Category Archives: Benicia

Stephen Golub: Kudos to the Council on the Potential Transfer Tax

Benicia resident and author Stephen Golub, A Promised Land

By Stephen Golub,  June 18, 2024

On June 11, the City Council took the first step in a multi-stage process to put on the November ballot a vote on whether Benicia should adopt a Real Property Transfer Tax (RPTT) for the sale of real estate, be it residential, commercial or industrial.

Kudos to the Council for both biting the bullet on this significant step to close the City’s budget gap and conducting its discussion and initial community input in a collegial way. Thanks too to City Manager Mario Giuliani and the City staff for undertaking the grunt work to date (as summarized by a “Policy Direction” memo from Mr. Giuliani to the Council in preparation for the June 11 meeting, and for further figuring out over the next several weeks optimal options for the Council to consider regarding this potential tax.

If adopted, the transfer tax will levy a fee on the sale of real estate. Among the many matters the City staff and Council need to address are how high the fee should be. One figure being considered is one percent (i.e., $10 for every $1,000 in sales price, or $8,000 on an $800,000 house). As per the Policy Direction memo I mentioned, that $10 rate – which is actually lower than the $12  mean for many other Bay Area cities – would generate an additional $2.1million for the City annually at this point. Presumably, that figure would rise over the years as housing prices escalate.

Some initial thoughts on the matter:

  1. Pardon the cliché, but there’s still no such thing as a free lunch. As Mayor Steve Young, City Manager Giuliani and others have consistently pointed out, the City is taking multiple cost-saving and revenue enhancing steps toward putting our finances on stable footing going forward. But there’s still much to do if we want to keep Benicia the pretty, pleasant, enjoyable, safe, special place we love. With the building of new housing mandated by state law, a potential generational turnover in housing ownership due to our aging population and other conceivable developments coming down the pike, the transfer tax makes sense as big way of closing our budget gap.
  1. This need not affect most or any current Benicia residents at all in the near or medium terms or even permanently. For one thing, most of us won’t be selling our homes in the foreseeable future. Even more importantly, the City could mandate or at least strongly push for the tax to be paid by property buyers – rather than by sellers or by the two splitting the cost. (Admittedly, whether it could mandate who’d pay the tax was not clear from Tuesday’s discussion, but some sort of “Sense of the Council” suggestion might at least nudge realtors’ arrangements in the right direction.)
  1. This approach would ensure that buyers enjoying the pleasure of moving into our wonderful town would pay the additional price for doing so, rather than sellers – who may need to maximize their finances on the way out – bearing that burden. Plus, it’s an investment of sorts by the buyers: In paying that price, they would help ensure a balanced Benicia budget that enables it to provide services that in turn increase their property values over the years.
  1. The additional cost is relatively manageable. While I don’t want to dismiss the significance of a buyer taking on, say, an additional $8,000 of debt due to the RPTT, that works out to less than $50 per month for a 30-year, six percent loan. It’s not a deal-breaker, in other words, particularly given the overbidding that has come to characterize parts of Benicia’s housing market.
  1. I’m also plugging for the Council and realtors alike to push for the buyers to pay the tax because, frankly, it’s more politically palatable (as well as substantively sustainable) to point out to current residents that they won’t bear the burden of the RPTT.
  1. The Council discussed, and the staff will explore varying the transfer tax rates according to the size or nature of the transaction. Thus, hypothetically, the tax might be only $5 per $10,000 sale for lower-priced homes and $15 or more for more expensive houses, commercial properties and/or industrial concerns. This approach seems fairest in that it burdens lower priced transactions less. I want to emphasize the “hypothetical” here, however – this all remains to be sorted out in the process that will unfold.
  1. So what is that process? As I mentioned, in the next several weeks the staff will get back to the Council (and public) with further reporting on options for moving forward. On July 16, there will be another Council meeting on the transfer tax and on the crucial related matter of the City amending its Charter so as to allow the tax. On August 6, the Council may vote on whether to put the two related measures – the Charter change and the RPTT – on the November ballot; the deadline for ballot submissions is August 9.

