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Bike Beef

blog bikesSanta Cruz City Council authorizes plan to give recovered bicycles to Teen Center

Over the past two years, the subject of bicycles recovered by the Santa Cruz Police Department has proven itself to be one of the most contentious political hot potatoes for the City of Santa Cruz. How do old bicycles from the SCPD evidence locker best serve local youth—as sustainable forms of transportation, as a source of city revenue to fund youth programs, or a cross between the two? And who is best suited for the job? The city and the community have different ideas on the matter. 

On Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 28, the Santa Cruz City Council voted to direct the recovered bicycles—of which there are about 400 to 500 annually—to the Teen Center, a youth program of the city. The Teen Center will be charged with distributing bikes to kids who need them most, while the ones in the most disrepair will be sold to help fund the Teen Center’s operations.

Much to the community’s discontent, especially bike advocates, the city began auctioning off all of the bicycles last summer, bringing in about $3,000 in revenue for nonprofit programming, said Assistant to the City Manager Scott Collins, who presented to the council a short rundown on the city’s history of bike distribution and potential new options.

About a dozen people lined up to address the council about their disapproval of the city auctioning the bikes, stating that their value as transport is much greater than their value in sales. 

Amelia Conlen, director of the local bicycle advocacy group People Power, urged the council to get as many bikes as possible to youth in need.

“Abandoned bicycles are a tremendous city resource that can make a huge difference in a young person’s life,” she said. 

Another woman who did not identify herself said, “It doesn’t make any sense at all to send these bikes to an auction house and have them auctioned off online. The cash value of them is tiny, but the value of them as working bicycles for kids who need them is huge. So, please, let’s get this done and stop nitpicking around about all this bureaucratic stuff and make sure it can happen as efficiently as possible.”

While the Teen Center will now be distributing bikes to kids, another line of argument emerged over what organization can best accomplish the distribution task, who has done the job most effectively in the past, and the way in which the city severed ties with the organization that used to handle this same operation, which was, until 2012, the nonprofit bicycle repair service the Bike Church. 

In 2008, the Bike Church approached the city and offered to take over a distribution program that had been in operation since 1996. The city had recently halted the program due to its burden on the SCPD and other government resources, opting instead to send them to the landfill. The Bike Church worked with a variety of nonprofits, distributed hundreds of bikes to youth, and used otherwise useless bike parts in their repair shop. But in early 2012, without any warning, the city stopped giving the bikes to the Bike Church and redirected them to the for-profit business the Bike Dojo, which was selling bikes and, as it turned out, out of compliance with a city ordinance due to its status as for-profit.

“City staff had issued multiple complaints about the distributor at the time, the Bike Church, saying that the program was burdensome for staff and requiring too much city personnel to administer the distribution and inconsistencies as to when the drop-offs and coordinations would occur, impacting staff time,” Collins said. “Unfortunately, the city communicated the decision to move to a different organization after the fact, and we have acknowledged publicly that that was poorly handled.” 

Following the city’s shift to the Bike Dojo, Steve Schnaar, a spokesperson and longtime volunteer at the Bike Church, released an accusatory and inflammatory letter about the city’s actions, which he subsequently (and again at the council meeting) apologized for. The Bike Church has since attempted on a monthly basis to rebuild a working relationship for the bikes with the city, but to no avail.

Councilmembers Don Lane and Micah Posner, the former director of People Power, cast the two dissenting votes on the bikes being distributed through the Teen Center and being auctioned. 

“I don't think to this day we have ever heard a reason why the Bike Church should not be able to continue doing something that they were successfully doing for many years,” said Lane. “It’s really been an injustice that the Bike Church has been through.”

Posner said it would be better for the bikes to be distributed by the Bike Church because, instead of auctioning off the junk bikes, they could repair all of them and deliver more bicycles to kids. He also said he was skeptical that the amount of money generated by auctioning the worst bikes could be significant for the Teen Center. 

Director of Parks and Recreation Dannettee Shoemaker responded at the podium that, to the contrary, any amount of money generated for the Teen Center is very significant. Every bit of income correlates with the department’s ability to fund more Teen Center staff time and, in turn, get more kids riding bikes.

Councilmember David Terrazas said that the goal of the bike distribution plan is to focus on alleviating juvenile delinquency.

“So,” he said, “when I think about bikes being sold and the resources being turned back over to the Teen Center, that to me seems very focused on fulfilling that mission.”

At the end of the deliberation, Posner was openly upset about the council's decision, stating that he was embarrassed to be a part of a city council that did not have the public’s good ranked as their first priority, and departed the chamber for a break. 

Schnaar tells Good Times that the Bike Church supports the Teen Center, is happy to work with them, and in fact did distribute bikes to kids through that city program, but that it makes more sense that all the bikes go to youth and not a confusing model where city staff—“who are not bike mechanics”—decide which bikes should be auctioned and which are good enough to go to kids. Though he is pleased that at least some of the bikes will go to youth instead of the full-out auction option that has been in effect. He says that he feels the final decision the council arrived at was a “political” maneuver.

“There was a lot of public pressure and [the council] found a way that they could give some bikes away and save face without actually doing what makes the most sense, which would be distributing all the bikes,” he says.

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