The Los Banos City Council, at its Jan. 3 meeting, approved, after continued debate, a $7,500 per month contract with Imagine Way More, LLC, to provide the city with social media services.

The council also approved several other expenses: an additional $1.5 million for a waste dredging project, $8 million for the future renovation of now-vacant police buildings, $52,600 for Perfection Painting Corporation to repaint the community center and $156,004 in fire department overtime.

Additionally, the council approved an alcohol permit for Biggins Texas BBQ and the sale of a Dos Palos home obtained in a 2009 corruption case.

The contract for Imagine Way More’s social media services was first considered during the Nov. 15 council meeting after Councilmember Deborah Lewis pulled it from the agenda and revealed that Imagine Way More’s website includes a video with the “n-word” racial slur.

According to Councilmember Brett Jones, the issue of the slur blindsided him. Jones justified not denying the contract over the racial slur because it was used by a private customer of the company.

During the public forum, five members of the public were concerned about the contract for three different reasons: the expense, the use of TikTok (a Chinese-owned company) and the potential misuse by councilmembers for campaigning. Resident Julie Creighton said she was “not impressed with the price tag.”

Councilmember Jones later said he believed that city posts on TikTok would be public information and not anything to be worried about. Councilmember Lewis said that the city’s credit card payments already made to the company for previous work rendered, have all been lower than the proposed $7,500. 

The contract was approved with Lewis being the only no vote. Lewis stated her position, “I still can’t vote for a company that’s going to have that word up on their website. It’s an offensive word, it has been for years, and it still is. I’m really appalled that we’re okay with that.” Mayor Paul Llanez recused himself because he had hired the company for his own personal project.

In explaining the additional cost for the waste dredging project, Interim City Public Works Director Jose Lemus said that the dredging company, Synagro-WWT, needed $1,497,723.52 more to finish the dredging job at the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

The original cost of dredging an estimated 1,900 dry tons of waste at $1.997,902.53 was discovered to not be nearly enough, because decades of accumulation made it hard to see exactly how much waste needed removal.

“We found that with the original amount not even the valve systems were accessible,” Lemus said. Llanez said he had visited the wastewater treatment plant, and he described the scene. “Imagine seven swimming pools that are about the size of the block of the street we’re in…and all you can see is black liquid. There is no way to tell how deep they are.”

The additional $1.5 million approved will pay for the removal of an additional 1,760 dry tons. The total cost of $3,295,627.05 will come from the city’s $30 million Wastewater Fund, according to City Interim Finance Director Brent Kuhn.

The council also earmarked $8 million to renovate now-vacant police buildings. After the construction of the new police department building at 1111 G St.,  the old police department building at 945 Fifth St. and the police annex at 535 J Street are now vacant. The annex will need $7 million and the old police department $1 million. The money for the renovation will come from the city’s general fund.

The repainting of the city’s community center was awarded to the lowest bidder, Perfection Painting Corporation, in the amount of $46,000 with a contingency of $6,900. The funds will also come from the city’s general fund, according to Parks and Recreation Director Joe Heim.

The council approved $156,004 for the fire department to cover additional overtime. According to Chief Paul Tualla’s report, the department had originally estimated it would need the same overtime as previous years, but due to expanded duties, training and statewide response, the actual overtime was significantly higher (for example, a 20-day response to the Smith River Incident near the Oregon Border).

Tualla broke down where the overtime would come from: $45,908 from the general fund, $14,438 from Measure H, $71,730 from Measure P and $23,928 from the CFD fund.

The council also approved Biggins Texas BBQ’s Conditional Use Permit for a Type 41 alcohol license for the sale of beer and wine. The restaurant is owned by Councilmember Kenneth Lambert’s family, who recused himself from the decision. The restaurant had the same license in its previous location before moving to 609 I St.

The sale of a Dos Palos home obtained in the 2009 Mary Ann Jones embezzlement case was approved by the council. According to Community and Economic Development Director Stacy Souza Elms’ report, the property is being sold for $315,000.

At the beginning of the meeting, Mayor Llanez awarded Police Sergeant Jesus Parras Employee of the Year for 2023. The December 2023 Employee of the Month was awarded to Javier Maganda, Parks and Recreation Maintenance Worker II. Also recognized were four commissioners coming to the end of their terms: Kathy Ballard (Measure H Citizen’s Oversight Committee), Deborah “DJ” Barcellos(Measure P Committee), Leonardo Cortez (Parks & Recreation Commission) and John Spevak (Parks and Recreation Commission). Mayor Llanez also acknowledged Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day in Los Banos.

During the public forum, residents spoke of concerns about the homeless population, council inaction, potential overspending and the need for an animal advisory commission. The next city council meeting, on Jan. 17, will include a report on the Homekey Program and a motel purchase.

Javier Powell