I’m seeking to summarize a lot here; I’m unavoidably leaving out even more. For instance, there may well be all sorts of exceptions to the potential RPPT rule, including intra-family transfers, division of property in case of divorce, etc. For more on this matter, keep track of future messages from Mayor Young and City Manager Giuliani, as well as postings at the City site.

And spice up your summer by circling the July 16 and August 6 Council meetings on your calendar!

[Steve Golub also blogs about U.S. politics, international developments and lessons America can learn from other countries at his site, A Promised Land,]

Fiestas Primaveras Prize-Winning Essay: “How La Migra impacts our Community, and what we can do to change it”

[Note from BenIndy: As part of the Solano AIDS Network and BBLM’s inaugural Fiestas Primavera Festival on March 28, 2024, Benicia High School students were invited to submit writings for an essay contest discussing issues related to the chase-games malingering presence in a town that seemed ready to move on. This essay tackled the tough topic of why students are drawn to the game – namely, “there isn’t much [for teens] to do in Benicia” – and what else might deliver the same thrills for Benicia youth, minus the racism and looming danger of injuries, arrests, and even fatalities.]

Spencer and Mario Saucedo at Benicia’s Fiestas Primavera on March 28, 2024. | Photo by family.

By Spencer Ball, May 28, 2024

The game “La Migra” or “Border Patrol” has been treated as a tradition toward high school students at Benicia high school for several decades. The aim of the game is for the higher classmen (Seniors who are able to drive) to chase down lowerclassmen from Jack London Park to the baseball field downtown. This is a 3-4 mile journey the lowerclassmen, mostly freshmen, must complete on foot throughout the roads and fields on Benicia while avoiding the seniors that are able to kidnap, shoot, and harrass you and hinder you from reaching the baseball field. Now this seems like a fun cops and robbers game, there isn’t much to do in Benicia anyway and to have an intense chase game that uses the entire city and a playground sounds extremely fun. 

However there is also the concern of non players and the safety of others playing the game. The game takes place late in the afternoon and lasts until around 10:00 pm at night. For a majority of the time people are in the dark, running around the street, avoiding Seniors in their cars who are most likely driving erratically to catch the lowerclassmen.

This can lead to accidents of people getting run over or people getting into wrecks. On another note there is the concern of people who are not playing being confused for players. During the game the seniors assume anybody who is a teenager and out walking or running down the sidewalk is playing, which could subject them to being shot at or kidnapped without even knowing what is going on. I would be terrified if I was walking down the street and then out of nowhere somebody drove up to Me, kidnapped me, and dropped me off, potentially restrained in a location far and foreign to Me, for possibly hours on end. 

Lastly La Migra, meaning Border Patrol, was originally created to replicate ICE and the deportation of illegal immigrants coming into the country. This gives La Migra, which most people play for the cops and robbers gameplay, a racist and discriminatory premise, which is not needed in today’s culture.

I believe we can fix this through rebranding the game and playing it in a controlled area such as the Benicia Community Park, with the aid of the city of professionals who can make the game even better than it was with Seniors in their cars and BB guns.

What if we could get funding behind a cause to rework the game and get military personnel or professionals to provide a simulated cops-and-robbers game like what was La Migra, but controlled, with EMT services to help people in case there is an accident, and have the potential to be way better more funner and memorable? If students want the thrill of chase or battle, these people can give that to us. It would be an event that people might come to Benicia to participate in, news articles will give it traction, and it will turn what was once La Migra into a inclusive game where people will be able to enjoy a game in a way unimaginable before, and without racial bias rooted into the phenomenon.

[This essay was edited very mildly for clarity.]

Sheri Leigh: Benicia Teens Offer New Ideas, Hope for Lasting Change for Life after La Migra Games

Sheri Leigh
Sheri Leigh, Benicia resident and educator.

