I just read this powerful document from Elizabeth Patterson and I must say that I am experiencing a lot of emotions. I am very Happy that Elizabeth had the insight, awareness and courage to write this. She saw the apparent disparity and refused to remain silent as many people who shouldn’t remain silent choose to do.
If no one acknowledges and speaks out about such things, then such things will continue to happen. I found this writing very enlightening and encourage all to read it. This writing is not one of blame, but of shedding light on a problem that has remained in the dark for much too long.
I am saddened because situations like this still exist and not many people are even aware of it (“There’s no racism in Benicia”) . If people are aware of it, they are choosing not to speak; Maybe because the powers that be and community members at large don’t see this as an issue, they agree with this behavior, or are too timid to say anything, as some people think it best not to “Rock the Boat.”
I assure you that the Benicia Black Lives Movement (BBLM) is here to “Rock the Boat,” not by burning, looting or hating the police (as is the falsely applied stereotype), but by bringing to the attention of the government and the citizens of Benicia that events and issues of structural, conscious/unconscious racism, bias and social injustice will be identified, called out, fought against, and will certainly not be tolerated.
This is why I am so proud of Elizabeth for writing this document. The BBLM is collaborative and will not identify challenges that need to be addressed without working with the appropriate people toward the solution. I Thank the City Staff, Mayor, Past Mayor and City Council for the support you have shown us so far, but we still have a long way to go (as is made very clear by this attached writing). I again recommend that everyone read Elizabeth’s writing and work with us to create a better Benicia for All Citizens.
From an email by Elizabeth Patterson, former Mayor, City of Benicia
EL PAT’S FORUM by ELIZABETH PATTERSON Benicia, California
STRUCTURAL RACISM IN BENICIA
I have no doubt that the Benicia City Council members earnestly want to address structural racism. No one wants to be a racist and most people seek to avoid racists acts.
So, what is structural racism? I am going to describe two examples – one locally in Benicia and the other at the federal level.
Benicia City Council, August 2020
Last fall the city council responded to city staff’s recommendation to address the urgent and timely requests of the local group Benicia Black Lives Matter (BBLM). The three legs of staff recommendations are:
establish a commission for equity and inclusiveness
initiate through a consultant an “Equity Indicators” analysis in Benicia, and
hire a part-time Equity and Diversity Manager, 30 hours/week at an estimated cost of $133,000 per year.
When the recommendation was presented to Council by staff and BBLM members many council members were quick to offer ideas about what they thought the BBLM needed. One could almost feel the insult that a white city council was telling the panel of four BBLM members what they needed. After some discussion, a 4/1 council majority put aside most of their objections and accepted the recommendations, but with amendments. (Council Meeting of Aug 25, 2020 Item 11A, Agenda / MINUTES / Video[Item 11.A beginning at minute 19:35]).
There was a lot of haggling over the cost of the part-time Equity and Diversity Manager. After lengthy discussion and in an effort to get to “yes” the council majority made the position temporary so future councils could determine if they wanted to restore the position to permanent status. It is the haggling over the cost that I want to highlight.
Much time was taken up by the council discussing how much the city should impose fees to recover costs of the impacts from commercial and residential development. Staff provided data about what 100% recovery of costs would be and recommended in most cases the city impose less than 100%. These fees were established after nearly two years of staff and consultants reviewing other cities, evaluating city capitol needs and the nexus of the impact of new development or expansion of existing businesses. Seventy-five percent was the recommendation in most cases. This is customary in Benicia and not contrary to the General Plan goal that development pays its own way. The intent in the general plan is to recover the costs of development and more intense business activity impacts to parks, roads, pipes, wastewater and so forth from large developers – think Seeno or Valero. The real costs were not done in the past and Benicia taxpayers continue to pay the price for not assessing those impact fees to the new developments.
I agree with and have supported modest subsidization of individual residential development and small businesses. The subsidy should not be a giveaway but should fall in line with other Solano cities’ rates.
