Divided On Tax Issue
October 5, 1997
WEST COUNTY TIMES
Sunday, October 5,
RICHMOND With no one opposing the mayor, and only one challenger running for three council seats, it may seem to be an unusually sleepy election season in this politically dynamic town.
But Measure H on the Nov. 4 ballot ensures that the city's political insiders are fully awake.
The measure, which would tax property owners to pay off $24 million in debt for public building improvements, has opened gaps between political forces along familiar and not-so-familiar fault lines.
City Council members are split.
The fire chief signed the ballot argument for the measure, but the firefighters union signed the opposition argument.
The Chamber of Commerce supports the plan, but another pro-business group, the Council of Industries, opposes it.
Measure H would pay to replace two fire stations and provide money for earthquake retrofitting on three others. City Hall and the police station would also receive funds for an earthquake retrofit, as would the Richmond Plunge swimming pool. City officials have threatened closure of the Plunge if it does not get seismic work. Money would also be set aside for a new police and fire communications system, for an emergency operations center and to replace police and fire vehicles.
Supporters say the projects are badly needed public safety measures, and that the measure is one of the few legal options the city has to raise money for them. Opponents say the approach is unnecessarily expensive and that some of the funds could be raised through state and federal government sources.
Property owners would repay the bonds through property tax bills. For example, the owner of a 1,500-square-foot single-family house would pay $50 per year. Owners of 2 to 5 acres of developed industrial land would pay $2,016 per year. Industry would pay 40 percent of the $3.4 million maximum annual tax. Owners of single-family homes would pay 30 percent of the tax.
The City Council voted in August to put the measure on the ballot. But the decision was far from unanimous. Mayor Rosemary Corbin and council members Alex Evans, Tom Butt, John Marquez and Donna Powers voted to put the measure on the ballot. Irma Anderson and Nate Bates voted against it, and Lesa McIntosh and Richard Griffin abstained.
Supporters such as Butt say the split is pure politics. He contends the muscle behind the opposition is Darrell Reese, a retired Richmond firefighter who is a consultant to the firefighters union and bankrolls council candidates. Butt contends Reese wants measure supporter Fire Chief Alford Nero and City Manager Floyd Johnson removed from their jobs a point Reese does not refute.
Indeed, the firefighters union isn't necessarily in favor of replacing two fire stations and bringing others up to code. In a letter to council members from Henry Hornsby, president of the Richmond Fire Fighters Local 188, said the union's executive board opposed the measure as "not in the public interest."
"We felt there should have been more study on it," Hornsby said at the time. The firefighters also are suspicious about how the money will be spent, he said. "We don't have money to burn," reads the last line in the ballot argument against the measure, signed by Hornsby and Lonnie Washington, a former councilman.
Reese said firefighters don't want to be associated with a proposal that is "bad government" and "bad tax policy." Reese said the measure is a "scam" used by officials to win the support of other employee groups. He contends bond funds would free up city money for raises.
"The truth is we don't need new fire stations," Reese said. "They need to retrofit the doors. We don't need a new bond issue to retrofit doors. $600,000 or $700,000 would take care of that. Our opposition to this is a little bit different than a cheap political trick."
But Reese acknowledges that some rank-and-file firefighters don't necessarily agree with union leaders' position. He attributes the less-than-unanimous support for the union stance to confusion.
"The members are very confused on this issue," Reese said. "(Measure H proponents) are smart; they're selling it as a public safety issue."
Other labor groups support the measure, including the Central Labor Council of Contra Costa.
"It's an essential need for the city. You have to have the capacity to respond quickly," said John Dalrymple, president of the council, which represents more than 13,000 workers in Richmond alone.
Among council members who oppose the measure, the arguments against it center on uncertainties. Councilwoman Anderson said proponents didn't do their homework on the homework on the measure.. She supports the emergency operations center and the retrofit of city hall and the police station. "I think the first three are important. If they want the rest, OK," she said.
Replacing the two fire stations is foolhardy unless an updated analysis is done to decide where the city's fire stations should be located, she said. The current setup leaves at least one block in central Richmond outside the required response time of six minutes, Anderson said.
"That's poor planning and that should be changed," Anderson.
Evans, who opposed a larger bond measure last year, is responsible for putting together this proposal. He said he's worked two years to refine the measure to meet criticisms along the way and can't understand the opposition.
"Those two fire stations are an embarrassment," he said. "It's my responsibility to make sure those firefighters are safe and the services they provide are safe."
Evans said the council's finance and public safety committee, on which he sits, arrived at the numbers using existing bids and consultants' findings. Also, Measure H is a bare-bones version of previous bond proposals that included recreation and other projects.
But that argument hasn't convinced all business interests.
Some business interests are likely to urge a "no" vote.
"In all probability we would oppose Measure H," said Dennis Spaniol, executive director of the Council of Industries. "We're very concerned about the lack of fiscal responsibility by the city.
"The reality is the city has overspent almost to the point of bankruptcy. When they have spent in an irresponsible manner in the past what assurances do the citizens of Richmond have that they won't misspend in the future?"
Complicating the picture is the Richmond Plunge, which made it onto the list despite the misgivings of some council members. After an August inspection the city's chief building official said the 71-year-old Plunge is structurally unsound and should be closed. Johnson had set Oct. 1 as the close date; on Tuesday, the council extended it to Nov. 4, Election Day.
During a council discussion two weeks ago, Butt's colleagues admonished him, saying he was campaigning from his council seat, which is illegal.
"Folks, it goes right to the heart of it. If you want the Plunge fixed, you're going to have to vote for the bond," Butt told a packed house and a television audience. Anderson asked City Attorney Malcolm Hunter to rule on Butt's comments, and Hunter advised that Butt and everyone else be cautious about campaigning while convened as a council. At the next council meeting, no one dared
It was curious that the Times chose to highlight Pinole's efforts toward improving its website ("Pinole goes high-tech, revamps its city website," (Sept. 9), when Richmond has already implemented most of what Pinole merely aspires to, and much more.
Why is it news when Pinole has hired an intern? Richmond has several employees (including several interns) in two whole departments (Management Information Systems and Telecommunications) constantly upgrading an integrated local area network and Internet website.
Email links for the mayor and City Council are already up and running. In fact, you can initiate an email to me (email@example.com) or open my own council website (http://www.intres.com/tombutt/) just by clicking on my name in the Richmond website (http://www.mikuni.com/CityRichmond/).< There is a vast amount of easily accessible information about Richmond on the website, including the Richmond City Services Gateway, city government and elected officials, upcoming City Council study sessions, city department services, Office of Emergency Services, community services, city business, history, KCRT television schedules, and recreation programs for youth, teens, adults, seniors, and disabled persons. Registrations and reservations can be taken over the Internet, and the library can be accessed.
Links are provided to a host of local news, government, telecommunications, business, educational, arts, cultural, and recreational organizations. For example http://www.pointrichmond.com/ will take you to Point Richmond, and http://www.pointrichmond.com/pro/skool.htm will take you to Washington School, where you can cruise the classrooms and communicate with students. To find out how Richmond is celebrating the women of the shipyards, you can follow the link http://www.pointrichmond.com/rosie/ to Rosie the Riveter.< It is not my purpose to put down Pinole, but with Richmond getting so much constant negative publicity in the Times, I just wonder why you picked Pinole to cover when Richmond is way ahead in cyberspace and offers much more.
Thomas K. Butt
Butt is a member of the Richmond City Council.