By Sheri Leigh, first published in the Benicia Herald on May 26, 2024

I first met Spencer Ball in February of this year when I went to the Kyle Hyland Teen Center to speak to the students there about the offensive game.  He was refreshingly enthusiastic about finding exciting alternatives for teens to do in Benicia, rather than engaging in the game (La Migra).  As I talked to the students about the potential dangers and racist undertones of the game, Spencer fired off a plethora of different ideas, opening the door for progressive planning and teen engagement.  

Spencer Ball is an 11th grader at Benicia High School and a natural leader.  He helps his parents with their business and has a strong interest in mechanics and becoming an entrepreneur.  He is even considering a career in politics.  Spencer was one of the two Fiestas Primavera Scholarship recipients, writing a winning essay about the impacts of the La Migra game on our community. [Ed. Note: A copy of this essay will be posted later today, on May 28, 2024.]

Shortly after starting high school nearly three years ago, Spencer heard about La Migra.  The intensity of the pandemic was just ending, and the game had just resumed with a fervor and ruthlessness born from young people being cooped up and isolated for so long.  He noticed that the students were really into it.  Some of the kids wore all black, complete with dark balaclavas to minimize their visibility in the dark while running.  Some of the chasers carried airsoft guns that resembled military grade weaponry.  One student even rented a U-Haul in the anticipation of capturing and deporting a lot of “illegals.”  Spencer talked about hearing that some captured “escapees” were zip-tied to a fence or dropped off in San Francisco.  

“I understand and like edgy games, such as Cops and Robbers, where the thrill factor is high, but there are problems with La Migra,” 16-year-old Spencer Ball told me when we met over coffee at Starbucks in April to talk about other options for teens in the community.  He wants to reinvent the game in a safer, more structured, and non-racist way.  “Kids need to have activities that are exciting and free from adult involvement, but being unkind to one another isn’t the way to do it.” Spencer shared that he and his friends already play a simulated war game in the Community Park wilderness area using nerf guns, and they love it.  Everyone watches out for each other.  They all know who is playing.  They establish reasonable rules, and they follow them.  Any of the friends can include whomever they want, and they all have an equal standing.  “We can open it up school-wide to anyone who wants to play,” he suggested.  

Spencer and Solano Aids Coalition Executive Director Mario Saucedo at Benicia’s Fiestas Primavera on March 28, 2024. | Photo by family.

Spencer also talks about the loose use of racist and sexist words used by the kids.  He notes that there is a lot of desensitized “humor” at school.  He mentioned that some of the students yell out words that would never be used in more civilized situations or around their grandmothers. 

Spencer notes that even under the best of circumstances and with all good intentions, these words can be obnoxious, offensive, or frightening to a lot of people when they hear it: “We need to stop giving the words power. We shouldn’t let these words affect who we are or react to them.  The same with bullying.  Social media has played a big part in this problem.  I’ve been bullied.  Standing up for yourself is one of the only ways to stop it.  Speak with confidence.  Surround yourself with caring people.  If you find the courage to hold your head up, self-esteem will follow.” 

Often easier said than done, for many, but absolutely correct in an ideal world.  

“We need to come together as a community,” Spencer tells me.  I nod.  His goal is to inspire and develop more inclusive, less dangerous, and yet fun activities for teens and to be that agent of change.  I look forward to what Spencer and others like him bring to Benicia.  

A copy of Spencer’s prize-winning essay about the La Migra game will be posted later today, on May 28, 2024. 

Elizabeth Patterson: Do you support sustainable development?

Elizabeth Patterson, Benicia Mayor 2007–2020.

By Elizabeth Patterson, first published in the Benicia Herald on May 17, 2024

What is sustainable development?

Sustainable development has become a popular planning expression used abundantly but often not understood. “Sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Benicia General Plan, 1999).

Most of us get that we need to reduce greenhouse gases that drive climate change and increase climate instability; in short, stop adding carbon to the atmosphere.  The state has attempted to achieve this by adopting law to reduce vehicle miles traveled.  This makes sense because 40% of carbon is from transportation, and so far there are not enough electric vehicles to drive down the amount of carbon from transportation.

