|Richmond Grapples With
A Giant Fixer-Upper
October 21, 1997
WEST COUNTY TIMES
* FIREFIGHTERS' UNION LEADS BATTLE AGAINST $24 MILLION BOND ISSUE THAT WILL REPAIR PLUNGE, CITY BUILDINGS
Tuesday, October 21,
RICHMOND City officials campaigning for Measure H, the tax issue before Richmond voters Nov. 4, drill home one point over and over: Their plan is the most financially sound way to make the city safer.
They say the additional $24 million will give the city more reliable public safety vehicles, a more efficient, quake-proof radio dispatch system, earthquake-resistant fire stations, and better seismic safety at City Hall and the police station.
Opponents, led by the Richmond firefighters union, do not dispute that many of those projects are needed. They dispute that the tax is the best way to accomplish them, and think some of the projects are too elaborate. They warn that Measure H may keep buildings up but allow the city budget to crumble as expenses spiral out of control.
In their campaign, firefighters have made many accusations. Tax proponents have shot back countercharges.
The controversy may have left many questions in voters' minds. In an effort to answer those questions, the Times interviewed more than 16 key players and reviewed more than a dozen studies and documents. The results are below.
*Is the Plunge rehabilitation too elaborate?
Opponents argue the $4.5 million price tag is exorbitant. Darrell Reese, the powerful consultant to the firefighters union, said it will create a "Taj Mahal."
Councilman Tom Butt, a Measure H supporter and architect who analyzed the Plunge in the early 1990s, said the scope of work could not be reduced because retrofitting happens at the heart of the building. Much of the Plunge's finish and some of its functional parts must be torn off, requiring the thorough rehabilitation proposed in Measure H.
Councilman Alex Evans said the rehabilitation would save the city $200,000 per year in maintenance.
*Is the Plunge repair needed?
Councilman Nat Bates, who voted against putting Measure H on the ballot, and Reese doubt predictions that the Plunge could collapse if not shored up quickly. Bates pointed out that the building had no problem in the Loma Prieta earthquake.
Reese dismissed city building official Fred Clement's recent gloomy report about rusting supports and crumbling mortar. Reese said City Manager Floyd Johnson supports Measure H and forced Clement to exaggerate.
Butt, however, agreed with Clement's assessment.
Other Measure H supporters say the danger will force them to close the Plunge if the bond sale is not approved.
Reese also argues that the popular Plunge is in Measure H only to attract support for the proposal. Evans concedes that virtually all pro-H volunteers are attracted by the Plunge issue. One of two pro-H fliers focuses on the Plunge.
*Is the city using Measure H to avoid tough financial decisions?
Some opponents see Measure H as a money grab by city leaders with a history of mismanagement and bloated budgets. Reese said the city should make tough decisions to trim its deficit-prone budget, possibly by laying off employees. Instead, he said, the city is trying to stave off the day of reckoning.
Measure H pays for fire and police vehicles, and for periodic replacement of radio system components. All those items are now paid for out of the city's general fund, the account that pays most city bills. The measure would free up about $978,000 per year.
There is no plan for how all that money will be used, although Evans said he expects some would continue to pay for police, fire and radio dispatch equipment. He and Corbin argue that such equipment has never been fully funded by the general fund.
Evans said he agrees with Reese that waste should be cut from the city budget. But he argues that defeat of the tax will hurt the city and do nothing to trim fat.
*Is Measure H a duplication of state money?
Reese, former City Council member Lonnie Washington Jr. and Richmond firefighters union President Henry Hornsby argue that a seismic retrofitting reimbursement expected from the state will be used to free up still more money from the general fund. They say it amounts to $7 million.
But the state official who oversees the program said the amount is really only $2.3 million. Johnson said additional reimbursement may come from neighboring cities that use Richmond's radio system.
Whatever the amount, Johnson said the law prevents the state money from being spent on anything except the new radio dispatch center, and retrofitting of City Hall and the Hall of Justice.
Because Measure H would pay for those projects, the state money would legally have to be used to pay off the debt or reduce the tax each property owner pays, Johnson said.
*Will the bonds generate a $15 million surplus?
Reese and the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association have slammed the $15 million surplus forecast by Palladin Financial Group, which provided an analysis of Measure H for the city. They suspect the money will used to pad the city's budget.
Evans and Johnson argue the extra $15 million will never materialize, because bond law requires that any surplus be used to reduce the tax.
Evans said the misleading amount was created because Palladin had to use the maximum annual citywide tax figure of $3.39 million for its calculations. By state law, the maximum tax figure must remain constant for the life of the bond, Evans said.
But in reality, the annual tax will be lower in the final years of the bond.
*Why does the firefighters' union oppose a measure that would give the fire department $36.6 million?
Butt argues that the union opposes Measure H only because City Council members who support the proposal have refused to promise to fire Johnson and Fire Chief Alford Nero, who are unpopular with union leadership. Johnson's contract expires in January.
Reese and Hornsby make no bones about their desire to have the city manager and fire chief fired. But they denied a link to Measure H. They said opposition stems solely from fiscal concerns.
Despite persistent rumors about the union's motives, none of the officials chiefly involved with the measure Nero, Johnson, Corbin, Evans and Butt could back them up by saying they heard about it directly from a union official.
Butt said Hornsby told him he opposes the measure because he has no confidence in Nero and Johnson's ability to manage the money.
Butt said he has "no doubt" that statement implied Hornsby's willingness to support Measure H if the administrators are ousted.
*Do firehouses need separate facilities for women?
Reese argues that common bathrooms for men and women are not a problem, because members of each sex use the bathroom at different times, much as people do in private homes.
Palladin said federal anti-discrimination law requires the separate facilities.
The measure authorizes Richmond to sell $24 million in bonds, and collect up to $3.4 million in additional property tax per year to repay them. Some of the bond money would be repaid over 10 years, the rest over 30 years. The measure needs two-thirds approval to pass. Industrial and commercial landowners would shoulder 60 percent of the burden. Single-family homeowners would pay 30 percent of the total. Apartment owners would pay 10 percent. The annual payment of people owning a 1,501- to 2,000-square-foot house would be $50.
The measure's projects and costs:
*Rehabilitation of the Plunge swimming pool, $4.5 million.
*Seismic retrofit of City Hall and the Hall of Justice, $2.6 million.
*A new radio dispatch center, $1.1 million.
*Replacement of two firehouses, and seismic retrofitting and private facilities for women at four other firehouses, $4.7 million.
*A new radio dispatch sytem, $8.2 million.
*Fire and police vehicles, $23,4 million over 30 years.
*Ongoing replacement of radio dispatch system, $6 million over 30 years.