But you would not have heard that sentiment at the council meeting. A member of the public in the development business for small residential projects (small in terms of one to four units but not a major subdivision) spoke about the cost of materials and labor in addition to land costs, permit costs and, of course, the impact fees. Council members expressed understanding and sympathy for the challenge of residential development.
It is noteworthy that those same rising material costs and increasing labor costs are paid by the city, and yet the city is being asked to absorb the impact costs.
Structural Racism in Benicia
This is where the structural racism comes in. In December, the city staff was asked what – in approximate numbers – did the city get from all the impact fees charged in the last fiscal year. Staff hesitated in providing a number because it is complicated and risks comparing apples and oranges. The number eventually offered the council was approximately $230,000. And Vice Mayor Campbell noted that $230,000 was “nothing to the general fund” and the city could almost forgo impact fees.
But go back to August and BBLM: Council members said that $133,000 (highest pay level for a position with benefits) was too expensive and we couldn’t afford it.
Impact fees cannot be spent on anything but capital projects. But if the impact fees are largely subsidized and the city has to pay the market rate for material and labor, taxpayers pick up the remainder of the subsidized capital costs. Without adequate impact fees, we live with poor and unsafe roads for bicyclists and pedestrians and other capital infrastructure such as completing the library basement, ensuring water supply capacity and parks. Inadequate funded development impacts pushes the needed capitol infrastructure costs to the general fund – forgoing $230,000 is a cost to other programs such as art and culture, human services, adequate planning staff, retaining employees and so on.
The structural racism is clear. A council will say the city cannot afford programs that might have been beneficial to Black and brown people, but can afford to subsidize market rate housing and businesses. You get the idea.
Structural racism is this kind of unconscious bias in decision making that we can afford some things that are beneficial to the mostly white Benicia and cannot afford programs that would help Blacks gain parity with white wealth.
When the city completes its study on Equity Indicators, we will see more clearly and concretely what impediments to racial equity exist in Benicia. But it is apparent that not adequately funding programs and staff to investigate racial equity and make recommendations is good example.
Structural Racism in Washington, D.C.
The Federal example is so blatant that I will take less time to highlight here. At present, Congress will not provide COVID-19 relief funds to state and city governments to help pay public school teachers, public safety, public health and so on to provide services for all residents. In this case, the disproportionate effects of COVID_19 on black, brown, indigenous, pacific islanders and women is classic, and shines a light on structural racism at the highest levels.
We can agree on the problem that there are massive disparities between people driving buses, working in grocery stores, nursing homes, assisted living, hospitals, janitors – and the majority of higher paid workers able to work at home. Add to this problem the burden carried by women – white, brown, Black – who often have lost their job because it is a lower-end job or can’t work because of the cost of childcare and the need to provide online schooling.
City and state agencies are running out of funds to provide childcare, unemployment, teachers and substitute teachers, social workers, and other essential workers – all of which will help with depression and increasing suicides. And Congress refuses to provide relief funds to states so that this can be done.
In addition, some experts say that stimulus checks are not sufficiently targeted toward those most in need. To extract stimulus checks as a concession from Republicans, Democrats were forced not only to forfeit state and local aid but also to shorten the duration of the enhanced unemployment program to three months from four.
That is structural racism in Washington, D.C. America has been doing that since we used US Bonds to finance the slave trade. We have done that by preventing Blacks from moving into residential development with good schools and thus handicapping the next generation in education. Others have catalogued and documented federal actions that have led to the wealth gap between Blacks and whites.
The next time you hear someone say we can’t afford a program that is directed at helping to close the wealth gap, be sure to respond that we can’t afford not to.
This is the time for us to shine and do the right thing and I believe we will. . . 2021 is our New Year for getting it right after all.
The City of Benicia released its City Council agenda for January 5, including an important discussion of air monitoring in our refinery town.
Local environmental activists (including me) are hailing this effort on the part of City staff as a show of responsiveness to years of citizen requests for more and better access to real-time air quality information.
Your thoughts are being sought by Benicia elected officials and staff. Please read the staff report, and plan to attend the zoom Council meeting on January 5.
