WALNUT CREEK -- The public got its first chance Friday to hear what the four City Council candidates vying for three-four year seats think about everything from police staffing and a half-cent sales tax to economic development and pensions.
At a two-hour candidate's forum sponsored by the Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau, all the candidates -- Contra Costa County Deputy District Attorney Barry Grove; Loella Haskew, a certified public accountant; Mayor Bob Simmons; and local business owner Justin Wedel -- were on hand.
Even though his name will still appear on the Nov. 6 ballot, Mayor Pro Tem Kish Rajan dropped out of the race Tuesday after taking a job with the governor's office.
On Friday, the candidates shared similar views on some issues. But the idea of increasing the sales tax by a half-cent -- as recommended by a city fiscal task force -- clearly showed some dividing lines.
Haskew, who served on that task force, said the tax increase was a last resort recommendation to help continue to provide city services. Cost cutting alone, she said, can't pay for all the capital needs.
"We need to pay attention to our structure, rebuild our infrastructure, pay attention to what we have and take care of what we have, because if we don't do that it's going to cost more in the long run," she said.
Wedel plainly stated that residents and businesses are already taxed enough and that increased taxes aren't
Grove agreed, saying the city has the money it needs, but that it must be allocated differently.
"Every time there is a crisis, government can't come back to you and ask for more money," he said. "When does it stop?"
Simmons said to maintain city services, the city must look at a half-cent sales tax, but that it ultimately will be up to residents to approve it.
"The community has to identify for us, for the city council, that it wants to continue the level of services that we are presently delivering," he said.
All candidates basically ducked citing a specific city service or program they would cut if necessary. But each said creating financial stability is imperative for Walnut Creek. The city has posted record deficits in the last few years, and shortfalls are projected in the future.
Candidates were also asked about the drunken violence downtown that made headlines this past winter. Simmons noted the council's passage of tougher restrictions on alcohol-serving establishments and the police unit now focused on the downtown, working with bar owners.
Wedel said that unit was created by taking officers from the neighborhoods. He said the city needs more officers -- something he's championed for years.
"There has been no bigger supporter of public safety in this community for the past few years than me," he said.
Grove agrees more officers are needed, and said downtown has calmed down because more officers are assigned there.
Concerning economic development, Wedel said the city should focus on bringing a hotel to the downtown. Simmons said the city council invested in creating an economic development department; Haskew said drawing more people to downtown to enjoy the restaurants, stores and amenities is vitally important. Grove said that while the Shadelands area and west side of downtown may be good places for new business, the city council should remove barriers to private businesses development.
When it comes to pensions, Simmons said the council has worked to get agreements under which almost all employee groups now pay their share for retirement benefits.
Haskew said the problem of affording employee pensions goes far beyond Walnut Creek, because as other cities go bankrupt solvent cities will likely have to help fund those other cities' liabilities.
Grove, who as a deputy district attorney has worked on county pension problems, said tweaks could help, but that very complicated problems don't have easy solutions.
Wedel said health care and pensions are the city's largest budget issues, and that the city's actions so far, while good, won't produce savings for many years.
The chamber's political action committee WALPAC will decide on endorsements based on the forum -- and with endorsements eventually comes money.
Walnut Creek TV will air the forum over the next few weeks.
Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.