Council plots path after Measure C failure
Alameda’s City Council held a wide-ranging discussion Tuesday night about how – or if – the city could pay for facilities, vehicles and equipment council members had hoped to fund with money from the Measure C sales tax initiative.
“I have to say that all the issues that were still facing us before we envisioned the campaign for Measure C are still here after the campaign for Measure C, so it’s sort of like a reset,” Mayor Marie Gilmore said at the start of the nearly three-hour hearing.
Some council members said they believe voters would have been willing to support a tax focused on public safety.
“It was clear that the community wanted us to focus on the ‘needs-to-have,’ as the police chief has mentioned on a number of occasions,” Councilwoman Lena Tam said. “They were very much in support of ensuring we are adequately protected with public safety equipment. They were less enamored with things that included cultural and recreational facilities like retrofitting the Carnegie, pools and ball fields.”
The proposed 30-year, half-percent sales tax hike was expected to help pay for new city vehicles, a replacement Fire Station 3 and emergency operations center, a new swim center and a new, lighted field. About half the voters who cast ballots in the June 5 election were in favor of the measure, but it needed the assent of two-thirds of voters to pass.
City Manager John Russo had billed the tax as something that would solve one of the city’s several budget issues. It would not have directly addressed perennial deficits the city has faced in recent years as it drafted its general fund budget, which covers basic city services, though city leaders said that budget could be impacted if the tax didn’t pass.
Gilmore asked staff to work out the city’s immediate and long-term vehicle needs, and to seek out private partners to help find water for local swimmers and to build an all-weather field for soccer, baseball, lacrosse and football players.
Russo said city staff has talked to private investors about building a swim center the city could contract with to meet its swim needs and are looking into a private company to build or manage fields on city-owned land, and that staff are looking at the money the city does have available for vehicles – about $3 million – and the city’s needs.
Russo said city staff is also looking at other options for creating a new emergency operations center, including a proposal to put a temporary center in the attic of City Hall. Fire Chief Mike D’Orazi said the department is in the process of hiring an architect to draw up plans for a new Fire Station 3 on the corner of Grand Street and Buena Vista Avenue, though he and Russo said they don’t know where they will get the money to pay for it.
Council members said they want to look at additional options that include getting rid of the Meyers House, eliminating the city’s contract to use and help maintain the school district’s pools and leasing city fields to off-Island youth sports leagues.
“We need to have everything on the table at this point,” Councilwoman Beverly Johnson said.
D’Orazi said the department is requesting funds to replace department vehicles that are at or near the quarter-century mark, a vintage that extends well beyond their useful lives.
“They don’t make parts for them anymore. They break down frequently. Often times we have to farm them out to other agencies just to get the repairs done,” D’Orazi said.
Replacing two new engines this year and next will cost the city roughly $320,000 a year in lease payments, D’Orazi said, and the department’s 10-year vehicle replacement plan is $7.2 million – more than double the amount the city holds in its vehicle replacement fund now.
Russo said staff has talked with private investors about taking over the Carnegie Building, but they have said they’re not interested unless the city can come up with the money to cover the $3.5 million bill for new heating, plumbing, electricity, and disability access improvements for the building, which Russo had hoped to renovate and lease to the Alameda Museum.
“I see it out my window, and it’s sad not bring back into use. It still needs $3.5 million. I just don’t know where that comes from,” Russo said.
Council members pressed Councilman Doug deHaan, who voted to put Measure C on the ballot but ended up a vocal opponent of the sales tax measure, for other ideas for funding the vehicles and facilities Measure C was to have paid for.
DeHaan, who called the vehicle replacement issues that consumed much of Tuesday’s discussion a “mathematical problem, nothing more,” suggested city staff take pay cuts. He also said he wanted city staff to look into whether the Alameda County Fire Department could take over firefighting services for the Island, though the rest of the council said they didn’t want to do that.
Gilmore and Russo said a county takeover – which opponents of Measure C had claimed could save the city $2 million a year – can’t be pursued without the tax measure because the city doesn’t have the money to bring its vehicles and Fire Station 3 up to the level the county would require.
“By killing Measure C, you killed the opportunity for us to look at that in a meaningful way,” Russo said.
Gilmore said the city would also need to negotiate such a change with its unions before enacting it.
The county's outgoing fire chief, Sheldon Gilbert, told The Alamedan in May that the rule of thumb for cities contracting out their fire service to the county is that it generates a 10 percent savings, “but that depends on what service levels they want.”
Some residents who spoke to the council Tuesday said they’d like to see the city consider cutting staffers’ pay, while others said they want city leaders to do more to address rising pension costs.
“You can’t sidestep this any longer. It’s gonna be here. You owe it to the public to do it,” Kurt Peterson said.
Russo said the city’s public safety unions agreed last year to pay 22 percent more toward their pensions and to eliminate medical benefits for the spouses of retired public safety workers hired after the contract went into effect; contracts recently approved by unions representing non-safety workers will have those workers paying the maximum amount the state allows them to pay toward their pensions, he said.
He said city leaders will go back to Alameda’s public safety unions this summer to ask public safety workers to contribute more, based on the increased contributions that the city’s non-safety employees will make toward their pensions. Meanwhile, a task force he put together to examine pension and benefit issues is expected to write a report over the summer to be presented to the council in the fall.
Russo dismissed some of the claims he and members of the council who supported Measure C said were made by community members and opponents of the measure, including the claim that fire service could be outsourced to Alameda County for less and others that fire stations could be closed and the fire department shrunk with limited impact on response times.
“I think there is a great deal of misinformation in the body public, some just being promoted that’s not correct due to competing narratives – these are political questions that lead to these narratives. They are not fact-based,” Russo said.
The fire department in particular has become a lightning rod for some after donating thousands of dollars to the campaigns of four of the five sitting members of the council and spending more money to oppose deHaan, who responded by picketing in front of the department’s Park Street headquarters.
Russo said city staff would post a fact sheet on pensions and minutes from the retiree benefit task force on the city’s website. Gilmore said that city leaders would also follow some residents’ suggestions that the city hold a budget workshop for the public next year.
The council is set to consider a budget for its next fiscal year on June 26.