In an effort to provide citizens with a more open forum, City Hall recently held a “Community Workshop” in the Matthew Turner Elementary School Auditorium to educate citizens on the city’s current budget problem and to obtain suggestions from the community on how to mend it.  The event follows a similarly structured one held last month at the Senior Center, and another open forum event is planned for August.

At 6pm, attendees shuffled into a wide room whose walls were decorated with trees made of craft paper. Attendees were met by Mario Giuliani, of the Parks and Community Services Department Office of the Director, who presented them with a piece of paper containing a number between one and six. Visitors then grabbed information packets from cafeteria tables in the back and made their way to their folding chairs as City Manager Jim Erickson and others readied the Power Point presentation. 

Erickson, a graying, nattily dressed man with an Abe Lincoln build, seemed quite prepared to deliver stern words and sobering figures. Still, he began his speech by reminding everyone that things could be a lot bleaker—and that Solano County has abundant examples of this. According to Finance Director Rob Souza, our neighbors Vacaville and Vallejo saw revenue declines of nearly 25%.

“We’re not down on our knees as a community,” said Erickson. “We’re not on our knees as a city government. We’ve got a very strong tax base. I would say, for its size, we have the strongest tax base in Solano County. We’ve got this great industrial park, and a large part of that industrial park is the refinery. It contributes a tremendous amount of money. It sort of saved our bacon.” 

Before moving on to the bad news, the delivery of which he split with Rob Souza, Erickson pointed out some of Benicia’s other bacon-saving features by citing the 2008-09 National Resource Center Survey of Benicia Residents. In that survey, 95% of Benicians rated Benicia as an excellent or good place to live, and 97% would recommend it as a good place to relocate. The officials didn’t say how these figures squared up against other communities, but both presenters seemed confident that the high sums signified more than sunny optimism and provincial logic. 

But all silver linings must have their clouds, and right now Benicia’s look rather somber. The city faces a revenue shortfall of 1.9 million dollars, the result of various factors, including a sales tax decline of more than 11%, a property tax decline of 3.6%, and health care costs that have been rising 10% a year. Budget deficits are forecasted to continue through 2019 in the City’s Long Range Budget Model. 

There were no mysteries as to where the money was going: employee compensation currently accounts for 75% of the City’s general budget, with more than 30% of that sum going to the Police Department.

Even though the City has already eliminated fifteen full-time positions over the last two years, a further reduction of salaries, benefits packages, and/or positions in some branches of city government seems inevitable. Still, some city officials seemed taken aback by a few of the austerity measures proposed during the Q&A section. One eager orator asked whether the city had considered shutting down the entire Police department and working with the Sheriff’s office. He was told that they had not. 

The speaker that followed him was a self-described businessman who derided the 75% figure as completely unsustainable. Erickson countered this by explaining that theirs was a service industry, and that the 75% figure was not out of line for a government agency. 

But a big cut in police services seems both unlikely and undesired, for as it turns out, the biggest money-drains are also the services Benicians deemed most useful. According to a Benicia Community Priorities Survey conducted in June, the five programs respondents ranked most important are all services provided by the Police and Fire departments, with 911 services at the topping the list (by contrast, public transportation ranked last). 

After the Q&A finished, community members broke up into groups according to the number they received when they arrived. Each group received a table, a marker, an easel, and instructions to come up with as many solutions as they could to the budget problem and rank the five the group considered most viable. Each table was granted the full ear of a city official, so they could ask questions and confirm figures without having to speak in public.  After the groups finished, one of their members was to go up and present the results. 

About forty people showed up for the event, and together they ran the gamut from senior citizens to seniors in high school. Their suggestions were equally diverse. Some were optimistic, even utopian: hefty parcel taxes, a solar farm, volunteer crews to handle non-emergency situations. Others were milder: parking meters, an increase in service fees, and using e-newsletters instead of the paper kind for city notices. And a third class of suggestions consisted of vocabulary words pulled straight from the lexicon of economic collapse: furloughs and firings, freezes and privatization—my group even came up with a volunteer/outsourcing category.  The posters were initially held up by a Benicia Fire Department member, but we started hanging them up on the easel ourselves after one community member suggested we slash his salary. 

After the presentations were finished, the participants turned in their posters, and the somewhat fraught meeting dissipated into conviviality as attendees struck up conversations and made their way to the complimentary Trail Mix packages. Even with all the gloom on the horizon, the people who came to the meeting seemed somewhat cheered. The officials did too. Administrative Services Director Anne Cardwell credited the event as being, “really helpful to get the public’s feedback in a more open forum and to give them environment where they can be creative.” 

And perhaps that’s why everyone left on a good note; we had all dealt with adult troubles with the equivalent of a fourth grade civics assignment, and the result was neither childish nor corny. 

Even with the challenges that lie ahead, we could all take comfort in the fact that we still lived in town where the city officials are approachable and caring, voters still attend meetings, and Trail Mix, at least, remains affordable.