Councilman Nat Bates on Tuesday published a letter from a concerned Richmond citizen decrying a proposal at City Council to increase the sales tax to support street repair. The citizen’s letter came on the heels of grim news that the City of Richmond’s budget deficit has ballooned to more than $20 million, and that every city department will likely have to cut staff and programs to close the widening gap. In a response letter, Bates not only discussed the sales tax but also the budget deficit. While the deficit is being blamed on a reduction in tax revenue related to the 2012 fire at the Chevron Richmond refinery, Bates argues that the mayor and Richmond Progressive Alliance have been so entrenched in their environmental activism that they have ignored the basic needs of Richmond’s citizens and have been largely disconnected from the city’s finances.
Dear Mr. Bates:
I appreciate your concern for our city and residents.
I am deeply dismayed and frustrated with your ideas of raising the sales tax. It seems that whenever there is a budget shortfall a new tax initiative hits the table. I wonder, if the city officials look at doing a more efficient fiscal job instead of taxing the residents more. It seems that someone was not paying attention to this city’s fiscal state if we are now $20 million dollars over budget. We do hold the city officials responsible. You just can’t keep trying to raise taxes and think that your constituents will not question your ability to fiscally run this city. Maybe, if the City Council spent less time fighting with each other and focus on responsibly running this city you may find time to solve some fiscal problems.
We live on a fixed income, are disabled and retired. We have lived in Richmond for over thirty years. We have to live on our budget, with very little cost of living increases. Why can’t this City do a better job with their budget?
[Bates omitted the name of this citizen as this was a private email]
The response from Councilman Bates:
Dear Ms. ____________,
Thanks kindly for your very informative email. While I agree with most of your assessments of the city government, the problems of our streets will continue to be an embarrassment, and continue to deteriorate without a concerted effort to have them repaired and to do it soon. The longer we wait, the more costly it will be to correct the problems. What we have done in the past several years has been to patch potholes throughout much of the city, which lasts only a few months, and only repair the heavily traveled streets.
I will not support any property tax ballot measure, as I believe that you would be paying more than your share of taxes in comparison to other jurisdictions. Therefore, although I am not in love with taxes, the 1/2 cent sales tax seems the most effective, fair, and equitable way to generate revenue. Most importantly, the tax will not be borne only by Richmond residents but by everyone who purchases goods in Richmond and uses our streets. The sales tax will be an effective way to make funds available specifically for streets.
The bottom line is that the city needs to develop new sources of revenue, as we are currently $20-plus million dollars in the red. As the senior member and most experienced Councilperson, I acknowledge I share part of the responsibility for the deficit by not maintaining a stronger line of communication with the City Manager and the Finance Director. Perhaps it was a mistake to depend on the full time Mayor, McLaughlin and Chair of the Finance Committee, Vice Mayor Beckles to oversee the financial well being of the city. Revenue and expenditures should be each and every Councilmember’s top priority regardless of other responsibilities.
You should be aware the City Council structure is set up with Council Members being assigned and therefore responsible for various duties. The Richmond City Charter mandates that Council Members are part-time and therefore, no individual Council Member can be expected to be 100-percent informed of every detail of the business of each and every department within the city. Assignments for Council Members have been distributed into various areas where each Councilmember oversees various departments. As a result, the City Council has two standing committees appointed by the Mayor that include a Finance Committee, Chair Beckles, Rogers, and Butt (who for some unknown reason chooses not to participate) members, and Public Safety Committee, Chair Bates, Booze and Myrick members. I might add that Councilman Butt is a businessman and in my opinion is one of the most experienced Council Members and his knowledge and financial expertise participating on the Finance Committee could have been helpful in preventing much of this deficit crisis. I don’t know why he refuses to participate and share his leadership. Perhaps you should ask him.
