Richmond Mayor Tom Butt honored four Richmond residents—Marcus Faumui, Najari Smith, Betty Reid Soskin and Alysa Liu—as part of his annual State of the City address. Photo by Edward Booth.

Richmond mayor delivers State of the City address

on February 27, 2019

On Tuesday, Mayor Tom Butt summarized the current condition of Richmond and set goals for the future in his annual State of the City address. Butt’s roughly hour-long speech, assisted by a data-laden slideshow and a short promotional video, provided a present-day overview of Richmond’s finances, education, public safety, transportation, housing, commercial development, business, economy and environment.

Much of Butt’s presentation celebrated new and upcoming developments alongside longstanding cultural and historical ones. He highlighted the recently opened Richmond Ferry, which has attracted over 16,800 passengers with an average of 624 passengers a day, according to the presentation. Butt also mentioned the recently opened Dirt World bike park—the first such park in the East Bay—as well as Unity Park, which is part of the Richmond Greenway project, and the upcoming Mary “Peace” Head Memorial Garden. He also spoke of the success of the city’s historical assets such as the Rosie the Riveter Visitor Center, which receives an average of 5,000 visitors a month.

But he also mentioned areas for improvement and worrisome trends throughout the speech. Public safety, Butt said, continues to be the top concern for Richmond residents. Though the rate of many crimes—theft, burglaries, robberies, domestic and aggravated assault—dropped in 2018, property and violent crime rose by 4 and 1 percent respectively, according to the presentation.

The homicide rate also rose, from 15 murders in 2017 to 18 last year. With a bar graph that visualized the number of homicides during the terms of the past five mayors, Butt noted that though homicides have gradually decreased, their number tends to rise and fall in multi-year cycles. This year, Butt said, Richmond got off to a bad start with four homicides in January alone.

“Homicides remain Richmond’s biggest challenge,” Butt said. “Most Bay Area cities our size have maybe one or two homicides a year or not at all, while we remain in the double digits.”

Homelessness and housing was another major topic. Butt called homelessness a “growing problem” and referred to homeless camps as “unhealthy, unsafe and a visual blight.” He said that though the city had no dedicated fund for tackling issues related to homelessness, the mayor’s office was attempting to raise $1.5 million to provide a managed camp.

“We’re doing more than our fair share, which is still not enough,” Butt said.

Butt also spoke about the affordability of Richmond relative to the rest of the Bay Area, noting that the median apartment rent in Richmond, according to Zillow, is at $2,596 per month—well below the Bay Area median and just $13 more than the median rent throughout California. Even so, Butt said, Richmond is still unaffordable for many people, as average incomes are not high enough.

“Rent control can prevent excessive increases, which does not seem to be our problem,” Butt said. “But it cannot drive down rents. Only increasing supply can do that.”

Another portion of the speech focused on the environment. In this section, Butt chronicled the threats of climate change and the city’s mitigation efforts, which include endorsing renewable energy, hosting an electrical vehicle rebate program, and suing the fossil fuel industry. While outlining calamitous threats—future sea level rise, the increasing chance of wildfires and heatwaves, intense downpours and intensified droughts—Butt also used smoke from the November Camp Fire in Paradise, California, as an example of a current climate change-related hazard. Smoke from the fire shut down Richmond schools and hampered Bay Area air quality for weeks.

“Climate change is here and we’re having to deal with it,” Butt said.

Butt also talked about the city’s problems with an influx of trash and illegal dumping and officials’ attempts to halt it, then turned toward transportation. He noted improvements meant to make travel easier for bikers and pedestrians, particularly improvements to pavement.

Butt ended the presentation with his wishlist of goals for 2019, which included annexing North Richmond, moving forward in developing Point Molate, driving down the homicide rate, expanding support for the homeless, reducing dumping, resolving the recycling crisis and improving sidewalks for pedestrians.

Before the speech, Butt honored four Richmond citizens: Alysa Liu, honored earlier at the meeting as the youngest ice skater in history to land a triple-axel in competition—at the age of 12; Marcus Faumui, a Richmond firefighter named by United Airlines as the “hardest working person in America”; Betty Reid Soskin, who, at 96, is the oldest park ranger in the United States; and Rich City Rides founder Najari Smith.

Butt gave each of them official Richmond hats, and they each shook his hand in turn.

As the mayor concluded his speech, he took a moment to consider his role as mayor. “People ask me all the time: How do you like being the mayor? Are you having fun?” Butt said. “Most of the time I just clear my throat and I sort of shuck and jive a little bit, you know, I don’t want to answer that. But, you know, this is fun. And thank you for making it fun.”

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