Benicia Mayor Steve Young – Inaugural Address on December 1, 2020

Thanks, election analysis, the pandemic and looking to the future

Benicia Mayor Steve Young

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.

Or both.

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.