Richmond is in good fiscal shape, according to the city’s mid-year review, presented to the city council at Tuesday night’s meeting, which also included talk of bringing a new call center to Richmond, deciding on further development of a Richmond hillside and requiring registration of vacant buildings.
Foreclosures have dropped sharply, the city’s unemployment rate is down 6 percent from a high in 2009 of over 19 percent, and taxes on property and sales are higher than mid-year projections. “The city is headed in a positive economic direction,” said James Goins, the head of the city’s finance department. “I think we’re through the recession.”
In addition, Goins said, the city’s general fund cash balance is at $11.3 million—after his projected mid-year adjustments—which is slightly higher than the city’s mandated savings of 7 percent of its expenditures.
“I’ll say you’ve done an excellent job considering the circumstances,” Councilmember Nat Bates said to Goins and City Manager Bill Lindsay. “We’re rebounding.”
Bates, however, was less approving of the requested adjustments, which included approving $5 million in spending for various city departments. Goins said the bulk of the adjustment requests came because of an increase in utility costs and an error in the original budget that failed to take into account many maintenance contracts in the city.
“That is outrageous,” said Bates, in response to Goins’s projections that the fire department would require another $1 million to keep up with overtime payments.
Goins said the fire department is currently understaffed, and in the process of hiring five new firefighters. The funding requested for overtime is in addition to the $1.5 million that was originally budgeted for overtime.
Councilmember Tom Butt also took issue with the request to adjust the budget, saying that the council could not easily deny the requests of departments that were projected to finish the year over budget. “I think the horse it out of the barn now,” Butt said. “What happens if we say no?”
“If you said no, we’d have to spend at least a couple of weeks and revise line items to be able to create those adjustments,” Lindsay said.
In the end, the council unanimously voted to approved the mid-year adjustments as presented.
Fighting for a call center
The council also discussed Richmond’s bid for a state-supported call center and the 200 jobs it could bring to the city.
Last December, the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors approved a proposal to submit to the California Health Exchange a bid on operating one of three statewide service call centers. These centers are a part of the Affordable Care Act and will provide information to people looking to enroll in a health plan. Myrick said that as part of the bid—which was awarded to the county on January 18—Richmond was listed as the site for the call center. But now it seems that the board of supervisors are entertaining another possible location, Concord.
Councilmember Jael Myrick—with the support of Councilmembers Jim Rogers and Jovanka Beckles—proposed a resolution to send a letter to the Board of Supervisors outlining why Richmond should be chosen.
Myrick leaned forward in his seat and grabbed the long thin microphone on the dais in front of him. Richmond, Myrick said, still has the lowest bid in the county and should get the center. “This comes down to 200 jobs,” Myrick said. “The 200 jobs are either going to be located in Richmond or in Concord. We want to make sure that call center comes here to Richmond, as it was originally supposed to.”
The other councilmembers agreed with Myrick, and said that until very recently they had thought it was a done deal.
“As soon as I found out about this call center I communicated with Supervisor Gioia to ask if there was anything I could do to help get this to Richmond,” said Mayor Gayle McLaughlin. “He assured me he had the votes to make sure it comes to Richmond. I guess that’s not the case though.”
“You’re correct,” Bates said. “You don’t count your chickens until they’re hatched and you’ve got them in your possession.”
Bates said that the problem is political—there are not enough supervisors who identify with West County, and there are not enough councilmembers with positive relationships with supervisors. “Most of you on this council don’t even know who the supervisors are,” Bates said. “It’s important for you to go out there and talk to them.”
After a minor tweak to the letter—adding that Richmond’s career assistance center is “nationally” recognized—the council unanimously approved the resolution.
Knobcone Court development
The council also denied a petition to develop more homes on a Richmond hillside and moved a step closer to requiring registration of vacant buildings in the city.
The first vote of the night came after a two hour long public hearing to consider an appeal of the Planning Commission’s recent denial of a request to divide a nearly three acre property on Knobcone Court into four residential lots. The property in dispute sits at the top of a hill that residents say is a landslide waiting to happen and they urged the city to—make sure no more homes are built there.
“We all have water, subterranean water. We’re all trenching,” said Tom Waite, a resident on Knobcone Court, during the public comment period of the hearing. “We also see water coming through the hillside, water that’s below ground and is bursting through the hill.”
The applicant in the case, William Randolph III, a land surveyor, was hired by the owner of the property to lead the development project. The owner, who was not named in the hearing, built a home on the property in 2004—but it’s never been inhabited. Randolph said the owner would like to divide the lot and build more homes so that he can sell them.
Randolph said his client has already compromised. “When we first looked at it we thought eight lots,” Randolph said, “but that was a little bit much. So, then we went down to five and then to where we are now.”
Marline Jackson, also speaking on behalf of the owner, agreed—adding that as a geotechnical engineer she felt they’d been responsible in their development plan. “We scaled back because some of those lots were not feasible to develop,” she said.
