SAN LEANDRO -- Nine candidates sat on a forum dais Tuesday and talked about how they would move the city forward.
As the two incumbents and seven challengers responded to questions from League of Women Voters moderator Suzanne Barba, the two subjects that emerged were how to put the city back on a good financial track and pension reform. San Leandro pension costs have reached about $10 million a year, and the city pays 100 percent of pension costs for most workers.
Challenger Morgan Mack-Rose said the city needs to aggressively sell the benefits of its fiber optic loop, Lit San Leandro, which dramatically improves businesses' Internet speeds.
"We need to actively court places like Adobe and Oracle. We can't just sit here and wait" for business to come, Mack-Rose said.
Dan Dillman said the city needs to work on its image. "We want people working here, shopping here." To increase revenue, he said, "Fire our law firm. That would save $5 million right off the top."
Incumbent Ursula Reed said the city is working hard to attract businesses, pointing to Village Marketplace, a planned downtown retail center, and Creekside Plaza office complex, built in 2010 with redevelopment money.
When asked if there should be a top pension limit of $100,000 or $110,000, Dillman replied, "A salary cap would be wise. We should ask staff to invest in their own future."
Mack-Rose said a cap could limit the city's ability to hire well qualified workers, but added, "We should eliminate pension spiking. And we need to ask employees to contribute to their pensions."
Reed agreed that San Leandro should be competitive in attracting new workers. "I don't believe in limiting salaries," she said.
In District 4, which does not have an incumbent running, four candidates are on the ballot.
Darlene Daevu said the city needs to work with existing businesses to help them expand. To increase revenue, she would create an ordinance to collect fines from banks that did not clean up blighted foreclosed homes.
Chris Crow said he would close what he called a tax loophole for off-airport parking facilities along Doolittle Drive, which straddles the Oakland-San Leandro border. Crow estimates that the city could collect up to $1 million annually by assessing a parking tax fee. "There's an 18.5 percent tax in Oakland; in San Leandro, our tax is zero."
Justin Hutchison responded that he was not in favor of raising taxes. "We need to ease the city's business policy." When asked what he would do to retain businesses, he replied, "By not having high-speed chases in front of their businesses."
Asked later to elaborate, Hutchison said businesses don't want to open where officers are driving by at high speeds. A recent traffic accident during a chase tied up traffic on East 14th Street, he said, limiting people's ability to get to stores. "You don't want businesses worrying they might have a vehicle coming through their window," he said.
Benny Lee said he would work to attract small and medium businesses, especially ones that provide financial expertise to help local business owners.
Crow said San Leandro needs to negotiate with the city's unions to solve its pension problem.
Hutchison said any changes in pensions should not be applied retroactively. "You honor a contract," he said. "Going forward, I would entertain some moderate change."
Daevu questioned the suggested $100,000 pension cap. "I remember when $100,000 was a lot of money," she said, but because of inflation, that's no longer true. She later said that most retirees's pensions are not that large. "But I do agree that caps are appropriate during these times," she said.
Lee said he favored caps on executive pensions, but firefighters and police should be compensated for dangerous jobs. "I support pension reform through the bargaining process," he said.
Incumbent Jim Prola also pointed to new projects to draw businesses, including Village Marketplace and the fiber optic loop. "San Leandro is on the move," Prola said. "Our sales tax revenue is on the increase."
Challenger Hermy Almonte said he would work with the city's unions to reduce expenses. "I would bring employees' rising benefit costs under control through negotiations."
Prola praised city staff members, who have agreed to workforce reductions, to forgo cost-of-living adjustments and to pay half of the increased cost of health benefits.
"For new employees, the state has mandated pension caps. There is a question of legality if you apply it to current employees," he said.