Tag Archives: Stephen Golub

Stephen Golub: Despite Its Problems, Benicians (Mostly) Really Like Benicia

Despite Its Problems, Benicians (Mostly) Really Like Benicia

Benicia’s Capitol State Historic Park. | Uncredited image.

By Stephen Golub, posted June 2, 2023

Benicia resident and author Stephen Golub, A Promised Land

If you’ve been following Benicia news and social media lately, you’d probably think that our city has a number of serious problems to contend with. And you’d be absolutely right. But there’s good news as well.

First, though, the bad news:

The Budget Challenge. It entails painful cuts and revenue-raising measures in order to balance our books. There have been City Council and other meetings on this in recent months. There doubtless will be more in the months to come.

The ‘La Migra’ Challenge. Named for a slang term applied to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, it’s a game that’s been played by Benicia high school students annually for years. But the very name has clear racist connotations. And while some students may play willingly, not all do so. Even worse, there have been reliable reports – including in the May 12 Benicia Herald and more recently on the Benicia Independent – of minority students being harassed and even subjected to attack. For a  discussion of the problem (including TV links), go to Sheri Leigh’s superb Benicia Independent post, which was also shared on Nextdoor. A couple of useful comments suggest that the “game” was somewhat limited this year due to police and school actions this year, but it remains a horrid pastime.

The Environmental Challenge. For one thing, there was the Thanksgiving release by the Martinez Refining Company of a toxic plume that drifted over parts of Benicia. The nature and danger of the residues in Martinez and here are now being tested. On a more regular basis, there are repeated violations by Valero, including but by no means limited to pouring toxic chemicals into our air for at least fifteen years without telling us. Valero has been compounding these actions, in a sense, by pouring many hundreds of thousands of dollars into our city council and mayoral elections in recent years (though unsuccessfully in 2020 and 2022), presumably to help elect Republican and Democratic candidates it finds favorable. Though we appreciate the jobs and donations Valero provides, being a good neighbor does not include polluting our skies, politics and perhaps even health.

So why the cheery title for this column, despite these challenges? Because Benicia has the community strength, resilience and pride to hopefully overcome or at least mitigate them, as suggested by a recent survey of Benicians’ attitudes and experiences, as part of the National Community Survey (NCS). Both Mayor Young and City Manager Giuliani have recently reported on the study. I’m here to supplement their efforts by summarizing some of its results.

For a link to the NCS methodology and findings, here’s Steve Young’s very useful Nextdoor post on the topic.

The survey focused on hundreds of communities across the country. It was conducted here in Benicia from January 20 to March 3 of this year.

Overall, the NCS found a good deal of satisfaction with our city’s “livability.” That all-purpose term includes survey results for numerous different categories of life here, including Economy; Mobility; Community Design; Parks and Recreation; Education, Arts and Culture; and Inclusivity and Engagement.

Benicia came out quite well, in many respects scoring at least 10 percent higher than the national “benchmarks” – basically the national average, though the study’s Methodology section does not make that clear.

For instance, “Over 9 in 10 residents favorably evaluated the overall quality of life in Benicia (95% excellent or good), Benicia as a place to live (96%), and Benicia as a place to raise children (94%); each of these ratings were higher than the national comparisons.” The same applies to the 95% who would recommend Benicia as a place to live. Eighty-eight percent plan to remain here for the next five years.

More from the report: “About 9 in 10 respondents were pleased with the city’s overall appearance, surpassing comparison communities around the country. In addition, 8 in 10 offered above-average reviews for both the preservation of the historical or cultural character of the community and Benicia’s public places where people want to spend time. Cleanliness (92%), water resources (80%), Benicia’s open space (87%), preservation of natural areas (86%), and the availability of paths and walking trails (84%) all received ratings that were higher than the national benchmarks.”

