PLEASANT HILL -- In Pleasant Hill, where eight candidates are competing for three City Council seats, at least two new members will join the council in December, replacing Terri Williamson, who moved away, and John Hanecak, who is stepping down after two terms.
We asked incumbent David Durant and challengers Jim Bonato, Jessica Braverman, Ken Carlson, Jeremy Cloward, Tim Flaherty, Michael Flake and Matthew Rinn five questions about replacing the police chief, boosting sales tax revenue and balancing the budget.
Q: Since former City Attorney Debra Margolis resigned suddenly at the end of July, the council has been debating how the city should provide legal services. Do you think Pleasant Hill should hire a full-time city attorney, part-time, or contract with a law firm as some other cities do? Please explain your choice.
Bonato: I favor a dedicated, in-house city attorney who is easily accessible to staff and commissioners. As a planning commissioner, I sought the city attorney's advice many times. The person hired should provide effective, efficient top-notch, knowledgeable representation at a reasonable cost. If the hours required of the job do not justify a full-time attorney, I would contract with a law firm well-versed and experienced in municipal law.
Braverman: We need to first assess how much work and time was spent on legal issues by our former city attorney. The goal is to save money, but we must be sure to keep lawsuits away and serve the full needs of our citizens. I favor hiring an "at will" dedicated attorney which is much less expensive than hiring a law firm with mandatory billable hours. I prefer an attorney who can also handle human resource and labor issues to ensure we are not wasting taxpayer funds.
Carlson: The responsibilities of a city attorney can be vast and their ultimate responsibility should be to the client, the city, they represent. Overall, this will be a financial decision as well as an overall "best interest" of the city decision. I want a city attorney who will focus on liability issues, employment issues, code enforcement, and neighborhood nuisance and drug abatement issues. With all this in mind, I feel at minimum a part-time city attorney to deal with these issues is required. I still want to review costs of all options and my ultimate decision will be based on the best services that can be obtained without incurring additional costs.
Cloward: The Pleasant Hill city attorney likely "resigned" at the end of July to save the city money. The previous city attorney was paid a salary of over $200,000 and I would support a salary reduction for this specific position whether it is a full-time or part-time position.
Durant: Still undecided. Factors: 1) economic, expected outside counsel fees (perhaps on a retainer or fixed financial arrangement) versus fully-loaded cost of city attorney plus specialty outside counsel; 2) complexity of expected legal issues; 3) options for firms with multidisciplinary capability; 4) capability to foster the right management culture and "can-do" attitude; excellent business judgment; critical thinking; flexibility and adaptability; ability to gain trust and confidence of City Council, management, the public and those outside the city; 5) other intangibles such as building a relationship with the public, openness, discernment and ability to advise how to accomplish desired goals, or most of them.
Flaherty: Pleasant Hill had a full-time city attorney for 20-plus years and has been well-served by the two individuals that have held the position. The position should be filled with an experienced, dedicated in-house attorney that also provides managerial and executive functions. We have little to no management below our city manager. A city attorney would provide legal advice and keep the city out of litigation and provide a necessary management role.
Flake: I would contract with a law firm to provide a city attorney with access to other legal services. The firm should be able to provide support staff at lower billing rates to handle delegated tasks from the city attorney. Also, the firm should have other attorneys to assist when workload increases or when specialized expertise is needed.
Rinn: We should look into contracting this position from a law firm that would be suitable to our needs. We need to find a firm that can be a "one stop" for our legal aspects. Previously, we had to contract out at times when things were required by someone with a different skill set, so we were paying for the position and paying for contract services at the same time. By having a firm of this caliber we could manage our costs and have one firm familiar with our specific situation.
Q: Sales tax makes up more than a third of general fund revenue for Pleasant Hill. With the demise of redevelopment, what can the city do to jump-start economic development at the aging DVC Shopping Center and other underutilized commercial areas in the city?
Bonato: Rather than trying to resurrect a dilapidated center, the city should support the current property owner's vision to develop the area into a center that reflects the quality that Pleasant Hill deserves and that attracts shoppers from our city and neighboring cities. With the demise of redevelopment funding, the city can work with the developer to ease its costs by seeking grants, forgiving permit fees and helping to defray the cost of infrastructure improvements.
Braverman: The city can require that the developer who purchased the DVC land do a market survey of residents and a traffic impact study to find out: 1) What will residents want to spend their money on, so we can depend on strong sales and strong tax dollars; 2) What would also bring quality of life to that area as well, to drive more people into that area to spend time and money; 3) How the development will impact the flow of traffic and parking.
Carlson: I believe we can work together with developers and new businesses to streamline processes to bring new businesses in and develop and revitalize areas within our city. We need to make the permit and review process quicker and easier to get through. There are also grant programs for the city and businesses to research and utilize.
Cloward: Sales tax revenues will increase as more people have more money in their pocket. This is often based upon factors beyond the city's control -- namely the improvement of the nation's economic situation. Nevertheless, Pleasant Hill should continue to provide the same operating conditions to business it has in the past, provided it does not undermine its own revenue stream through a reduction in business license fees.
