LAFAYETTE -- From an incumbent who was first elected 25 years ago to a challenger barely over a decade past high school, Lafayette voters have a variety of choices for the City Council.
Four candidates are running for two open seats.
One belongs to Don Tatzin, who has held the seat since 1985. Another belongs to current Mayor Brandt Andersson, who was appointed to a brief stay on the council in 2002 before being elected to a full term in 2006.
Looking to unseat one or both of the incumbents are a familiar and a fresh face. Traci Reilly has been on the Crime Prevention Commission since 2006 and was co-chair of the Measure P parcel tax campaign in 2006.
Dino Riggio, a 1999 graduate of Acalanes High School and currently a JFK University law student, is taking his first foray into city politics and presenting himself as the new face of leadership in Lafayette.
The Lamorinda Sun sat down with each of the candidates and asked them about the major issues facing the city.
Budget and roads
The city has avoided budget deficits in recent years, but that could change soon. According to the latest projections from staff, the city will be more than $1.1 million in the red by 2014. Meanwhile, nearly $16 million in road repairs are needed.
A parcel tax measure to pay for road repairs failed at the ballot box in 2007. Sales tax and property transfer tax measures never made it that far.
"As hard as that is and how much we appreciate our staff and how great many of them are, the fact is, we've added staff in planning and other departments for two major projects "... and those have been completed and no one's been let go," she said.
She criticized the council for not repaying the loan from the general fund to the city's redevelopment agency, and said when the agency begins receiving revenue again that money should be returned to the general fund to pay for roads.
Andersson said the city is operating on a lean budget, and while there are areas where the council could cut costs, "even if we made drastic cuts to services it still would not solve the (roads) problem."
There are several ways Lafayette can try to ease the roads problem, he said, including seeking grants or utilizing new technology that can lower the cost of repairs.
Those and other options could combine to lower the dollar amount the city would seek in a parcel tax, he said, and the city should gather major players to come up with a plan.
"People are trying to be creative and I think we need to key on that creativity and see if we can come up with a solution," Andersson said.
The budget is less of an issue in Lafayette as in other cities, Tatzin said, because the council has historically been fiscally conservative and city employees have a fully-funded retirement plan.
He said he and Councilman Mike Anderson will in November present a plan for balancing the budget in the next five years.
The city can try for road repair grant money, Tatzin said, but a new tax measure is unlikely to be approved in the current economic climate.
"We just have to dedicate as much funding to roads as we can and then find a time when the economic prospects in town and for our residents look fairly good and hopefully "... go out with a smaller measure than we did in 2007, to increase its likelihood of passing," he said.
Riggio said he is concerned the city is being overly optimistic about property tax revenues for the coming years, and needs to make sure its numbers are accurate before moving forward to balance the budget.
He said he'd be open to a bond measure for roads, but is unsure if it would be successful.
"There is no right answer to the roads issue at this point, and to make promises that the funds are out there when they're not is disingenuous," he said.
Downtown specific plan
While the downtown specific plan covers a variety of issues, the most controversial has been a recommendation to change the downtown height limit from 35 to 43 feet.
Business and property owners say without the additional height, new developments are not feasible. Opponents, including many homeowners' groups, say taller buildings will destroy the city's "semirural" character.
Riggio said that if asked three years ago, he would have said a plan was unnecessary. But now that the city is in the downtown planning process, he supports moving forward.
But changes need to be made, he added, to address traffic impacts identified in the environmental report.
He said he supports bringing residential development to the downtown but would not support changing the height limit.
"I'd like to see the developers come in "... that actually have some skin in the game, that not only want to develop or renew some parcel or property in the city but also are from around here that know the local atmosphere and know our local climate," Riggio said.
Tatzin said he supports allowing buildings to go up to 43 feet but only in limited numbers, in areas where they do not detract from views of the hills and in cases where the additional height is necessary to attract quality retailers.
"If someone's going to propose a generic stucco building 43 feet high, I have no interest," he said, pointing to the Lafayette Mercantile Building as an example of a development that "clearly people have put more thought and effort into."
Andersson stressed the importance of having an eclectic downtown, saying there are some areas, like near the freeway, where taller buildings could work and others, like Brown Avenue, where lowering the building height may be appropriate.
By bringing residential development to the downtown, he said, the plan will allow the city to meet its state mandates for providing housing while at the same time bringing more pedestrian traffic downtown, helping local businesses.
"We can work with those competing interests of keeping the small-town character, providing more pedestrian access and more pedestrians, frankly, and keeping up with the housing requirements that we have and that really do have teeth," Andersson said.
Reilly, on the other hand, has been a vocal opponent of the downtown specific plan and says the council has forged ahead on the document despite widespread community opposition. The policies in the city's general plan, she added, should be sufficient to guide development.
"Maybe (the council needs) to clarify to myself and to others what the whole point of the general plan exercise was, if it wasn't to guide our city into the future," Reilly said. "What was the point then?"
Earlier this year the city, faced with the possibility the cost of its police contract with the county sheriff's office could escalate rapidly, looked at alternative public safety options.
While cost increases have been held to a minimum for now, city leaders know they may not stay that way forever.
Police services make up about 40 percent of the city's general fund expenses.
All the candidates favored looking at contracting with Walnut Creek for police services if the sheriff's contract costs become unsustainable.
Riggio and Andersson said they would also be open the city forming a municipal police department, either on its own or combined with Moraga or Orinda, although Andersson added that contracting with Walnut Creek is probably the best option.
Tatzin said he would not favor a municipal department because Lafayette would likely have to offer its officers a defined benefit contribution plan. That could put pressure on the city to offer the same plan to other city employees, who have a defined contribution plan similar to a 401(k). Tatzin said he is unwilling to do that.
Reilly, while saying she does not know what happened during negotiations between the city and the county, said she would have liked more pressure applied on the sheriff's office.
"We just said, 'OK, fine, we'll see you in a year and a half,' knowing good and well this issue had not gone away," she said.
Contact Jonathan Morales at 925-943-8048. Read the Lamorinda Sun blog at www.ibabuzz.com/lamorindasun.