A smattering of other results:

  • In a result that obviously spans generations, Benicia scored at least 10% higher than the national benchmarks as a place to raise children (94% positive survey replies, ranking 51 out of 378 communities asked a similar question) and to retire (78% positive, ranking 59 out of 374).
  • Benicia is a happening, hopping place! (Well, at least in some ways.) We ranked at least 10 percent higher than the benchmarks regarding vibrancy of the downtown/commercial area (71% positive, ranking 65 out of 291), opportunities to participate in social events and activities (78% positive, ranking 37 out of 311), opportunities to attend special events and festivals (83% positive, ranking 18 out of 308) and community support for the arts (80% positive, ranking 22 out of 212).
  • For the many information-oriented folks among us, the library gets good ratings too (89% positive, ranking 109 out of 332). Though it’s interesting that only 24% of us share our opinions online (ranking 173 out of 211).
  • Benicia is a great place to drive! (At least according to the survey.) Traffic flow on major streets had an 83 percent positive response, ranking 6 (!) out of 341.
  • It’s fair to note that for the majority of the approximately 150 categories, Benicia was rated similarly to other cities. Still, the categories for which it was rated 10 percent higher than other communities greatly outnumbered the six categories for which it was rated 10 percent lower.
  • The leading negative category? You guessed it: street repair (26% positive, ranking 311 out of 357 -ouch!). Also, air quality (60% positive, ranking 271 out of 302 – wheeze! – which brings us back to the environmental challenge).
  • The other four negative categories? Utility billing, garbage collection and (for results that probably don’t reflect on Benicia itself) health care costs and preventive health services.

Finally, I should note that while I’m providing comparisons to national results here, Benicia scores similarly well when compared to other Western states’ cities with populations of 15,000 to 40,000.

Having said all this, I’m not saying that we’ll solve our problems simply by virtue of liking our city. And I’m certainly not saying that our financial, racial and environmental challenges become any less severe because, for many of us, Benicia is a fine place to live.

Quite the contrary: Cities inevitably change. We lose it if we don’t improve it. It’s up to us to address the problems that plague Benicia, precisely in order to make our catchphrase, “A Great Day by the Bay,” something to honor and preserve.

Benicia resident Stephen Golub offers excellent perspective on his blog, A Promised Land:  Politics. Policy. America as a Developing Country.

To access his other posts or subscribe, please go to his blog site, A Promised Land.


Benicia’s Budget Crisis

Benicia & Beyond – Our Daunting Deficits

The Benicia Herald (no online presence), by Stephen Golub, April 9, 2023. About Steve Golub, below.

Benicia’s budget is in dire straits. As former City Manager Erik Upson, Interim City Manager Mario Giuliani and others have emphasized, our heads are financially below water. We face mounting deficits, stretching for years.

At the risk of being Davey Downer, here’s some daunting data, courtesy of Assistant City Manager Bret Prebula (though any mistakes in presenting or analyzing the figures are most certainly mine):

For Benicia’s current fiscal year, which ends on June 30, the estimated deficit is $2.2 million. That is, our expected expenditures are $2.2 million more than our revenues.

That figure is elevated somewhat by one-time costs of about $1 million for operating and legal expenses linked to the city-owned marina. But…

The city staff anticipates budget deficits of $3-6 million per year for both the 2023-24 and 2024-25 fiscal years.

To put this in context, the anticipated annual city expenditures (excluding water and wastewater, which are budgeted separately) amount to $55-60 million.

Therefore, unless Benicia makes adjustments, we’re looking at an annual deficit of 5 percent to 10 percent of the budget for the next two years and beyond.

Though it’s split into separate categories, the city’s reserve/general fund totals about $22 million. According to my rudimentary math, we could exhaust it in as few as four years unless action is taken.

Finally, unlike the federal government, the city has to balance its budget each year. When I write of expected or anticipated deficits, I’m discussing gaps that must be closed by reduced costs, additional revenue or drawing down the reserve fund.

How Did This Happen?

So how did we sink to this state? Our costs have increased while our revenues have remained relatively flat. More specifically…

The problem partly flows from gradual increases in the costs of city services (whether delivered by employees or contractors), materials Benicia buys and city employee benefits (such as health insurance). In addition…

Revenues are not rising enough to match the increasing costs. Why’s that? First, our population has barely increased since 2000. Also, while our industrial park businesses contribute to Benicia’s economy, they generate less city revenue than a more service/retail-oriented mix of firms would.

What to Do?

Proponents of Measure R, narrowly defeated in November, argue that the ¾ percent sales tax would have gone a fair distance toward addressing our road repair needs.

More broadly, some contend that it’s not just road repair, but also police, fire protection, parks and other city services that will face cuts unless we right the fiscal ship through greater revenues – be they through taxes, fees or other approaches.

Conversely, others maintain that we can in fact make cuts that eliminate or at least decrease the need to rely on new or expanded taxes and fees. In contemplating one kind of cut, though, we might bear in mind former City Manager Upson’s warnings that city employees’ salaries are lower than those in many other Bay Area localities, which can make retaining them difficult.

