[BenIndy Contributor Nathalie Christian — On April 19, 2023, the Benicia Herald published a letter penned by former City Council Member Lionel Largaespada. In his letter, Mr. Largaespada expressed “shock” that Benicia will realize a large deficit this fiscal year. Wednesday, April 26’s edition of the Herald featured a response from Benicia’s former Finance Director and current Assistant City Manager, Bret Prebula. In it, Mr. Prebula highlights our former Council Member’s many “distortions of truth” and notes that Mr. Largaespada conveniently avoids taking responsibility for some of the deficit spending he railed about. For Benicia to maintain its services and community benefits, “new tax revenue is a must, [and] that is a factual reality.” We must spurn politically motivated, distorted narratives about Benicia’s budget crisis and instead pledge to work together toward a common goal: Benicia’s financial sustainability. And with it, our future. — N.C.]
Distortion of the Truth
by Bret Prebula, April 26, 2023, originally posted in the Benicia Herald.
The letter sent by former City Councilmember Largaespada is a distortion of the truth. Mr. Largaespada makes accusations of some lack of professional ability or structure to oversee and manage the City’s budget, that is frankly just untrue. In fact, the finance department has over the past two years transitioned into a professional and higher performing department. The City had a history of poor financial leadership and in just two years we have not fixed all the sins of the past, but we are a long way from the past poor performance with a vision of continuing to improve.
Mr. Largaespada speaks of this “discrepancy” from the April 2022 5-year forecast discussion to the March 2023 FY 2022/23 mid-year budget review. What Mr. Largaespada fails to mention is that his comparison is like comparing apples and oranges. The 5-year forecast is exactly that, a forecast, to provide the council, staff, and the community an awareness under current revenue and expense trends what financial health the City is predicting and what is the sensitivity to changes in the system, i.e., revenue decreases or expense increases. The summary of that exercise was that the city has a clear structural deficit. The amount of surplus or deficit of the projection within the 5-year forecast is to achieve a trend to assist in policy decision making as actual fiscal years can have specific changes that could not be considered in a projection. (Which is what happened in FY 22/23- current fiscal year).
Mr. Largaespada wants to paint a picture that the current deficit was something new, while in fact Mr. Largaespada was on the City Council and approved the FY 2022 & FY 2023 budget, at that time the budget clearly was approved with deficit spending. The current estimated deficit was in fact not shocking since the Council knew it had approved a deficit budget when the budgets were adopted in June 2021 (inclusive of Mr. Largaespada). The additional level of deficit was due to some approved changes in Public Works salaries and other operating costs throughout the City for which Mr. Largaespada was supportive.
Our City is going through a difficult fiscal time, that is a clear truth, but this fiscal issue has been looming for a long time. We are now making sure our community knows the issue is realized and no longer just a theory. We will and have to make some operational reductions/efficiency changes, but new tax revenue is a must, that is a factual reality. The only other outcome without revenue is to dramatically change the services and community benefits (such as parks, library hours, level of public safety support) we can provide.
It is important that we all come together at this time to solve our citywide issues not distort information to further a narrative. We need to focus on our common interest that bind us together, we need to trust the staff that have shown in the past two years they are willing and capable to lead the City through this time, and trust our council (asking question genuinely to achieve information). As a citizen, I look forward to those interactions and discussions.
Bret Prebula, Resident and Assistant City Manager
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COVID-19 data from Solano County and the State show large discrepancy in deaths
The Benicia Herald, by Galen Kusic, Editor, October 17, 2021
[Print edition only, link not available. Subscribe to the print edition at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 707-745-6838. MORE]
As it appears a fourth wave of COVID-19 has begun to dissipate throughout the country, numbers remain alarmingly high in Solano County compared to the greater Bay Area.
The current 5.4 percent positivity rate is the best in months, but there are still 40 patients hospitalized and only 13 percent of ICU beds are available. The most alarming trend is the uptick in deaths, with 312 – an increase of 22 since Sept. 24, an average of one per day.
Yet what may be even more alarming is the discrepancy of deaths reported from the state and the county. As of Fri. Oct. 15, the state of Calif. reports that Solano County has a total of 334 deaths since the pandemic began – a difference of 22 deaths. The state also reports that the positivity rate is only 2.4 percent, half of what Solano County currently reports.
The first round of mass vaccination clinics recently started at the Solano County Fairgrounds for Pfizer booster shots or for those that have still not received the vaccine.
“78 percent of those testing positive in Solano County are unvaccinated,” said Solano County Supervisor Monica Brown. “Getting vaccinated protects you, protects your family, protects your community, protects our businesses, protects everyone.”
In Benicia, cases have slowed, but stayed steady. With 84.7 percent of the population vaccinated, only Rio Vista has a higher vaccination rate in the County at 89.3 percent. Vallejo (83.1) and Dixon (80.2) are not far behind. Since Sept. 24, Benicia has recorded 84 new cases, an average of four cases per day, a slight uptick from three weeks ago for a total of 1,496 since the pandemic began.