Thanks, election analysis, the pandemic and looking to the future
First of all I want to thank the more than 8600 people who voted for me and gave me a decisive victory.
But even more impressive was Benicia’s voter turnout – 87%!!!
I was fortunate to have a great team to support my campaign efforts:
Jennifer Hanley Allan Lemone Bob Berman Terry Mollica Chris Kerz Chris and Maryanne Esparza
Tom Bilbo Karen Sims Tony Shannon Jack Kolk Kari Birdseye
I also want to congratulate our new Vice Mayor, Tom Campbell, who easily finished first, a tribute to how Benicians respect his work on the Council.
Also congratulations to Trevor Macenski on becoming Benicia’s newest and perhaps youngest Council Member ever elected;
I know you to be a smart guy, and I look forward to having your knowledge and skills on the Council.
It’s great to have younger people stepping up into positions of leadership in our town.
To Terry Scott, you are one of the smartest and most visionary people we have in town, and I was proud to support you. I look forward to your continuing involvement in our community; I really hope Benicia will have the chance to vote for you again in the future.
I also want to thank Jason Diavatis and Christina Strawbridge for putting themselves out there and running clean campaigns. I know they have the best interest of our community at heart and, although disappointed in the results, I expect they will refocus their energy on working for a better Benicia.
You may have noticed that the election was unusually contentious, primarily because of the nearly $300,000 spent by the Working Families PAC for negative campaign ads, this time against me -a similar smear campaign was run by the same PAC in 2018 and was successful in defeating Kari Birdseye.
This time, Benicia voters were too smart to be fooled by the nasty ads full of lies and doctored photos.
I can’t help but imagine what that same $300,000 could have accomplished in our community, at a time when small businesses are closing, hunger is increasing exponentially, and people are struggling with rent and the possible expiration of the eviction moratorium.
$300,000 given to the Food Bank would have made a real positive impact on our community, instead of money wasted on political consultants, fliers and Facebook ads.
Hopefully, this will be the last time we see this kind of negative campaigning. But it probably will not be.
I hope the Council will take another look at how we might protect our local elections from outside intervention in the future.
But now with the election behind us, it’s time to focus on the challenges ahead.
With the Pandemic spreading rapidly as predicted by public health experts, it is crippling our ability to fully reopen many businesses and impacting our city economy in so many ways.
We will have to make some difficult personal choices if we hope to get back to some semblance of normality.
We can choose to follow basic health protocols until vaccines finally become available.
We can choose to wear a mask and observe social distancing as necessary preventative measures to protect ourselves and our community.
We can choose to postpone family gatherings.
We can choose to support local businesses during the holidays and beyond.
We can choose to help each other pull through this difficult time.
Through my work with Benicia Strong, a coalition of churches and nonprofits that has organized around the issue of food insecurity, I have seen first hand the rapid increase of hunger in Benicia; St. Paul’s was serving 75 meals a week one year ago; last week they served over 350 ; food contributed to the Food is Free stands at Northgate and Heritage Presbyterian Churches has disappeared almost as quickly as supplies are replenished; the Community Action Council exhausted their supply of food boxes given for Thanksgiving in record time. The need, even in our relatively well off community, is very real.
But I have also been amazed and gratified by the obvious and continuing generosity of Benicia residents in reaching out to help our friends and neighbors in need.
I hope the City Council will look at all future requests for spending through this prism of need that could likely be increasing in the days and weeks ahead.
We have some tremendous City staff who have been working hard during this pandemic to ensure that the City continues to function at its highest level. And we need to work to retain our skilled workers instead of losing them to other cities who pay more.
Without the passage of Proposition 15, our city cannot count on much help from the state or any other government agencies at this time.
This means we will likely be on our own, and we will need to either cut costs or raise revenues.
As a full service city, we provide comprehensive public services: police, fire, water, sewer, roads, parks, planning, building inspection, a library, and even a cemetery.
The costs for all these services are increasing at a time when our revenues are decreasing.