Another approach prioritizes limiting hikes in taxes and fees mainly to the town’s largest businesses.

Then there’s a perspective that contends that we should rethink whether Benicia should remain a full-service city. That broad blend of services is something most of us like about Benicia. But we could consider whether and to what extent we can afford all this, and what the potential alternatives might be.

My point here is not to provide or promote certain solutions. Far from it. I need to be better educated on these and other options myself.

Instead, I’m just offering a bare-bones account – and it’s admittedly barely even that – of a few potential directions. Benicians who understand municipal finances far better than I do can address this matter far better. Hopefully, though, this column takes a small step toward illuminating the issue.

How to Learn More

So, some food for thought. Here are a couple of ways to start chewing on all this:

On April 11, “Benicia’s Budget Crisis: The Problem and Potential Solutions”, a public forum, will be held in the Benicia Public Library’s Dona Benicia Room. Starting at 7 p.m., and organized by the Progressive Democrats of Benicia, it will feature Mayor Steve Young, Assistant City Manager Bret Prebula and Solano County Supervisor Monica Brown. The presentations will be followed by a Q&A session.

Since some Benicia residents remain especially vulnerable to Covid, masks will be required. Due to the complexity involved, Zoom will not be used for the session.

Again, all are welcome; you don’t have to be a PDB member to attend. You don’t have to be a progressive, a liberal, a moderate, a conservative or whatever. You just have to care about Benicia.

Then, on April 25, the City Council will convene a study session on the issue, starting at 6 p.m., in the Council Chambers. As usual, this Council meeting will be both an in-person and Zoom event.

We Can Get Through This

Crises can bring out the best or worst in folks. They can unite or divide. This one could include tough conversations and decisions in the months and years to come.

I’m optimistic that this challenge will see Benicia responding well. We are a resourceful, resilient community.

I also take heart from the calm, civil Council discussions about the indoor mask mandate back in 2021. (I can’t speak to social media.) Admittedly, the meetings were not warm and fuzzy affairs; they saw sharp disagreements. But, for the most part, they aired diverse perspectives in respectful ways.

Let’s hope the upcoming budget debates take the same path.

Stephen Golub, Benicia – A Promised Land: Politics. Policy. America as a Developing Country.

Benicia resident Stephen Golub

A version of this piece first appeared in the Benicia Herald, as part of my weekly Benicia and Beyond column for the Herald. At my blog, A Promised Land, I also write about national and international affairs, including lessons that America can learn from other countries.

My blog: A Promised Land: America as a Developing Country apromisedland.org.

Benicia Mayor Steve Young on the record, Part 2

Stephen Golub Interview with Mayor Steve Young (continued)

By Stephen Golub, March, 2023 (About Steve Golub). Previously appearing in the Benicia Herald, no online presence.

INTERVIEW PART 2 (See also Interview, Part 1)

SG: Benicia recently wrapped up a sometimes contentious process of finalizing and then submitting housing plans to the state, as mandated by state law. What would you like Benicians who haven’t followed the issue closely to better understand about the process and results?

Benicia Mayor Steve Young About Mayor Young.

SY: The State has passed a variety of laws recently addressing the housing shortage that is directly tied to things like homelessness, housing affordability, and climate change (through longer commutes as people cannot find housing near jobs). The state has identified the resistance to new housing in suburban locales such as Benicia as being a real problem and have put strict accountability on cities to plan for new housing across income levels and throughout the community. That is what we have attempted to do through the Housing Element process.

Benicia author Stephen Golub. About Steve below.

SG: Are there any lessons learned from that process? Anything you think could have been done differently, including how this experience might inform future city planning?

SY: We might have been able to start the process earlier and had more time to consider the relative benefits of different sites. With 25% of the City consisting of open space, and all of it off limits to development, our choices were constrained.

SG: Back to Valero: In recent years, Valero has put hundreds of thousands of dollars into political action committees, seeking to influence Benicia’s city council and mayoral elections. What are your thoughts on this? 

SY: I have consistently fought against their outsized involvement in our elections. There is NO place for corporate or union involvement in local elections, and the Supreme Court’s Citizen United ruling was a terrible one, opening the door to this type of unregulated political spending. Instead of spending hundreds of thousands in each election, and turning much of the community against Valero’s candidates of choice, those dollars could have been spent in so many more productive ways. Hopefully, after the last two elections, they will come to the same conclusion. But I am not holding my breath. This is a fight that, sadly, will probably go on every two years.

