to pay the bill at the end of the meal, he said.

“It’s almost a 12-hour a day job just keeping an eye on the homeless that walk through the property and around the building,” he said. “I’m trying to run my restaurant, and that’s challenging as it is, without having to police this problem. It’s just not a pleasant experience. ”

But council members said spending public dollars to address issues at a private business would set a precedent where the city would have to do the same for other businesses needing assistance.

Council member Susan Hollingsworth-Adams, whose family operates an insurance business in the plaza, didn’t participate in the discussion citing a conflict of interest.

“If we set a precedent of taking care of (private) buildings that is going to be a problem for the future because other businesses are also affected and they will come to us and say,’Well, you helped them, why aren’t you helping us?’” Mayor Jackie Elward said.“ That is for the owner to take care of. ”

What is the city doing?

The council agreed to set aside $ 30,000 in overtime for police officers to provide additional patrols in the area.

The city has directed police officers with its Community-Oriented Problem Solving team, or COPS team, to dedicate half its time to homeless-related issues, with a focus on the Roberts Lake Road area, and the increased overtime budget will help fill staffing gaps until the COPS team is fully staffed.

The city will install a more durable fence between the north end of Rogers Plaza and Roberts Lake Park that is expected to cost $ 50,000.

Staff will begin working on a plan to open a public safety office at the plaza and return to council with additional details at a future meeting. Renting a suite at the plaza is estimated to cost $ 16,000 annually but the city will have to hire a sergeant to oversee the office, which would cost about $ 233,000 in salary and benefits.

The council largely favored this recommendation because it would benefit the wider community, members said.

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