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091918 Homeless camp cleanup 05.jpg (copy)

In this Sept. 19, 2018, file photo, Lompoc city workers haul off debris cleaned out of homeless camps in the Santa Ynez Riverbed near Lompoc. On Tuesday, Lompoc Police Chief Pat Walsh gave an update on the cleanup efforts and invited residents to return to recreate in the waterway.

Nearly five months after the full-scale cleanup of the Santa Ynez Riverbed began along eastern and northern Lompoc, the city’s top law enforcement officer on Tuesday invited the community to reclaim the area.

Police Chief Pat Walsh led an update on the cleanup efforts, which the city reported involved the removal of more than 462 tons of debris, during Tuesday night’s regular meeting of the Lompoc City Council. That presentation, which featured comments from other police officials and community partners, highlighted a meeting that also included the City Council approving utility payment deferrals for residents who are federally employed and adversely affected by the partial shutdown of the U.S. government.

Walsh began his presentation by thanking the council for approving and following through on the plans he presented last February to remove all the people, garbage and makeshift dwellings from the natural waterway.

“First off, you guys should take a bow yourselves because you had the vision and the leadership to say, ‘Let’s do this,’ and it’s really cost a lot of money to do this — we understand that — but we got our river back and it’s beautiful,” Walsh said.

“It’s your river,” he later added, speaking to the community at large. “Get down there. Take your dogs, take your horses out and get back in the river. You’re about to see, it’s beautiful.”

The cleanup, according to the city, involved about 750 acres, spanning from the Robinson Bridge on the southeast to just west of the Highway 1 bridge on the northern edge of the city.

Lompoc Police Sgt. Kevin Martin displayed several photos and videos showing the changes before and after the cleanup, which kicked into high gear last August after about 110 otherwise homeless people who had been living in the riverbed were evicted.

“As we look at these slides, the city has spent large amounts of money on this, but what the result is, is we’ve removed a lot of the biohazard dangers, we’ve removed a lot of the needle dangers and we’ve gotten the trash out of the riverbed,” Martin said. “Should the floods come, that’s not going to cause problems downstream.”

The financial aspect of the cleanup was referenced several times Tuesday.

In total, the City Council approved about $556,000 for the project, including a $400,000 contract with Qwik Response, a Southern California-based company that handles hazardous materials removal and whose workers did much of the heavy lifting.

To help recoup some of those costs, last October the City Council approved a resolution proclaiming a local emergency relating to the cleanup. The claim behind the resolution, which could make the cleanup eligible for state and/or federal assistance, was based on the public health hazards relating to the garbage and human waste in the riverbed.

The council has continued that resolution every month since, and did so again during Tuesday’s meeting.

City Manager Jim Throop said he was still investigating state and/or federal assistance and that the city was keeping invoices that it intends to submit to Santa Barbara County for what the city considers “their share of the process.”

Throop later said that if he did not receive any response from the county, or received an unfavorable response, he’d publicly address the Board of Supervisors and explain the city’s position.

“I’m not going to give up, let’s put it that way,” Throop said after noting that the riverbed is county owned but within Lompoc’s jurisdiction.

Those boundaries from city to county jurisdiction could be playing a role in the relocation process for at least some of the people who were evicted from the riverbed.

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Martin noted that the Lompoc Police Department has heard reports from personnel within the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office about more than 100 people possibly living in the riverbed or surrounding area south of the Robinson Bridge.

“I don’t know how accurate that is; that’s coming from a contact in the Sheriff’s Department, and they’re trying to figure out now how they’re going to have to deal with that,” Martin said. “If we don’t continue our enforcement activities, they’re going to repopulate what we’ve worked so hard to clean up and to avoid further problems down the road.”

Continuing patrols in the riverbed was a key part of the city’s efforts going forward, according to staff.

Throop said that the budget that will be presented to the City Council this year will include added appropriations for riverbed patrols and continued cleanup efforts.

Following the presentation led by Walsh and Martin, in which they thanked several community partners who assisted in the overall effort, the members of the council also expressed their appreciation for the work.

“The community may not understand and appreciate the impact this has had on us … but this was a public health and safety issue first and foremost,” Mayor Jenelle Osborne said. “Homelessness is a difficult issue to solve. It is an ongoing battle and we will continue to address it. But this, we needed to clean it up and make it safe for all of our community, so thank you very much for doing that.”

Councilman Jim Mosby expressed a similar sentiment while also referencing the dangers that were highlighted by four recent deaths in the riverbed and at least 17 fires.

“You guys have done a great job,” Mosby said, encouraging city staff to keep it up.

In an unrelated matter that was added to the agenda by a majority vote of the council early in Tuesday’s meeting, the board agreed unanimously to allow city staff to offer utility payment extensions for government employees who are being hurt financially by the current government shutdown, which began Dec. 22.

The shutdown, which is now the longest in U.S. history, is largely a result of a battle between President Donald Trump, who wants funding to a build a wall along the southern U.S. border with Mexico, and Democratic leaders who don’t want to allocate funds for a border wall. During the shutdown, government employees have either been put on furlough or required to work without immediate payment.

Because the topic was not initially on the agenda, there was no city staff report provided. A member of city staff said he wasn’t sure how many total Lompoc residents would qualify for the payment deferrals.

About 430 workers at the Lompoc federal prison are currently not being paid, however, and there are many more than that in similar situations who work at Vandenberg Air Force Base. It is unclear how many of those workers live in Lompoc, but Throop said Tuesday that his office had fielded multiple calls from concerned residents.

The approved deferrals would be in effect from Jan. 10 through Feb. 12. During that time, the deferred charges would not acquire late fees or interest. After that, the residents would need to either make their accounts current or make arrangements to do so.

If the shutdown continues past that date, the council can discuss then how to move forward.

For more information on making payment accommodations, the city’s utility billing division can be contacted at 805-875-8247.

The next regular meeting of the Lompoc City Council is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Feb. 5 at Lompoc City Hall, 100 Civic Center Plaza.

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Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.

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Willis Jacobson covers news and other issues, primarily those that affect the Lompoc Valley and Vandenberg Air Force Base, for Lee Central Coast News. He is a graduate of The University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications.