By Stephen Golub, originally posted in the Benicia Herald January 15, 2024
Over the course of the next ten days, Benicians will have two major opportunities to weigh in on the future of our community.
January 15-25: Addressing Our $6.5 Million Budget Gap
The first opportunity features a community survey, open houses and virtual workshops by which we can have our say on how to address the City’s budget crisis. As you may know, a variety of factors (stagnant population growth for 20 years, very little new housing or housing sales, limited retail outlets, etc.) have constrained our tax base while inflation and other factors have increased our costs. The bottom line is that we face a budget deficit of $6.5 million per year.
In an effort to get community input on the problem and potential solutions, the City has organized various in-person and online ways in which we can offer opinions and ask questions. They will take place from January 15 through 25.
- January 18, 6-8 pm: In-person Open House at the Benicia Public Library, 150 East L St.
- January 25, 6-8 pm: In-person Open House at the Benicia Community Center, 370 East L St.
- January 17 and 24, 6 pm: Virtual workshops (online links will be available via https://www.ci.benicia.ca.us/believeinbenicia)
- January 15-25: Community Survey (online link here)
To alleviate the problem, the City has already cut $4.5 million from its budget. This has involved reducing ten staff positions and service cuts that include reduction of swimming pool hours, closing the Benicia Library on Sundays, eliminating road paving projects except for emergencies, delayed and deferred maintenance/upgrades on city equipment and facilities (including parks and the storm water system), and cutting support for July 4th and Christmas Tree celebrations.
But, even after those cuts, a $6.5 million gap remains. One way of addressing it over the medium-to-long term is by building the tax base by cutting regulations so as to facilitate commercial investment and approving such projects as the “Eastern Gateway” initiative, which encourages mixed-use development in the area of East 5th St./Military East.
In the shorter run, the City has placed two budget measures on the March 5 ballot. Measure A increases the local hotel tax. Measure B, by far the larger revenue-producing vehicle, increases the local sales tax by 75 cents cent per $100. This works out to costing the average Benician about 33 cents per day.
Regardless of how you feel about all this, the next ten days offer opportunities to air your input, through the in-person and virtual meetings and the community survey. Again, BelieveinBenicia.org is a good way to weigh in and get more information online.
January 18: Sharing in Refinery Fines
In early 2022, we learned from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (aka the Air District) that for at least 15 years Valero’s Benicia Refinery had been putting toxic emissions hundreds of times the regulatory limits into our air, without telling us, the City government or the Air District about it.
What’s more, for nearly three subsequent years the Air District itself had known about this, but had not informed us until two years ago. In addition, the Air District still has not informed us what fines it will levy on Valero, perhaps because it may be still negotiating the matter nearly five years after becoming aware of the violations.
Nor has it let us know whether or how any portion of the fines will go to benefit Benicia, beyond a vague assurance that it may allocate some sums from the fines for health and safety matters here.
On January 18 at 6 pm, we’ll have a chance to learn more, ask questions about and offer our opinions on Air District actions and policies regarding such fines, regarding not just Valero and Benicia but also the other refineries and communities in the area. On that day, the Air District’s Community Advisory Council will meet at the Air District’s Headquarters, at 375 Beale Street in San Francisco. But we can also access the meeting online and offer comments there.
More specifically, one key agenda item for the meeting is:
“4. Funding Community Benefits from Penalty Fund. This is an action item for the Council to consider recommending to the Air District Board of Directors that they set a policy that automatically allocates a portion of penalties for regional and local community benefits.”
The January 18 Community Advisory Council meeting will make a decision that could potentially yield great benefits to Benicia. It might well be worth attending in person, since we’re talking about potentially millions of dollars for Benicia from this one Valero incident and/or other violations by this or other refineries (such as in Martinez) down the line. (Again, the discussion is not just about Benicia and Valero, but about all local refineries and affected communities.)
But for those of us who can’t make it to San Francisco for the meeting, we can Zoom in and have up to three minutes each for public comment. Here’s the link for the relevant page where, if you scroll down a bit, you can in turn simply watch the meeting, join via Zoom to comment during the meeting or write a public comment.
The meeting offers a great way of seeking to secure well-deserved, potentially major compensation for Benicia, for both past and future harms. I intend to attend, whether in person or online.
Visit BelieveInBenicia.org to learn more about Benicia’s Resiliency Plan, sign up for updates from Benicia City Manager Mario Giuliani, and join the effort to help shape Benicia’s future. Add your voice!