By Charles T. Smith, a Richmond resident
Richmond is again facing a serious financial deficit while the City Council distracts the public from their culpability by creating drama and uproar over unrelated issues such as personal conflicts. A prominent recent example of this behavior is the ongoing dispute between Councilmember/Finance Committee Chair Beckles and a handful of angry residents. This dispute makes front page news while the much more critical issues of the council’s intention to reduce city services and push for another regressive sales tax is glossed over. The council and the City Manager are threatening the public with cutbacks in important services such as police, firefighters, code enforcement and street repair unless we vote for an increase in the sales tax in November. Why should we pay for their mistakes and negligence?
In 2004, $35 million was suddenly discovered to have disappeared from the city’s coffers. There were immediate cutbacks in services and over 200 layoffs of city employees. To this day some of those positions have not been filled. There was no substantive effort to fix the systemic problems with the city’s finances. Eventually, the people passed Measure T which generated additional revenue from corporate sources. But rather than stick with this victory, when Measure T was challenged in court by Chevron, the council agreed, in 2010, to a settlement which exchanged an upfront payment of $114 million paid on a graduated scale over 15 years in exchange for the city giving up its right to levy any new taxes on Chevron for the duration of the settlement period ending in 2025.
Most of the money was paid in the first few years and now we are experiencing the consequences of this short-sighted, short-term patch job. Since then, because it cannot get more money out of Chevron, the council has tried to solve its financial problems by repeatedly pushing for regressive sales taxes. In 2011, they proposed Measure D, which was defeated. In 2012, they proposed Measure N, which was also defeated. It is worth noting that three of our current council members, Butt, Bates and Rogers, were on the council long before the 2004 debacle and all voted for the tax moratorium on Chevron as well as the proposed regressive taxes. Now the council is doing it again. The voters will probably reject this new regressive tax proposal just like the previous two. Why doesn’t the City Council solve the budget problems by cutting highly paid upper management instead of doing so on the backs of the tax-payers and city workers?
The reason our city leaders keep trying to impose such regressive and short-sighted solutions is that they have not been held accountable for their actions. Richmond’s system of at-large elections allows incompetent and, at times, dishonest politicians to get elected again and again. Nothing will change until we change how the council members are chosen. We desperately need district elections. District elections would put political power into the hands of the neighborhoods and minimize the leverage which big money has on our electoral process. Under district elections our elected officials would be directly accountable to their constituency. Such a system would democratize Richmond so that corporations, special interest groups and/or particular neighborhoods, such as Point Richmond, would no longer dominate the city’s political process.
I urge all Richmond citizen fed up with continued cuts in services and attempts to increase regressive sales taxes to consider supporting the idea of implementing district elections for Richmond City Council positions.