Benicia 2014: Year in Review, Vallejo Times-Herald

Repost from the Vallejo Times-Herald

Benicia: Drought, budget keep city busy in 2014

By Tony Burchyns, 12/29/14

Benicia>>It was a busy year for Benicia as residents responded to drought and budget problems challenging their way of life.

Faced with the potential loss of 85 percent of their water supply, Benicians were forced to conserve and pay more for water from other sources.

Meanwhile, residents approved a sales tax measure to forestall further budget cuts. They also passed school district bond measure to fix aging classrooms.

The city also managed to adopt a mater plan for its long-awaited downtown waterfront park and complete a $3 million park-and-ride project funded by bridge tolls.

Here’s a look back at some of Benicia’s top stories of 2014:

• More so than any other Solano County city, Benicia was hit hard by the state’s ongoing severe drought. The city’s dicey water situation is related to the State Department of Water Resources’ decision in January to halt State Water Project deliveries to millions of residents. Normally, that’s where Benicia gets 85 percent of its water.

In response the shortage, the city cut its water use by more than 20 percent, exceeding the statewide average of 6.7 percent. In addition to implementing outdoor water restrictions, the City Council also approved a drought surcharge to pay for added costs, such as purchasing water from other communities to meet demand.

In the coming year, the city is expected to look for ways to increase the reliability of its water supply to avoid future shortages.

• Faced with ongoing budget problems, voters overwhelmingly passed a 1 cent sales tax to maintain city service levels. City officials argued the extra revenue — projected to reach $3.7 million annually — was needed to maintain “quality of life” services such as police and fire and parks and recreation. The city has trimmed 12 percent of its workforce since 2008 to make ends meet.

• In June, voters passed a $49.6 million Benicia Unified School District bond to fund facility improvement at several campuses. It is the first district improvement measure in 17 years, following three failed parcel tax attempts.

• The Valero Benicia Refinery’s proposed rail terminal project continued to fuel debate over crude-by-rail safety issues. If approved, the project would allow Valero to import up to 70,000 barrels of Bakken or Canadian tar sands oil daily by train.

In June, the city released the project’s environmental impact report, leading to packed public hearings over the summer. People as far away as Roseville attended to voice opposition or support for the project, which would increase oil train traffic through the Sacramento Valley.

The city also received letters from state and local officials — including State Attorney General Kamala Harris — criticizing the project safety analysis as inadequate. The city is in the process of responding to those and other comments.

Meanwhile, the project has sparked a debate on whether Mayor Elizabeth Patterson’s public statements about crude-by-rail issues would prevent Valero from getting a fair hearing. In October, Patterson — an outspoken advocate of tougher oil-train safety measures — revealed the city had advised her not to participate in any decisions on Valero’s pending permit. Patterson, however, has challenged that advice, defending her right to speak openly about public safety issues related to the transportation of crude oil by train.

• Following years of planning, the city adopted a waterfront park master plan in October. The Urban Waterfront Enhancement and Master Plan is meant to guide the development of a waterfront park along the Carquinez Strait between First Street and the marina. In the coming year, the city is expected to seek funding for design and engineering phases estimated to cost $6.7 million.

• Hoping to make life easier for bus riders, the city completed transit stop improvements on Military West between West K Street and Southampton Road.

The project followed the completion of similar improvements on Military West near City Park last year. The projects cost $3 million and were funded by bridge tolls.

Both stops are served by SolTrans Route 78, which links the Vallejo ferry terminal to BART in Contra Costa County.

• The city has also moved forward with joining Marin Clean Energy to give residents another option for power source. Benicians will be given a six-month opt out period to give a chance for them to stay with Pacific Gas and Electric. There will be a one-time fee for those who decide to opt out afterward. According to staff reports, The city could also receive between $40,000 to $80,000 annually as its solar power credits by utilizing the clean energy source. The current MCE rates are lower than those of PG&E’s, though both rates could fluctuate in the future.

Staff writer Irma Widjojo contributed to this article.