Giving an overview of the hill’s 25-year history, Robin Bedell-Waite, who lives at the bottom of the hill, said it didn’t matter how many homes were proposed—the strain of building any more would be too much. She also said the Randolph’s proposal to build a water retention basin near the top wouldn’t be effective.
“I want you to hear this really loud and clear, it’s not the above-ground storm water. The issue is the water is going underneath and is coming down through our backyards and into our homes,” Bedell-Waite said. “If you’ve got heavy trucks hauling excavated soil and new soil that’s a lot of strain on a substandard road.”
Gesturing to the people seated behind her, Bedell-Waite asked for Knobcone Court residents who opposed the proposal to stand up. About a dozen people rose from their seats and stood before the council with solemn expressions.
Eleanor Loin, a Knobcone resident, gave the council another—more ominous—thought to consider when making the decision to approve or reject the development: “If Richmond approves this plan I believe the city would be involved with any future law suits,” she said.
Coucilmembers Corky Booze and Bates, who said they recently visited Knobcone Court, spent a long time questioning city staff on why they approved the development in the first place. The project went before staff prior to being reviewed and rejected by the Planning Commission on November 1 of last year.
“I didn’t have a problem with it until I went there and saw it. There are big cracks in the road and less than three feet from the road there’s a huge canyon drop. We could have a serious problem,” Booze said.
“The development of that property from my observation would be a serious complicated issue,” Bates agreed. “I’m not an expert, but the water has created such a strong problem it just doesn’t seem realistic.” He then motioned to uphold the Planning Commission’s recommendation to deny further development.
The motion was approved with a unanimous vote from the council, to sighs of relief and clapping from the Knobcone section of the audience. Smiling, they stood up and hugged one another.
Vacant buildings ordinance
One of the last items of the night dealt with approval of an ordinance to require the registration of vacant buildings in the city. This would require owners of vacant spaces to register them so the city knows who is responsible for maintaining the property.
Deputy City Attorney Tricia Aljoe made the case for the ordinance, saying that it would be another tool for the code enforcement department to manage blight in the city. “It’s just a registration piece,” Aljoe said, “Just another little piece that fills out the ordinance so that they all work together.”
Booze was the only councilmember opposed to the ordinance. “It’s an attack on the poor, and I cannot support it,” he said. Booze said that people who had fallen on hard times might not be able to keep up a property as well or understand the process for registering.
“We know this is far from an attack on the poor,” Beckles countered. “There’s a dire need to do something about the vacant properties and I support this motion.”
The motion passed 5-1, with Booze opposed and Butt absent at the time of the vote.
Bates and Booze added the last agenda item of the night, what Bates intended to be a “slam dunk” consensus building measure to reaffirm Myrick as the newest member of the council. Instead, it turned into one of the most contentious issues of the night, resulting in Bates leaving the meeting during the middle of its discussion.
Bates said the reason he didn’t vote for Myrick during the special meeting on February 4 (Myrick was appointed to the seat with four members in favor, Bates abstaining and Booze against) was because Bates’ preferred candidates hadn’t yet been voted on. If they had gone first and not received enough votes from the council, he would have been more inclined to support Myrick, he said. “We need to appoint him to the council with full strength from all of us,” Bates said.
Beckles said she liked the sentiment of welcoming Myrick to the council but took issue with the word “reaffirm” and wouldn’t support the motion because it was too close to the idea of a recount.
“If it’s going to be a mess, then I’ll withdraw it,” Bates said, throwing his hands up in the air and dropping them loudly back down on the desk in front of him. “I withdraw my motion.”
Before discussion could continue, the clerk reminded McLaughlin that she needed a vote to extend the meeting. After some back and forth on the council for how long to continue the meeting—Bates and Booze supported adjourning—McLaughlin moved for a 30-minute extension. Booze changed his motion to a 1-minute extension. McLaughlin, with Rogers seconding, motioned for 10 minutes. Then Bates walked out, objecting again to any extension.
The council, minus Bates, continued discussing how to welcome Myrick to the council—with Rogers attempting a compromise that they vote on two motions, one to welcome Myrick and one to reaffirm Myrick, so, he said, “whoever is comfortable with each shall vote the way they want.”
“I don’t even understand the motion,” McLaughlin said.
Looking over his glasses at the councilmembers, Butt suddenly got up, gathered his papers and left the dais—glancing one more time over his shoulder before walking out of the meeting.
“We’re losing councilmembers as we speak,” said McLaughlin, after Butt made his exit. “Unanimously you are welcomed, Councilmember Myrick.”
“I’m flattered,” Myrick said, chuckling.
“You might change your mind soon … with all this,” McLaughlin said looking around at the remaining councilmembers.
The meeting was officially adjourned over the protests of Booze and Richmond resident Bea Roberson, who said that the council—in their last, hasty action of the night—should not have approved items each of them had taken off the consent calendar to speak about.
Arguments between Roberson and McLaughlin continued after most of the audience had filed out and the meeting was over.