If the Pandemic goes on another year, which is possible, we may start to feel real pain in our budget, not to mention the unfunded work for our streets and utilities.
We have over 200 miles of roads to maintain and improve, and many are in poor condition. I get it- people want their streets repaired.
It’s going to cost about $60 million to bring our roads up to acceptable conditions, but over the last several years we have been only able to budget, on average, $2 million per year.
Then there is the issue of water bills – why do they seem so high? Believe it or not, our current water bills are about average for surrounding jurisdictions, though our wastewater bills are still a bit above average..
It currently costs us roughly $40 million each year to provide high quality water and sewer services, with fewer than 10,000 customers to spread those costs between. Included in this cost is our long-term commitment for the pensions of past and present employees of the utilities division. The pensions, though, account for only 5% of these bills.
The Council has discussed moving the sewer bill to the property tax, as is done in several other nearby cities.
This would lower your bi-monthly cost, but not eliminate it. We need to revisit that issue and formalize our decision.
One of the few ways we have to reduce water bills is by adding new customers to help share the cost.
This would require responsible growth to build up our customer base as well as our revenues. If we do it right, smart growth could generate significant new sales taxes and property taxes.
How would we do that?
We are beginning the study of the area around Military East and East 5th Street for possibly more dense development.
For our Downtown business district, should we look at expanding the area that allows commercial zoning? Perhaps raise height limits? Or expand the use of the Southern Pacific Rail Depot?
Then there is the Seeno property and its 526 acres situated below Lake Herman Road.
That property will eventually be developed, and the City should lead the way in deciding what type of development that should be. Anything happening there will require extensive citizen involvement in planning workshops and hearings, as well as negotiations with the property owner and, ultimately, the selection of a master developer.
1/3 of Benicians are over 55. Building housing for seniors, both affordable and market rate, would provide an alternative for seniors who are living in larger, multi-level housing and who would like to downsize, but do not necessarily want to leave Benicia. If they had reasonable alternatives, they might sell their homes and open up more opportunities for families wanting to move here.
But even smart growth is not possible without a secure water supply. We are currently in a period of drought and I believe climate change will make having an adequate water supply a continuing issue and concern.
Currently Valero uses 60% of our raw water supply. To assure their needs for a regular supply of water, and to assure the City will always have enough to serve our existing and future population, we should start planning and implementing a water reuse project. Achieving that would make Benicia nearly self sufficient in water use.
I recognize Valero’s importance to Benicia, and to our economy, and there are many ways we can and should work together on things of mutual benefit.
For example, real-time air quality monitors viewable on the internet would vastly improve communications between the City and the refinery, as well as providing instant notification to the public in the event of flaring or other events.
I would also like to receive more specific suggestions from the Chamber, Valero, and all of our businesses on how the City can become a more efficient and business friendly partner.
One of the recent City Council initiatives involved the question of racial equity. The Council approved both the hiring of a limited term, part-time, employee to oversee our efforts, but also the formation of an ad hoc commission to review issues of diversity and equity.
I want to give kudos to our interim City Manager, Erik Upson, for his leadership of this effort as Police Chief. Several people in town have questioned the need for these actions, believing that Benicia was not affected by racism. I believe systemic and structural racism is everywhere, and Benicia is not immune to its corrosive effects. One only needs to follow any social media platform to see ugly and unfortunate examples of this in our own town. We need to acknowledge as a City that racism is real here and that Black Lives Matter, and start to do the hard work needed to make our community a more diverse and accepting one for ALL of our citizens and visitors alike.
Finally, I hope to encourage the City to greatly improve communications with the public through both its webpage and its social media presence. One thing we’ve learned from this election is the importance of social media as a platform that’s now used by so many Benicians to access local news. I’ll be giving regular video updates about issues on upcoming council agendas as well as having virtual office hours.
As we thankfully put 2020 behind us, and look forward to 2021 with the hope for a return to normalcy, I intend to act as the Mayor for all Benicia, and pledge to work with staff, Council and community to help us move forward into the future.