PITTSBURG -- The future of Pittsburg's economy dominated a round-table panel discussion of candidates running for City Council.
Incumbent Ben Johnson and former City Council member and challenger Bob Lewis spoke about city finances in a post-redevelopment era and dealing with projects brought forth by the powerful Seeno family, whose building interests reach far into the city.
Johnson and Lewis made their remarks at a round-table forum moderated by this newspaper's political reporter and columnist, Lisa Vorderbrueggen. Two other candidates, incumbent Will Casey and challenger George Harris, a former planning commissioner, did not attend.
The half-hour round table began with a discussion of municipal finances in the wake of voters in June passing a 10-year hike in the city's sales tax that began Oct. 1 and the dismantling of the redevelopment agency earlier this year.
"I think we have a stable budget. We've balanced it for the last eight years, and we're able to balance it this year," said Johnson, who expects the city finances will improve when the economy gets better.
While on the council, Lewis helped establish the Pittsburg Power Co., a city-owned company that has generated about $30 million in revenues from partnerships with other cities to develop projects that transmit electricity to third parties.
"The real question is what comes after redevelopment," Lewis said. "With the demise of redevelopment, that's the main vehicle to provide economic development for the city of Pittsburg going forward."
Johnson agreed that the power company is an innovative way to increase city revenues and that he would continue to support it if re-elected.
The candidates were asked to respond to concerns that some voters have about either actual or perceived undue influence on City Council decisions from Albert Seeno Jr. and Albert Seeno III in terms of housing and commercial developments proposed by their companies.
"I make decisions based on the needs of the community. Whether it's the Seenos' or one of the other developments in the city, it has to work for the community," said Johnson, who noted that the Seenos owns 90 percent of the undeveloped land in Pittsburg. "Some people don't like the building, but we need to build where we can. It's part of our livelihood."
Lewis echoed Johnson's remarks, saying "First and foremost, the deal has to be a good deal for the city ... Having said that, it has to be a deal that makes sense for them."
He went on to cite as an example the Century Plaza project that was developed after that parcel of land was annexed by Pittsburg after Antioch passed on annexation.
"We were able to give them a break on fees and density. In return, the city has reaped millions of dollars in the form of sales tax from the businesses that have been built at Century Plaza," Lewis said.
Lewis said if he's elected, he would hire an economic development director to bring in new businesses and help the city retain businesses. Earlier this year, Best Buy closed its Pittsburg store. And Raley's has announced plans to close its Buchanan Road supermarket.
"We have vacant storefronts in our Old Town area, in Atlantic Plaza, in Century Plaza," said Lewis, adding that he would also create an enterprise zone to bring more economic development to the city.
Johnson said that an enterprise zone for the city and adjoining Bay Point was re-established earlier this year.
"We've lost some businesses but already have replaced some as well," Johnson said. "We are working to fill vacancies."
Contact Eve Mitchell at 925-779-7189. Follow her on Twitter.com/EastCounty_Girl.
WATCH THE round table
Pittsburg City Council -- Channel 24: 7 p.m. on Oct. 11, 18, 25 and Nov. 1; and 4 p.m. on Oct. 7, 14, 21, 28 and Nov. 4.
Channel 28: 11:30 a.m. Oct. 6, 13, 20, 26, 27, 28, Nov. 2, 3, 4 and 5.
To view the round-table discussion online for the Pittsburg City Council race, check out Election Preview at www.contracostatimes.com