The City Council Tuesday breathed new life into a proposed Longs Drugs store downtown, but warned the national retailer that it wouldn’t get the alcohol permit it’s demanding unless it yielded to city demands for a substantial produce department and strict limits on the sale of beer and wine.
“We need to get some real concessions,” Mayor Tom Bates said after the council voted 5-4 (Bates, Shirek, Olds, Hawley, Wozniak, yes) to set a public hearing on the project for July 16.
Also Tuesday the council ordered the city manager to draft five tax measures for the November ballot and further fine-tuned a measure that would make Berkeley the first city to publicly finance elections.
The council vote on Longs came despite a recommendation from City Manager Phil Kamlarz to uphold a unanimous decision of the Zoning Adjustment Board last February denying a beer and wine license for the proposed shop at 2300 Shattuck Ave.—700 feet from Berkeley High School.
Longs has insisted it won’t occupy the abandoned storefront without a license to sell beer and wine. Opponents of the plan, including members of the school board and Police Chief Roy Meisner, have argued that the store would potentially sell alcoholic beverages to high school students and increase crime in the downtown.
Councilmember Linda Maio agreed with their concerns and reiterated the pressing need for a downtown grocery store. “I think having a liquor outlet at all there is a big mistake,” she said. “Longs wouldn’t add anything in terms of goods and services we don’t have in the downtown.”
Bates, though, said a public hearing would give the city a chance to push for a larger produce section and possible limit on alcohol sales.
Jim Novosel, the project’s architect, said after the meeting he wasn’t sure what types of concessions the mayor had in mind, but that Longs would soon contact Bates’ office.
Bonnie Hughes, who opposes Longs, was surprised that Councilmember Maudelle Shirek—who passed on her initial opportunity to vote before siding in favor of a public hearing—backed the drug store.
“Maudelle needs to come around. I don’t think she paid much attention,” Hughes said.
When asked about her vote after the council meeting, the 92-year-old councilmember said Longs, which won’t sell malt liquor, wouldn’t carry the type of alcohol that tended to cause crime.
“Maybe we can work out something,” Shirek said. “What we need a good food store downtown.”
Budget and Ballot Measures
City Manager Phil Kamlarz recommended Tuesday the City Council place a 1.5 percent Utilities Users Tax hike on the November ballot. The estimated $2.7 million tax increase on water, telephone, cable and gas and electric bills, he said, would expire after five years and serve as a bridge to preserve vital city services through 2009, Kamlarz said.
Among the services the tax revenue could spare include $1.3 million for a fire truck company, $200,000 for programs at senior centers, $400,000 to fund community nonprofits, and $1 million to fill seven vacant police officer positions.
The tax, which would go to the General Fund and require approval from a simple majority of voters, would take the place of a proposed fee increase for 911 services, the city dropped after learning of lawsuits over the fee in other jurisdictions.
If voters approved the tax, and maintained program cuts, the city would be in line for a budget surplus in fiscal year 2007, when the governor has pledged to repay cities money lost from the repeal of the Vehicle License Fee increase and begin restoring other revenues the state has withheld to during its budget crisis. For Berkeley, that could mean an influx of $3.8 million in state money.
The council asked the city staff to draft language for the Utilities Users Tax, a $1.9 million tax for libraries, a $1.2 million tax for paramedic services, a $1.6 million tax for youth services, and a $1.2 million tax to fix storm drain and clean water in creeks that run above ground.
Mayor Bates said he would likely recommend leaving one tax proposal off the ballot and that the storm water measure “is a candidate.”
Bates also touted a survey conducted last week by the Board of Education, which found that in addition to strong support for a new school tax, 77 percent of voters questioned supported the library tax, 72 percent supported the paramedic tax, and 68 percent supported the clean storm water tax.
However, Paul Goodwin, the author of the survey which interviewed 600 likely voters, had earlier cautioned about reading anything into the city results because the survey lacked concrete information about how much money the measures would raise or specific services they would provide.
One tax proposal that definitely won’t be in the November ballot is a 10 percent hike on the off-street parking tax proposed by the Transportation Commission. By a 5-3-1 vote (Worthington, Spring, Breland, yes, Shirek, abstain) the council rejected the $600,000 tax that would have been slapped on parking lot users.
Councilmember Miriam Hawley said she was sympathetic to the concept, but that $600,000 was not enough money pursue a public campaign.
Campaign Finance Reform
Amid some confusion, the council voted 6-2-1 (Hawley, Olds, no, Shirek abstain) to accept recommendations from the Fair Campaign Practices Commission and add a few of their own to a proposal ballot measure to publicly finance all elections.
The system would create an election fund from which eligible candidates could receive a set amount of money in return for agreeing not to raise additional funds. Candidates who didn’t qualify by demonstrating a base level of support or opted out of the system would be bound by the current rules forbidding contributions from businesses and limiting individual contributions to $250.
The recommendations included strict penalties for candidates who violate the new rules, and a means to redistribute campaign allocations in the event that a large number of candidates run and the election fund doesn’t have enough money to fund them at the prescribed rate.
Should the council opt not to place a measure on the ballot, the Berkeley Fair Election Coalition (BFEC) has promised to take a nearly identical reform plan to voters. During the debate, BFEC representative and UC Berkeley student Sam Ferguson was called on repeatedly to explain various facets of the plan to the council.
Betty Olds, an opponent of taking the plan to voters this year chimed that “If I was working against this for the election I would play a tape of this meeting and show how confused everybody is.”g