Durant: The Economic Development Committee, which I initiated, is on this with city staff. We must continue to make Pleasant Hill an attractive place to do business and to dine and shop. We have to invest to help struggling centers and businesses (such as with site access, facade improvements, etc.), assist with infrastructure preparedness (for new development opportunities) and expedite permit processing. We also have to continue to partner with current and future business and property owners to facilitate speed to market, without sacrificing the attributes of our hometown.
Flaherty: The city can jump-start economic development by: a) dedicating resources to economic development efforts to continue to attract new businesses to Pleasant Hill; b) continuing to support existing businesses in the city through the retail marketing incentive program by providing matching grants to help businesses; c) working collaboratively with the property owner of DVC Plaza to form a public-private partnership to effectively utilize resources and leverage the road improvement and infrastructure work being done in that area -- further enhancing the ability of DVC Plaza to develop into a regional draw with mixed-use development.
Flake: Two proposals from my fiscal responsibility plan: We compete against neighboring cities for new businesses and customers. Pleasant Hill imposes business license fees that can be tenfold higher than neighboring cities. Let's waive business license fees in the first year of any new business that fills a storefront or vacant property. Continuing to let the space go vacant does not bring in sales tax revenue. Filled spaces improve the safety and popularity of Pleasant Hill. From the highway, people have noticed Safeway's gasoline prices, the Century 16 theater's neon and In-N-Out Burger's palm trees. This draws people into our city to shop, dine and play. The Ross store in the Target center requested a much larger sign than approved by the city. Let's allow businesses to improve their signage and brands to draw in regional customers.
Rinn: As president of the Pleasant Hill Chamber of Commerce and being a Pleasant Hill business owner, I understand our business community. We need to continue to work with our business owners and property managers on improving the overall appearance of some of the areas in need of repair. DVC Plaza has great potential to attract new business and increase the revenues of surrounding businesses. We also need to continue to work with the southern part of the Kohl's shopping center. Also, we need to brand the "Shop Pleasant Hill" campaign better in the surrounding cities so people will shop here and grow our business community, thus generating more sales tax revenue for us.
Q: What is the most pressing issue facing Pleasant Hill in the coming year and what would you do, specifically, to address it if you are elected?
Bonato: The most pressing issue is the need to enhance our sales tax base. I would continue working with the city's Economic Development Committee to sustain and enhance its current efforts to further develop a business climate that retains our current businesses and attracts new retail businesses with a regional draw.
Braverman: The most pressing issue is to replenish our reserves. Our reserves are being tapped considerably since the council correctly decided recently to use the reserves to pay down the "side fund." So we must replace our reserves, raise more sales tax dollars so we can continue to offer the same level of services to our citizens without having to tax them or require more expensive bond measures. While increasing our reserves, we must look at cutting all wasteful spending while balancing morale within city workers.
Carlson: Clearly, the current status of the budget is our most pressing issue. Finding funding sources, balancing the budget and closing the deficit will be my top priority. Bringing businesses to Pleasant Hill is key. Finding additional cuts and long-term budget planning will also be my top priority. I want to see a 10-year budget plan enacted.
Cloward: The most pressing issue facing Pleasant Hill today is the slow decline of our public schools. I propose increasing the amount of money spent on our schools in Pleasant Hill. Revenue for our schools will be generated through the passage of a city ordinance requiring all multinational corporations (Chevron, Safeway, AT&T, etc.) operating in Pleasant Hill to pay a small 1 percent franchise tax on their annual sales revenues. The franchise tax can't be passed on to consumers. We are the whole reason why these powerful interests exist at all (we work for them and buy their products) and the tax will allow each of them to truly "give back" in a meaning way to the residents of Pleasant Hill and become "responsible corporate citizens."
Durant: Maintaining a safe and financially sound city. We must implement the actions necessary to fulfill the adopted City Council goals for fiscal years 2012-13 and 2013-14. This requires active management of the city's budget, focused attention on outcomes, constant vigilance and active oversight by the City Council; clear priorities and making difficult decisions about resource allocation.
Flaherty: In the short term, our most pressing issue is to fill the city attorney position so that we can restore stability and managerial expertise to City Hall. In the long term, maintain city services with reduced staffing levels despite a continuing recession and slow recovery. If elected, I would evaluate existing programs and services and, where possible, encourage reallocation or elimination of specific projects or programs.
Flake: Deficit spending that will be compounded by the unfunded liabilities of CalPERS pensions, currently attributed to side fund projections of $6.9 million. My plan contains specific ideas based on: 1) Inspiring business growth to make gains in sales taxes and other revenue sources; 2) Reforming and adjusting the salaries and benefits of management; reducing management payroll also reduces our pension liabilities.
Rinn: Top priority of mine in the first year is the safety of our community. We will be selecting a new police chief and I will be advocating to fill the four open positions in our force and working to reduce the rising crime rates.