The City of Benicia on Mon. implemented a vaccine mandate for City employees. As of three weeks ago, only 62 percent of the Benicia Fire Department had been vaccinated.
“Those not vaccinated will be required to be tested weekly and wear a mask while indoors at City facilities,” said City Manager Erik Upson in his weekly update. “We did not step into this lightly, but felt it was needed to help protect the safety of our staff and our community.”
Benicia City Council to decide on city-wide mask mandate at Aug. 24 special meeting
Benicia Herald, by Galen Kusic, August 20, 2021
[Reprinted with permission, not available online. Subscribe]
Nearly 81 percent of Benicia’s residents are fully vaccinated, making it the second most vaccinated city in the county, next to Rio Vista. However, as the Delta variant of COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the country, state and in Solano County, Benicia is not being spared.
Over the past five days, Benicia has recorded 20 new COVID-19 cases, an average of five new cases per day, for a total of 1,187 cases since the pandemic began. And while Benicia has the lowest incidence rate in the county at 4,305 per 100,000 residents, the uptick is alarming.
That is what spurred Mayor Steve Young and Vice Mayor Tom Campbell to bring back a discussion on whether to mandate masks in public indoor spaces within Benicia. The eight other Bay Area counties have already implemented the mandate, while Solano County Health Officer Bela Matyas is the lone holdout. In a unanimous vote on Tue. night at the regular City Council meeting, councilmembers voted to bring back the item for a vote on whether to implement the mandate at the Aug. 24 special meeting.
“I implemented a mask mandate within our store a week ago because of the Delta virus strain,” said Councilmember and First St. business owner Christina Strawbridge. “I think it’s the responsible thing to do. I have to protect my staff and I have to protect my customers…I’m hoping we can rise above politics here.”
Matyas has been invited to attend the meeting. It should be a spirited conversation at the least as the majority of residents spoke out in favor of the mandate.
DOWNIEVILLE, Calif. — The night before his first deadline, Carl Butz, California’s newest newspaper owner, was digging into a bowl of beef stew at the Two Rivers Café, the only restaurant open in town.
“Tomorrow I have to fill the paper,” he said with only mild anxiety. “The question is, will it be a four-page paper or a six-page paper?”
At 71, Mr. Butz is trim, with wire-rimmed glasses and a close-cropped silver beard, and he dresses in flannel shirts and cargo pants. Since his retirement and his wife’s death in 2017, he considered traveling — to England or Latvia, or riding the Trans-Siberian Railway. But here he was, a freshly minted newspaper proprietor, having stepped in at the beginning of the year to save The Mountain Messenger, California’s oldest weekly newspaper, from extinction.
The Messenger was founded in 1853. Its most famous scribe was Mark Twain, who once wrote a few stories — with a hangover, the legend goes — while hiding out here from the law.
Newspapers across America, especially in rural areas like here in Sierra County, have been dying at an alarming rate, and Downieville was about to become the latest “news desert.” The obituaries for the paper had already been written. Don Russell, the hard-drinking, chain-smoking editor with a blunt writing style who had owned and run the paper for nearly three decades, was retiring, and he seemed happy enough for the paper to die with his retirement.
And then one night Mr. Butz was watching “Citizen Kane” on cable and thought, I can do that. He made the deal quickly, paying a price in the “four figures,” he said, plus the assumption of some debts, without even looking at the books.
Still, Mr. Russell, an old friend of Mr. Butz’s, was a reluctant seller. “His position was, it’s a losing proposition and someone who’d want it would be crazy,” Mr. Butz said. “He called me a romantic idealist and a nut case. And that’s not a paraphrase, but a direct quote.”
For the residents of Downieville — and there are not many; the population is about 300 — who for generations counted on The Messenger to arrive every Thursday, through wildfires and power outages and economic booms and busts, Mr. Butz has become an unlikely local hero, a savior of a cherished institution.
“Thank God for Carl, he stepped in,” said Liz Fisher, a former editor of the paper who lives across the street from its office and runs The Sierra County Prospect, an online news site. “It was devastating for everybody that we were going to lose The Mountain Messenger.”
A cluttered, smoke-filled newsroom
On a recent Wednesday morning, facing his first deadline, Mr. Butz was staring down a blank computer screen in the newspaper’s cramped two-room office above a beauty salon on Main Street. Mr. Butz, a fourth-generation Californian and a former computer programmer and labor economist for the state, readily admitted that he had no idea what he had gotten himself into, and it did not help to learn that the paper’s publishing software was from the mid-1990s.
One of the first things he said he would do after buying the paper was ban smoking in the office, but next to his keyboard was a package of unfiltered cigarettes and an ashtray.
“What is the lead story?” Mr. Butz asked.
“The front page is blank,” replied Jill Tahija, the paper’s only other employee, sitting at an adjacent computer.
Ms. Tahija, who has worked at The Messenger for 11 years, might properly be called the managing editor, but on her business cards it says, “she who does the work.”
Her small black-and-white dog, Ladybug, a Boston terrier-Shih Tzu-Chihuahua mix, bounded around the cluttered newsroom. On every surface were books and trinkets and junk — Civil War histories, annals of the county, dictionaries, empty beer bottles, packages of ramen noodles.