SG: More generally, what should the city’s relationship with Valero be? How might we plan to adjust to eventual changes in or cessation of its refinery’s operations, especially in view of climate change, pollution, health or economic factors? 

SY: Valero remains the most important company in town, and the largest employer and taxpayer. Since my election, I have been having monthly one on one meetings with their general manager to discuss issues of mutual concern like a possible water reuse project in place of selling them 60% of our raw water. Other topics regularly covered include air monitoring and how they can improve their reporting to the City and community about unplanned flaring and other similar incidents.

SG: Is it time to reconsider an Industrial Safety Ordinance, which the City Council voted down 3-2 in 2018? Do you feel it might strengthen the city’s hand in dealing with issues such as the refinery’s 15 years of undisclosed toxic emissions, which we only learned of last year, or the recent reports of foul odor in certain neighborhoods, including those close to the refinery?

SY: I would want to see that a new ISO would be additive in value. Valero is already highly regulated,  a fact I am becoming increasingly aware of through my service on the board of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD). However, BAAQMD can also do a better job as was demonstrated by the egregious, unreported 15 year release of toxic gases by Valero and the four year delay in BAAQMD reporting the issue to the City. But there has been an ISO in Contra Costa County for many years covering the other four Bay Area refineries, and it seems to be working well and effectively without significant pushback from the refineries.

SG: Back to climate change. As a waterside community, Benicia stands to be affected. What plans or actions might the city government initiate to adjust to this reality?

SY: There is no stopping the effects of climate change short of a major decrease in the use of fossil fuels. One of the more immediate effects will be on rising waters which will continue to threaten our wastewater treatment plant, marina, and downtown. And a climate change caused drought has not gone away despite a wet winter. We need to secure our water future, and it can be done with a water reuse project to use recycled waste water for Valero’s industrial purposes while saving our drinking water. If we can pull this off, we can become self sufficient in water.

SG: Like any community, Benicia is not immune to racial justice challenges and related concerns. What is the city doing to address such matters? What else might it do?

SY: Benicia was the first city in Solano County to hire a part time diversity officer and form an advisory group (CURE) to address issues of equity and diversity within the City. as well as addressing community wide concerns like the La Migra “game” held annually at the High School. The Library has also been holding a number of lectures and programs on this topic.

SG: What major challenges do you see Benicia facing in the years to come, above and beyond those we’ve already covered?

SY: How to pay for existing services in a period of high inflation with flat revenues, and how to retain and recruit excellent staff if our salaries are not competitive.

With the departure of Erik Upson, Benicia needs a new City Manager. What is the process for replacing him?

Given the short notice we got about Erik’s retirement, we moved quickly to interview four highly qualified internal candidates before selecting Mario Giuliani to be the interim City Manager. We are hopeful/confident Mario can prove up to the many challenges facing a City Manager and we will be able to remove the interim tag later this year.

SG: I understand that the brush-munching goats are back! Or they soon will be. What is your opinion on the goats? How do folks find out whether and when the goats might come to their neighborhoods?

SY: I, and most all Benicians, love the goats. They are so popular, in fact, that they are becoming more expensive and harder to schedule. Check with the Fire Department for specific information on their locations.

SG: You recently had a rather bad bike accident. Are there any lessons or advice you’d like to share with fellow cyclists?

SY: Follow the rules of the road (I wasn’t), don’t speed and bike carelessly (I was), and always wear a helmet (thankfully, I was). I was very fortunate that my injury was not much worse.

SG: Thanks very much.


Stephen Golub, Benicia – A Promised Land: Politics. Policy. America as a Developing Country.

Benicia resident Stephen Golub offers excellent perspective on his blog, A Promised Land:  Politics. Policy. America as a Developing Country.

To access his other posts or subscribe, please go to his blog site, A Promised Land.

Benicia Mayor Steve Young on the record…

Stephen Golub Interview with Mayor Steve Young

By Stephen Golub, March, 2023 (About Steve Golub). Previously appearing in the Benicia Herald, no online presence.

INTERVIEW PART 1   (…and when you’re done, here’s Part 2)

SG: Where are you from, originally?

Benicia Mayor Steve Young More about Mayor Young.

SY: I grew up in Burbank, in the San Fernando Valley.

