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Historic little Sacramento County town has king-size problems

In a 'state of perpetual crisis,' battered by mismanagement and the economy, Isleton may be California's most troubled community.

February 04, 2009|Maria L. La Ganga

Its early canneries are long gone and pear orchards are giving way to vineyards, but the economy still relies heavily on agriculture and river recreation. Downtown is dotted with businesses selling bait and repairing boats. Snowy egrets land in winter-plowed fields.

When Isleton's historic, two-block Main Street burned to the ground in 1926, it was rebuilt soon after and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Today it retains the flavor of its Chinese and Japanese heritage, although the Bing Kong Tong building lists to one side. Nearly as many businesses appear closed as open.

"People always say, 'What's in Isleton?' " complained Mayor Gene Resler, whose day job is selling real estate. "I always say, 'If you have to ask, you don't belong here.' "

Most mayors have high praise for their hometowns, but Resler has gone his compatriots one better. A member of a short-lived 1960s psychedelic pop band called Afterglow, the mustachioed Resler has written a song about life in the heart of the delta. The as-yet-unrecorded number concludes:

Hear the wind through the trees from the soft delta breeze, makes you want to stop and say,

Oh there's nothing I swear that could ever compare to another Isleton Delta Day.

Karen Franscioni, who owns Summer Wind gallery and stained-glass studio, tears up when she tries to decide what makes the delta so singular. The water? The pace? The history?

Like many delta old-timers, Franscioni never gets in her car without reading material and time to spare. The main way in and out of town is via drawbridge -- as unpredictable as it is picturesque.

Her gallery, with its false wood front and deep awnings, was a grocery store that served the city's large Japanese population before the internment camps of World War II.

"Have you been on Staten Island when the sandhill cranes come in?" she asks. "It can be a foggy day, and you'll hear the geese honking. . . . The charm of Isleton and all these delta towns is the river."

An informal group called the Main Street Merchants has begun meeting regularly to brainstorm about how to attract critical tourist money. They launched a website,, to lure travelers who might be interested in the upcoming Spam Festival (complete with cook-off, tasting and Spam toss), the historical walking tour, or the acupuncture exhibition.

"If tourists come out and find us, it'll be a profitable place. A lot of buildings have been painted and cleaned up. It's starting to look like a mini-Sonoma," founding member Chuck Hasz said without a hint of irony. Hasz owned an escrow company in Woodland Hills and is refurbishing a building on Main Street.

But the river's charms are not enough to bring solvency to a shrinking business district and normalcy to a troubled government.

To decrease costs, Isleton cut the number of police officers and hours of service. The city considered disbanding the Police Department and contracting with the Sheriff's Department, but Pope said it "would take more than the entire city budget."

A proposal to increase fire inspection fees filled City Hall with angry merchants after a leaflet warned that churches would even be charged $90 to light candles. (Not so, new Fire Chief Bob Bartley said.)

Pope, the newest city manager, previously headed Sacramento's redevelopment operations, and he has brought more order to Isleton's government than it has seen in decades. Much of the redevelopment fund money is back where it belongs.

He hired a city attorney for $50,000 a year instead of giving municipal workers open-ended access to a pricey Sacramento law firm, and he negotiated the earlier attorney debt down to $325,000.

Over the summer, Pope worked with an underwriter to see if Isleton could issue bonds to raise money. An investor was found, but the deal fell apart, and then the bond market tanked.

"By September," Pope said, "we started scurrying."

The idea was to find a lender. But halfway through the month, Lehman Bros. filed for bankruptcy, the federal government moved to bail out the nation's financial system and credit all but disappeared.

Just before Thanksgiving, Pope announced that if Isleton couldn't borrow $1 million by the end of the year, he would urge the City Council to follow Vallejo into bankruptcy.

"Just the name -- bankruptcy -- sounds like you're going down the tubes," Resler mourned last month. "As a city, it's the only reason we'd do it, to get back on our feet, not to dissolve."

Pope's deadline has come and gone without a lender or a bankruptcy filing. The $950,000 debt, however, remains -- nearly as much as Isleton's annual operating budget.

In recent weeks, Pope has worked with yet another underwriter to sell so-called certificates of participation to erase the debt. The City Council approved the plan 4 to 1 last Wednesday night and is hoping for the best.

The deal "is not signed, sealed and delivered" yet, Pope noted. If and when that happens, the hard part will begin: Paying back the investors, which could take up to a decade.

"We'll make whatever cuts we have to make," he said. "It's working under the somewhat new concept: you have to pay your bills."


Times staff writer Lee Romney in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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