In the past the City Council has had excellent Finance Committee Chairpersons such as Tom Corcoran, an accountant with Chevron, Stan Grydyk, Attorney, Lonnie Washington Jr., an accountant with Southern Pacific, Gary Fernandez, YMCA CEO, Mindell Penn, PGE Executive, Gary Bell, CEO of a Credit Union, Maria Viramontes, a member of Contra Costa County Pension Board, and of course in recent years, Tom Butt, a businessman. The purpose of this acknowledgement is to say these individuals were financially astute largely as a result of their experience and were more than capable in doing their jobs as Finance Committee Chairperson and contributing to maintaining a balance budget for the city.
The current Finance Committee Chairperson Beckles is so out of touch, she took up twenty minutes at a City Council meeting opposing a request for approval of a $166,778.54 restroom facility in the Marina Bay neighborhood, only to be advised by the City Manager that she and her Finance Committee unanimously approved the request thirty days prior. With amnesia and disconnect like this, we can perhaps understand why the city is 20 plus million dollars in the red. In the future, I will be more observant in reviewing each and every expenditure that comes before the Council. I am not confident that Finance Committee approval is of much significance. I think both the mayor and the current Finance Chair are in over their head.
I sit as Chair of the Public Safety Committee where our group oversees the operations of the Police and Fire Departments, and I can assure you that it is a major responsibility to make sure we have adequate personnel and equipment on the job while protecting the city. Be mindful of the fact that each Council Member also continues to represent you and all of our constituents in addressing their many concerns and needs.
Within the next month, this Council will have to make some difficult decisions with respect to this large deficit. When one considers the approximate $120 million dollar budget consists of approximately 80 to 85 percent personnel costs, the only effective way the budget can be reduced is through reductions in this area. In addition, the Council has established a 7% reserve, which must be maintained in my opinion and held separate of the budget deficit. I will not jeopardize public safety by reducing any police and fire personnel. We have worked too hard to control crime and I refuse to reduce police and allow the criminal element to again have a run on the city.
Your concerns regarding the city operating within our budget restraints are well taken. It is the responsibility of all elected officials and staff to live within our means the same way individual households like yours and others must do. It is no secret that one cannot spend more than their revenue or income. That is a simple fact. The Council has established a 7% reserve and it has to remain a top priority to retain this reserve while making tough decisions on how to balance our budget.
Finally, the only possibility for increasing revenue is to elect individuals to the Richmond Council this November 4 that are genuinely business friendly. The manner in which this Council relates with the city’s most significant company (Chevron) is indicative of how they work and interact with other big businesses and small businesses as well. The Mayor and the RPA have had a stronghold in this city and Chevron continues to be their target even though they contribute revenue close to 40-percent ($52 Million) of $120 million dollars general fund budget that keeps this city afloat.
Sunday on Mother’s Day, I spent my day working by meeting with several Asian investment business groups in San Francisco who want to move businesses to Richmond, establishing as many as 2,500 jobs or more, and significant tax revenue to the city. The uneasiness that they expressed is due to the political climate of the city. They have a perception of Richmond as being anti-business. It is important we collectively eliminate that negative perception and it will be up to the voters to return this city to normality and remove the RPA and its members who represent an anti-business agenda from leadership in Richmond. Until we accomplish that objective, we should not expect big and small businesses to move into the city and thereby we cannot expect things to become better financially. We cannot expect improvement in job creation also. Perhaps in the short and long run things could become worse.
We can be a business friendly city and can also have policies, which provide a top priority for maintaining and improving environmental issues. It does not have to be one or the other. A strong city is one that responsibly grows in all areas, business big and small, industry traditional and green, residential, retail, and commercial, and prioritizing the reduction of environmental impacts. This is what a truly progressive city strives to do.
Your concern about the sales tax is understandable. We believe that it is the best way to quickly improve our streets while not creating too much burden to individuals.
Thanks again for your email and please do not hesitate to contact me again in the future regarding any concerns you have. I hope you had a lovely Mother’s Day.