Q: Pleasant Hill faces deficits in fiscal years 2012-13 and 2013-14. If sales tax revenue doesn't meet projections, what would you cut to balance the budget?
Bonato: Since the economic downturn began, Pleasant Hill has taken responsible measures to spend frugally. It has not replaced departed employees, and employees have made reasonable sacrifices in the latest contract negotiations. No single budget item can be looked at as the silver bullet to balance the budget. Shortfalls can be temporarily bridged by borrowing from the city's very healthy reserve funds, Pleasant Hill's "savings account."
Braverman: The first thing I would do to balance the budget is to evaluate and then cut all wasteful spending. Travel, training and "supplies" would be my first line-item cut. Then I would look at all of the job functions to see if there is room for job sharing or outsourcing. Since we are looking to replace our city attorney, perhaps that job could be a combined attorney and human resources job.
Carlson: The city is already running on bare bones. I would look at possible changes in employee benefit packages which will bring cost savings to the city and still provide equivalent or better packages for city workers. I want to specifically study management benefit packages in relation to surrounding communities.
Cloward: The coming city budget deficit is projected to be about $400,000 (budget: $20,400,000; tax revenue: $20,000,000). I propose a simple one-half of 1 percent tax on the top multinational corporations operating in Pleasant Hill to close the city's budget deficit. A one-half of 1 percent tax will generate more than enough revenue to close the city's budget deficit and address further depletions to the city's reserves.
Durant: The question presents a false choice, ignoring other revenue sources, such as grants, etc. Nonetheless, areas first subject to cuts: some street resurfacing; memberships, publications and subscriptions and other miscellaneous expenditures; professional and contract services for specialized activity; conferences and training.
Flaherty: The city has set aside in its current budget approximately $800,000 to provide loans and grants to business and commercial property owners to modernize their storefronts/facades -- this line item could be considered for reduction if sales tax revenue falls short of projections. Pleasant Hill has a $9 million budget reserve -- 45 percent of our annual operating costs -- and the council could, if the facts warrant such action, alternatively consider tapping the reserve on a one-time basis.
Flake: Direct the city manager to provide a plan for reducing nonessential services. Cuts could range from reductions in training and conferences to difficult reductions in staff hours by 5 to 20 percent. We would not reduce the budgets for police or maintenance.
Rinn: I believe in our Pleasant Hill economy and feel that with my leadership on the council we can meet, and even exceed, sales tax projections. As president of the chamber, we have taken an organization that had losses in the two previous years to being profitable and having good controls in place to insure its profitability in the future.
Q: Please describe the qualities, work experience and vision you would seek in a new police chief.
Bonato: The police chief is looked upon as a leader in the community, not only as the head of the police department. At the top of my list would be a candidate that is a proven leader who leads by example. The chief should be open-minded and accessible to the public as well as the rank and file. Past performance should indicate fairness and firmness with a record of reducing crime. Commitment to department diversity is very important; as well as communication skills, especially listening skills.
Braverman: I would like to see our next police chief come from the outside who is neutral and not already friends with some of the officers to the exclusion of others; focuses on law enforcement, will develop our police officers to serve our community, and will take our police department to the next level. Perhaps a chief who has already retired from another agency who will forgo a second pension and instead be motivated to join a great community to give back would be ideal.
Carlson: Clearly our new police chief should have 20-plus years of law enforcement experience with several of those years supervising or managing a similar size workforce. I want our new chief to be able to incorporate all of the city's departments and work with the goal of prolonged, sustainable safety and preservation of our city's charm and beauty. We need a strong leader who can work to build deteriorating morale and build on the strong tradition of the department.
Cloward: A new police chief will have many years of experience and a deep understanding of how any police force should operate. In addition, a new chief should have a very basic understanding of Pleasant Hill and should be able to easily communicate his ideas to both city government and the people of Pleasant Hill.
Durant: What we had with Chief Pete Dunbar -- community focused; demonstrated willingness to speak candidly; character, wit, humility, commitment, intellect, passion for excellence, strong management skills; a willingness to advocate for the department and its personnel; accessibility to and openness with the public; active engagement in the community. Sound judgment; ability to lead, train, supervise and communicate.
Flaherty: The new police chief must work well with staff and fellow police officers; demonstrate leadership and act as a role model, mentor and person of integrity. The next chief must possess a proven ability to communicate with residents of Pleasant Hill and understand the needs of our city.
Flake: I seek someone with a plan to implement crime reduction strategies; someone willing to connect metrics to these strategies and the performance goals of themselves and police management. I want a leader that can earn the respect of police management and staff; and inspire residents and businesses to participate in making our community safe.
Rinn: The new police chief position should have feedback and input from the officers and community. This way you get an inside perspective as well as the community's. The chief needs to not only have the skill set of leading the officers but one who is community minded and accessible to the public. Chief Dunbar was a great role model and we have some big shoes to fill.
Lisa P. White covers Martinez and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white.