Thursday, December 28, 2006

Vallejo's Progress in 2006 Matter of Perception

Vallejo's Progress in 2006 Matter of Perception
By Chris G. Denina, Times-Herald staff writer
Vallejo Times Herald

Some could say 2006 was a year of setbacks for Vallejo.

Local groups sued over controversial development projects. The city made millions in budget cuts. And residents were saddled with higher bus and ferry fares.

Or some could say 2006 was the year Vallejo finally took care of these problems.

Opposition groups reached settlements so developments could move forward. The city avoided layoffs and took steps to curbing future deficits. And by raising transit fares the city's transportation fund is climbing its way out of debt.

It all depends on how you look at it.


Budget cuts

At the start of the year, Vallejo City Hall lacked a leader.

Former City Manager Roger Kemp resigned after he was ousted in November 2005, reportedly over his inability to reopen a controversial firefighters union contract.

That same contract had plagued the city for years, as Vallejo officials kept deferring union raises for short-term savings. But in the long term, the raises kept coming back bigger, pushing the city into the red. Those raises were expected to reach about $8 million by next fiscal year - more than Vallejo could afford, city officials said.

The city hired John Thompson as interim city manager to fill in until a more permanent replacement could be hired. Thompson started work Jan. 30. For much of the year, he worked on reopening that firefighters union contract. The city and union ultimately failed to reach a deal.

During those talks, the firefighters union brought up the idea of the city paying the legal fees for a failed defamation suit filed by the union president against past and present city officials and a city employee. A judge ruled against the controversial lawsuit this year.

Instead going ahead with a plan to defer raises again, the City Council chose to take a stand against the union and initiate budget cuts, such as slashing positions in city departments including fire.

Those budget reductions include cutting two firefighters from Marin Street's Station 21. But those cuts may get cut themselves, since the firefighters union is seeking to challenge the cuts through a process called binding arbitration. That's when a third party decides whether to go ahead with the cuts.

Other cuts include replacing a police lieutenant and sergeant with a patrol officer, plus cuts at City Hall including a full-time city spokesperson and three public works maintenance positions.


Raising rates

The council also took a stand against money-losing city services.

Vallejo officials considered hiring a company to run the city's cash-strapped marina. For years, the marina has lost money. But in 2006, the council took steps to bring it back into the black, including raising rates.

The council also took a look at its money-losing transportation fund. The council opted to raise bus, ferry and shuttle fares to curb the long-standing deficit, which was only hurt by the year's rising fuel prices. Routes with fewer riders also were axed to cut costs.

But the city had to take a loss when it came to missing ferry ticket revenues. The owners of Muggs Coffee Emporium agreed to a repayment plan for unpaid ferry revenue, but under the plan the city is unlikely to recoup its losses.

The city's garbage franchise wasn't losing money, but officials chose to raise rates to make what they said were much-needed improvements. Next year, residents will be able to tote their trash to the curb using roller carts, paid for with the fee increase.


New manager, old problems

The council hired Joseph Tanner to start as Vallejo's new City Hall chief Jan. 8. He'll find his staff has been cut and city services reduced. But he'll also find that some problems the city faced in 2006 have been resolved.

Many controversial development projects in Vallejo were sidelined by legal challenges. But many parties were able to reach settlements in 2006 so the projects could move forward.

A waterfront renewal project was tied up as a coalition fought for changes to the plan, seeking concessions like more open space. With a deal signed, Vallejo's waterfront developer can now proceed with his plans to build projects including housing, stores and restaurants along Mare Island Way.

Some residents challenged a housing project called Bordoni Ranch, saying the proposal to build hundreds of homes at the Vallejo-Benicia border would strain Vallejo municipal services. The developer made changes to his plan and the group settled its case, allowing the project to continue.

But not all projects end in a settlement.

Homeowners on Mare Island fought to stop the reopening of the former naval shipyard's dredge ponds. A developer wanted to reuse the ponds to store mud dredged from local waterways. Residents raised such a stink, raising concerns about such issues as the smell of dredged materials, that the developer backed off and shuttered its proposal.

Some Vallejo residents also fought Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s proposal to build a supercenter on the vacant site of a former Kmart store at Sonoma Boulevard and Redwood Street. The council, however, opted to let the retail giant proceed with its application to build a 24-hour supercenter with a full-service grocery store.

Wal-Mart is paying for economic and environmental studies as part of its application to build the project in the environmentally sensitive area known as White Slough.


New projects

After years of seeking a developer to renew Mare Island's north end, city officials may have found a group to get it done. Touro University, which already has a campus on the old base, is working on a proposal to build a university village including student housing, bookstores and restaurants, plus a research park and community-and-cultural center.

Mare Island also may get a boost under a proposal to bring the USS Iowa to the old base. A group seeking to open floating museum in Vallejo is awaiting the Navy's decision on whether Vallejo or Stockton will get the World War II battleship.

With all that's happening in Vallejo, Tanner, the new city manager, will have his hands full.

E-mail Chris G. Denina at or call 553-6835.

Solano's Got It!

Solano's Got It!
The Best That Northern California Has To Offer.

Blog Archive