GRANT COOKE: Benicia’s future at stake in local election

Repost from the Benicia Herald
[Editor:  This is an incredibly important look at Benicia’s past and future: “For multiple historic and geographic reasons, the city has basically missed the Bay Area’s burgeoning prosperity. While the town’s leaders pushed back against the insanity of bringing in Bakken crude by 50-car trains, no one has yet confronted the reality that the refinery and its wealth and subsequent tax revenue has peaked.”  Cooke endorses Mayor Elizabeth Patterson and Steve Young for City Council.  – RS]

Benicia’s future at stake in local election

By Grant Cooke, November 4, 2016
Grant Cooke
Grant Cooke

In August, I wrote a column about Benicia’s future, the New Economy and why Elizabeth Patterson, Steve Young, and Tom Campbell were the best choices to led our city as mayor and councilmembers respectively.

At the time, I was disheartened by the majority of council members’ lack of political will to put a halt to Valero’s Crude-By-Rail (CBR) project. Subsequent events in September, when the council majority reconsidered that position and rejected Valero’s CBR permit, did much to rekindle my belief that American small towns offer the best in representative democracy. I tip my hat to Christina Strawbridge in particular for her forthrightness and to Mark Hughes and Alan Schwartzman for their project reassessment.

I believe that Sept. 20 council meeting marked a turning point in Benicia’s history-a small step away from the overwhelming influences that the carbon-intensive industries have had on the city for the last half century.

Such decisive moments can be scary, both in municipal as well as personal life. Make no mistake, the refinery and the carbon-intensive industries have contributed the bulk of the city’s tax revenues for decades. Biting the hand that feeds, while momentarily liberating, invariably comes with consequences.

Heavy carbon and the extraction industries, coat-tailed by speculative developers like the Republican presidential nominee, provided the great bulk of U.S. wealth from about the mid-1800s to the late 1900s, or roughly about a century and a half. This Old Economy created oligarchs like the infamous John D. Rockefeller and powerful empires like Standard Oil. Modern day oil oligarchs like Charles and David Koch still stalk the land, spewing anti-science and pro-carbon, environmentally destructive ideology.

These industries and the folks who are enriched by them, are the ones to blame for the multi-layers of U.S. tax and political policies that have created the chasm in American life between the wealthy and the rest, the very rich over the middle class. That so many members of the middle class feel disenfranchised, and are willing supporters of a tax-dodging billionaire for president is one of the nation’s greatest historic ironies.

However, back to Benicia. After World War II, while most of the nation’s economic engine was relying on the wealth of the carbon and extraction industries, California and the Bay Area were discovering technology and the beginnings of the digital renaissance. Scientists from the declining defense industries mixed with the wizards from UC Berkeley and Stanford University. Sprinkling a few geniuses from the area’s national laboratories into this mix created the most extraordinary cornucopia of science and technological advances since Galileo and Da Vinci.

Now in early 21st century, the Green Industrial Revolution with all its digital age splendors and cutting edge science has taken a hold on the U.S. economy, dislodging the old extraction wealth with the new knowledge-based economy. Except for the Republican presidential nominee, many of the rapacious real estate developers have retired or were crushed by the interest-only, credit-swap craziness of the 2008 Great Recession. McMansions with dual HVAC systems have given way to Zero Net Energy housing and solar panels. Even Texas has become a major supplier of renewable energy-and Valero too, is invested in wind and cellulosic ethanol – something I never thought to see.

So where does that leave Benicia, the little Bay Area town that is heavily dependent on Valero and the carbon-intensive industries for tax revenues? For multiple historic and geographic reasons, the city has basically missed the Bay Area’s burgeoning prosperity. While the town’s leaders pushed back against the insanity of bringing in Bakken crude by 50-car trains, no one has yet confronted the reality that the refinery and its wealth and subsequent tax revenue has peaked.

Future city budgets face a hard slog. Safety personnel are jockeying for substantial raises, city employees want raises also, PERS retirement liabilities increase, and service costs continue to go up. At the same time, the residential population ages, capping incomes and reducing their willingness to support new taxes.

Time is ticking on the city’s economic model, and what to do about it is the pressing question. Benicia badly needs to reexamine its tax revenue and business development models. Serious thought and deep consideration need to apply, unvarnished assessments need to happen, and intelligent far-reaching planning needs to take place.

The last is probably the most important. How does a city plan to replace a declining carbon-intensive revenue stream? How can Benicia join the rest of the Bay Area’s Green Industrial Revolution and share in its prosperity? If the city fails to attend these issues, the eventual results will be regionalism and the city gives up its independence and self-determination.

I respect our current councilmembers. They all seem decent, honest and pleasant. Goodness knows I thank them for the time and work they have done on our behalf, and I wish them well in their endeavors. It’s just clear to me that some currently on the council lack the foresight and clarity of vision that Benicia so desperately requires to transition to a new future.

On the other hand, Elizabeth Patterson and Steve Young have extensive experience in planning and meeting transitional challenges. Further, they have an understanding of current realities, and a vision that encompasses a new economic model. Benicia’s future will be marginalized if it doesn’t join the rest of the Bay Area in the new knowledge-based economy, and we need leaders who can move us toward it. That is why I’m voting to re-elect Elizabeth Patterson for mayor, and elect Steve Young for City Council.

Grant Cooke is a long-time Benicia resident, CEO of Sustainable Energy Associates, and principal of DewH20. He is also an author and has written several books about the Green Industrial Revolution.