Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - December 10, 2010

Pleasanton in 2011

After banner year of new development, city leaders turn focus to financial stability, pension reform, court-ordered housing issues

by Jeb Bing

Peace activist Fred Norman, who regularly asks the City Council to "do something" about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, looked at the new council the other day and quipped:

"It sure looks a lot like the old council!"

And indeed it does, which won't help Norman's efforts in the next two years. He's been unsuccessful in gaining majority support for his efforts to have a community dialogue on the wars he opposes.

The same five are still in charge. Mayor Jennifer Hosterman and City Council members Cheryl Cook-Kallio and Jerry Thorne were sworn into office for their final terms as mayor and council members Tuesday night. All three were re-elected on Nov. 2, with council members Cindy McGovern and Matt Sullivan still on the council. Their terms expire in 2012, along with Hosterman's, whose eight years as mayor also ends that year.

It's been years since all five members of the council, including the mayor, have stayed in place for four consecutive years. Which could be good in this pivotal year as the work of the council shifts from development to strategic issues that include financial stability, employee salaries and pension reform, state-mandated housing requirements following a court order that tossed out a 29,000-unit housing cap, climate action measures in line with state requirements and a looming $26 billion state budget deficit that could see Sacramento dipping into local coffers once again.

At Tuesday's meeting, the Cultural Arts Foundation presented its final contribution of $120,000 toward the $870,000 this group has raised in support of the $10 million Firehouse Arts Center that opened in September. The foundation will now fade away with the city's last major municipal building project now completed. Earlier, city funds built a $5 million lighted baseball complex in Bernal Community Park, and millions more were spent to renovate the Veterans Memorial Building, rebuild and expand the historic Alviso Adobe and community park on Foothill Road, and to clean up and beautify Kottinger Creek.

As the city tightens its financial belt in a time of uncertain sales and property tax receipts, there are no new projects on the books, at least for now.

It's also a pivotal time in terms of controversial measures before the council. The 51-home Oak Grove development proposal was scuttled by voters last June in a referendum, although the developers have sued the city to restore the approval they once had. For the first time when it comes to Oak Grove, the council has voted 5-0 to defend the referendum with the case due to be heard in January.

Staples Ranch and the extension of Stoneridge Drive to El Charro Road and Livermore, which also brought suits from individuals and organizations opposed to parts of those land use proposals, are moving forward with no opposition. Alameda County LAFCo (Local Agency Formation Commission) is scheduled to consider annexation of the 126-acre Staples site next month; Stoneridge will be extended in conjunction with a similar roadway extension in Livermore, which could be approved next year.

"Now comes the tough part," said Mayor Hosterman on Tuesday in looking toward the council's agenda in 2011. "Our focus now will turn to financial stability, employee salaries and entitlements and housing requirements imposed by a court order and the state. The voters decided to keep this council in place for two more years to tackle these assignments."

Already, there are rallying cries for Pleasanton to rein in employee benefits that have provided a free ride for health care with the city also contributing toward employee pensions. Three speakers asked the council to address these entitlements when the city negotiates new contracts with employee unions, including police and firefighters' locals. City Manager Nelson Fialho said public workshops will be held this spring as consideration is given in preparing a new two-year budget for fiscal 2011-12 and 2012-13. That effort is already under way, he said, pointing to a recent contract signed with firefighters that has them contributing 2% toward those benefits, up from zero.

But Bart Hughes, one of the speakers, said that's not enough. He wants employee contributions to be higher and also wants Pleasanton -- and other cities -- to look at pension eligibility that can provide employees with 90% of their final year's salary after 30 years on the job, no matter how old.

Hosterman agreed that these issues need to be addressed, vowing to make it a priority for 2011.

Although Pleasanton's municipal budget is balanced with more than $25 million in reserves, that could change in 2011 as Gov.-elect Jerry Brown and a Democrat-controlled Legislature start wrestling with a $6 billion budget shortfall in the current fiscal year.

"I just got a new projection for the state's budget Monday and it looks like over the course of the next year they're going to have to come up with $28 billion in order to balance the state budget," Hosterman said. "That's on top of the $6 billion Sacramento will have to scrape together this year."

"Regardless of voter-approved state measures that are supposed to prevent the state from seizing local funds to pay its bills, the reality is that the state and our legislators are going to use every means possible to take whatever money they can away from us to stay afloat," she added.

Still, Pleasanton's Finance Director Emily Wagner said Tuesday that the financial outlook for 2011 is reasonably good.

"We're seeing a slight improvement in sales tax revenue, which is a good sign," she said.

It's not as robust as Pleasanton has seen in recent years, but Wagner said the trend line is up for the first time in a while, indicating that the economy is improving. That could be a good sign not just for Pleasanton, but California as a whole where increased revenue could keep the state from "take-aways," which so far have cost Pleasanton more than $11 million in lost revenue.

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