If you support sustainable development, it is helpful to ask questions about the City of Benicia’s projects and processes.  To what extent are the City’s decisions reducing greenhouse gases, or at least not increasing greenhouse gases?  Everything is connected – economics, public works, land use, recreation, culture – like bones in a skeleton – it all has to work together by connecting the dots.

The first dot is, fortunately, defined in the Benicia General Plan.  General Plans are the constitution of land-use planning.  Like the U.S. Constitution, one cannot just have an idea and expect to implement it without an assessment of its consistency with the General Plan and thus its “sustainability.”

It is not advice, it is the law.  Community development and sustainability are at the heart of the goals developed in the Benicia General Plan.  I have heard from time to time that the General Plan is old – it is – and out of date – not really.  Would a new, updated General Plan delete sustainable development?  Anything could happen I suppose – one needs to stay alert.

The second dot is that the Benicia General Plan is the principal policy document for guiding future conservation and development in the city. It reflects the community’s shared values and determination of what Benicia is and should continue to be ­– an uncommonly special place.  Just a quick read of the city-adopted Downtown Conservation Plan reveals how “uncommon” it is:

“The failure of the various attempts in the 19th century to transform Benicia into a major city has resulted in the retention of the scale and character of the historic downtown, which presents a rare view of the evolution of architecture from the mid-19th century to the 20th century in California.”

This means that one should not destroy the “evolution of architecture.”  Goals expressed by city officials at public meetings to be like American Canyon’s “hotel row” is not protecting the gem of the uncommon qualities of Benicia attracting residents, visitors, and businesses.

The third dot to connect is the public process.  You really ought to read about the public process involved developing the General Plan: start at page two here.  People were engaged, met together, received mailed surveys, and we even had help from University of California at Davis for outreach, especially to young people.

Want to know what young people wanted?  Check it out at the link. The General Plan is the outcome of a process which began with the General Plan Oversight Committee (GPOC) and the Work Program (1994–1997). It is a process in which the GPOC held more than one hundred meetings and, with public participation, identified the Goals, Policies, and Programs (GPPs) which are the heart of the General Plan.

The GPOC survey identified the following 10 issues receiving the highest level of support (69% or greater) as being important to the community:

    1. Feeling safe in residential areas at night
    2. Feeling safe Downtown at night [ed: this is before tree lights and mixed-use development in the early 2000s]
    3. Good public schools
    4. Balance growth to ensure maintaining Benicia’s quality of life
    5. Small town atmosphere
    6. Growth should maintain small-town character
    7. Citizens need a voice in growth decisions
    8. Attract businesses that sustain environmental quality
    9. Pedestrian-friendly streets in the Downtown and other commercial areas
    10. Library facilities

The fourth connecting dot is that while the City may decide to amend this plan, the primary position of the City will be to implement it as adopted. This will honor both the principle of stability and the extraordinary degree of community participation that went into the formation of the plan. In short, is the General Plan still in step with community values and conditions, to wit: sustainable development, reducing our carbon footprint for future generations’ quality of life?

The last dot to connect is the so-called Seeno project at Lake Herman Road and East Second.  If we are going to reduce vehicle-miles traveled, do we build the stuff that has been built over decades for car-centric development?  Or do we avoid business as usual and design and build projects that are walkable, clearly reducing the need for increasing vehicle miles travelled?

It is a simple question. Think of roads as bones.  The bones tell us how we move.

Remember Lucy, Australopithecus, discovery by Donald Johanson?  Lucy represents the transition from walking on four feet to walking on two feet by standing up.  Bones tell it all.

Well, the roads of development are exactly the same:  are we going to drive or walk?  The transportation  road design of any project will make that clear. Business as usual or taking the path for future generations to have a livable community and planet?

Here are three planning principles for walkability:

  1. Don’t cluster commercial development in one blob,
  2. Do integrated commercial in workplaces and near residential areas within walking distance, and
  3. Don’t build suburban sprawl.

Watch the decisions about projects and you will learn if we are meeting the vision of sustainable development.  God help us if we are not.

Elizabeth Patterson, MA Urban and Regional Planning
Mayor (2007-2020)