In the archives section are old papers dating to the 1850s, and on the walls are pictures of Mark Twain and some slogans — old saws of newspapering, like “If it bleeds, it leads.”
Mr. Russell, who was on vacation, driving his R.V. up the coast with his wife, when Mr. Butz took over the paper, once told The Los Angeles Times that Twain had written a few unremarkable stories for The Messenger. Mr. Russell had read them on microfilm at a library. “They were awful,” he said. “They were just local stories, as I recall, written by a guy with a hangover.”
At his computer, Mr. Butz was putting together one of his first new features for the paper, a “poetry corner.” (He selected “Thoughts,” by Myra Viola Wilds, an African-American poet from Kentucky who wrote in the early 20th century.) As Ms. Tahija worked on the front page — the next day it would be filled with stories about a local poetry competition, the upcoming census, wildfire prevention and a local supervisors meeting — Mr. Butz shifted his focus to finishing his letter to readers.
In it, he explained why he bought the paper. “Simply put,” he wrote, “the horrible thought of this venerable institution folding up and vanishing after 166 years of continuous operation was simply more than I could bear.”
The newspaper, he wrote, was “something we need in order to know ourselves.”
‘Like losing a friend’
Making a newspaper in Downieville is strictly an analog, ink-on-paper affair; there is no website, no social media accounts. It loses a few thousand dollars a year, and relies mostly on publishing legal notices from the county and other government offices, which brings in about $50,000 a year, for the bulk of its revenue. It has about 700 subscribers and a print run of 2,400 copies, just below the county’s population.
“I’m not going to lose a million dollars but I know I’m going to have to subsidize some of it,” Mr. Butz said. “My daughter is already aware that her inheritance is shrinking.”
Downieville is a remarkably well-preserved old Gold Rush town, perched at a fork in the Yuba River in remote western Sierra County. History is its pitch to tourists, and it has the feel of a backlot for an Old West movie — in its corner saloon, in the one-lane bridges over the Yuba, and in the second-story offices of The Messenger, next to the Fire Department. (A painted message on the door says it is the “oldest volunteer fire department west of the Mississippi.”)
With the demise of gold mining and the shuttering of the sawmills that were once an economic engine for the region, Downieville reinvented itself as a destination for mountain biking and fly fishing, with an abundance of Old West charm.
Residents reacted to Mr. Butz’s last-minute purchase of the paper with a mixture of relief and gratitude.
“A real sense of relief,” said Lee Adams, a former Sierra County sheriff and a current member of the county’s Board of Supervisors.
The paper was always an important institution, but it had become more so in recent years as Northern California dailies like The Sacramento Bee and The San Francisco Chronicle stopped distributing in the region, and rarely sent reporters to cover Sierra County.
“We would have to fall off the face of the earth to make one of those papers on a normal news day,” Mr. Adams said.
The Messenger is more than just a chronicle of weekly happenings — government meetings, births and deaths, the police blotter, the weather — but also a repository of the county’s history. The paper is just a year younger than Sierra County, which was founded in 1852, the year Wells Fargo was established to serve the Gold Rush and the riches being dredged from the river.
When Bill Copren, 76, a local historian and a former county assessor, wrote his master’s thesis on the political history of Sierra County in the mid-19th century, he relied on The Messenger’s archives.
More recently, when officials secured a spot on the National Register of Historic Places for a local school built in the Art Deco style in 1931, they used the paper’s archives to confirm the details of how it was built and who paid for it.
The paper’s closure, Mr. Copren said, would have been “like losing a friend.”
Under Mr. Russell, The Messenger had a distinctive attitude and a brusque, straightforward style. He was averse to political correctness and not immune from using curse words in print.
Mr. Butz said he did not plan to own the paper for long, and wanted to find a younger person who could take over. He said he was thinking about bringing the paper into the digital age, with a website, and was thinking about turning it into a nonprofit publication, accepting donations and grants to keep it running.
But on a recent Thursday morning, the day after deadline, he was just happy to have his first issue under his belt.
His Thursday routine is now established: He gets up early and drives about an hour and a half to a printing plant in Quincy, Calif., to pick up the bundles of freshly printed newspapers. On the way, he and Scott McDermid, the paper’s longtime distribution manager, stop at the Express Coffee Shop for waffles and eggs.
And then, with a truck full of papers, they crisscross the county, past the tall cedars and Douglas firs of the mountains, and across the Sierra Valley, dotted with junipers and cottonwoods, stopping at every shop and gas station, emptying newspaper machines of last week’s edition, collecting money and dropping off fresh bundles of The Messenger.
The story around town is how Mr. Butz saved the local newspaper.
But Mr. Butz, a still-grieving widower — his wife, Cecilia Kuhn, the drummer in an all-female punk band, Frightwig, died in 2017 — sees it another way.
“It’s saving me,” he said.
Tim Arango is a Los Angeles correspondent. Before moving to California, he spent seven years as Baghdad bureau chief and also reported on Turkey. He joined The Times in 2007 as a media reporter.