SG: What kind of work have you mainly done during your career?

SY: I managed a variety of local government programs in the fields of affordable housing, neighborhood improvement and military base conversion in California and Virginia.

Benicia author Stephen Golub. More about Steve below.

SG: I understand that some time ago you and your family lived in Costa Rica. Could you say something about why you moved there, what you did while there, and why you returned to the United States?

SY: We moved to Costa Rica primarily to give our daughter the experience of going to high school in a foreign country, living in a different culture, and learning a new language; while we spent time exploring all of the beautiful country as well as some of the rest of Central America, much time was spent trying to become established as residents and becoming comfortable with the uniqueness of the country. We returned after four years when my daughter entered college in the US and to help care for my aging parents.

SG: When and why did you first move to Benicia?

SY: We moved to Benicia in 2012; we fell for it for the same reasons most do: small town, waterfront setting, open and friendly people.

SG: I believe that your first major involvement with Benicia’s city government was on the Planning Commission. What made you decide to apply to join it?

SY: Knowing literally no one when I moved here, and having spent my career in local government, I hoped to both meet new people and use my government experience to help serve in a volunteer position.

SG: When you were on the Commission, what was your reaction and actions regarding Valero’s Crude by Rail plan? (For those new to Benicia or otherwise unfamiliar with this issue, for four years until ultimately defeated by a unanimous 2016 City Council vote, the Valero Refinery sought to bring two 50-car trains a day carrying up to 70,000 barrels of crude oil into Benicia from Canada and North Dakota.)

SY: Given the long time between hearings on this project, I had ample time to research a number of issues related to rail cars, fracked oil, and the possible impact of these train cars on backing up traffic in the Industrial Park. I eventually had the chance to ask a variety of detailed questions of the staff and Valero, not all of which were answered to the satisfaction of the Planning Commission. My questions triggered other questions from Commissioners and helped lead to the unexpected unanimous rejection by the Planning Commission of the Valero request and the EIR [Environmental Impact Report].

SG: What made you decide to run for City Council and then for Mayor?

SY: My exposure to local government on the Planning Commission motivated me to step up and run for Council in 2016. And I saw an opportunity in 2020 to add my experience, ideas, and leadership.

SG: What are you most proud of from your two years in office (so far) as Mayor?

SY: Working with the City Manager to help navigate the COVID pandemic through a contentious time and helping bring back our civic celebrations. Also adding a new level of transparency and communication with the community with my extensive use of social media.

SG: What has been your biggest challenge(s) as Mayor?

SY: Internally, trying to get the City to be more communicative with the community as well as our upcoming fiscal challenges. Externally, trying to get people to understand that maintaining the level of services like they have come to expect comes with rapidly increasing costs that the City is not able to meet with existing revenue.

SG: One of Benicians’ biggest concerns is the state of our roads. Measure R, which would have funded road repair, narrowly lost when on the ballot in November. What, if anything, do you think should be done now to address the situation with the roads?

SY: There is a citizen driven sales tax initiative being proposed by a variety of community leaders that would set aside the same amount of funds strictly for roads and related infrastructure. It is our best chance to actually fix all our roads over a 10 year period.

SG: Another challenge is water charges. What, if anything, should be done to address that?

SY: Unfortunately there is not a magic bullet for this that will bring down water charges. Treating water and wastewater is highly regulated and expensive, and requires a number of employees with specific skills and licenses. And many of our pipes are quite old and failing. There are too few ratepayers to spread (and lower) these costs. More growth and customers may lead to more ways to spread those costs.

SG: There also is the question of Benicia’s large stretch of land known as the Seeno property (named for the land owner). What are your thoughts on whether and how that should ever be developed for housing? Do you see alternative uses for it? 

SY: I would like to withhold my specific preferences on that in deference to the planning/visioning process that is currently underway, and that may eventually come to Council for decisions. But I can say ,that, as one member of the community, I would hope to see a mixed use development including multifamily and single family housing, in addition to some localized commercial development. Ideally, we would have direct micro transit options to downtown and a few locations in Vallejo.  And perhaps some office or R/D uses along the East 2nd street frontage.


Stephen Golub, Benicia – A Promised Land: Politics. Policy. America as a Developing Country.

Benicia resident Stephen Golub offers excellent perspective on his blog, A Promised Land:  Politics. Policy. America as a Developing Country.

To access his other posts or subscribe, please go to his blog site, A Promised Land.