Antioch City Council Debate


City Council candidates, from left, Arne Simonsen, Wade Harper and Gary Agopian at a candidates forum in September that Council members Reggie Moore and Martha Parsons did not attend.


The following is a transcription of most of the Antioch City Council candidates debate on Aug. 25. Five candidates are running for two seats on the council. The candidates are Antioch Unified School District (AUSD) Board Member Wade Harper, former Councilman Arne Simonsen, Councilwoman Martha Parsons, former AUSD Board Member Gary Agopian and Councilman Reggie Moore.

Question: Will you vote for Measure P, the half-cent sales tax increase on the ballot?

Wade Harper: I agree with a half-cent sales tax. I agree with raising taxes only as a last resort. People are paying Mello-Roos tax, water and garbage rates have increased. We always have to look at it as a last resort and not always go into the pockets of the taxpayers. I do realize that there was a survey done to ask if they would agree with a half-cent sales tax and there is evidence that the community would agree with that. The City Council is going before the  community and saying, “Give us some direction. We are at a fork in the road. Do we maintain our current level of service, or do you want us to start decreasing service?”

I believe that public safety is one of the most important things. We need to properly fund public safety, properly staff our police department, our fire department. If you ask people in the community they will say our number one concern is public safety. If you ask any one of these candidates, at the top of their list is going to be public safety. So we have to properly staff our police department, our fire department. We also need to make sure we can improve the roads. It means that I’m going to vote yes because I want our police department properly staffed, and I want to maintain this level of service to the community.

Arne Simonsen: If you look at the articles of incorporation for Antioch back in 1872, we have two services we are supposed to provide: police and fire. Our fire department is consolidated with the county. So Antioch police service is number one. I believe the half-cent sales tax proposal by the city council is the wrong direction to go. When the State of California increased sales taxes by 1 percent for a two-year period, they predicted it would draw $8 billion to the state. They ended up with the fiscal year that just closed only generating $1.4 billion. Its going to drive Antioch residents to go shop at our neighbors in Brentwood, Pittsburg and Oakley. And they are going to love it, particularly on the high ticket items. It won’t affect car sales (those are related to zip code). But it will impact car dealers on parts and service. There’s more generated in those departments than actual car sales. I think it’s the wrong way to go.

My preference would have been to go with a parcel tax. We have roughly 35,000 parcels in the city of Antioch. And we could have a steady income that would not be very much per month. It might be $9 a month, something like that. But I would have insisted that the money went to our number one priority: public safety. There’s times when you have to look at whether you’re getting what you’re paying for. A lot of times we get thrown off by what initially comes out. City survey said it would go for police, code enforcement and roads. But when you hear the City Council, they are talking about giving money to animal services and everything else except public safety. If it all went to public safety I’d be very very happy. But it’s not. And since it’s going to be a volatile source of income I could not support that. But I could support a parcel tax dedicated solely to police services.

Martha Parsons: I’m clearly going to vote for it. The money will in the beginning go to public safety. If we say it’s only going to go to public safety there’s a two-thirds threshold of the voters. By saying it’s going to the General Fund and will also support code enforcement, which I also believe is important, it’s going to our police department, code enforcement, our streets, all of which have something to do with public safety. The half-cent sales tax will impact everyone in our community. It will be on not only the residents who own property but on the renters and the people that come into our community.

I believe in our residents more than some others, I guess. I believe for the half-cent sales tax someone is not going to buy a tube of toothpaste that will cost them two more cents. I believe they will stay in Antioch to go to a dealership for their car repair for $180 and spend 90 cents to improve their quality of life. For someone on a fixed income, they would have to buy $24,000 worth of taxable goods to add up to $120 on a parcel tax. We are giving the opportunity to say I want to support our city. I want to support my quality of life. And the way I want to do it is by the half-cent sales tax.

Gary Agopian: The real issue is not so much taxation as it is the drop in revenue. The real issue is that we have seen a 32 percent drop in revenue in property taxes in the last three years. We have seen a 25 percent drop in sales tax revenue in the last three years. We have seen $10.5 million in revenue cut from our budget, but only $8.5 million in expenditures cut in that same three-year period of time. So if I was on the council I would be saying first of all, “What are the priorities in this city? Where do we want to fund, and what is the most effective way to do that?”

If I were doing a poll I wouldn’t have put the poll up and say, “Are you willing to pay a half-cent sales tax or $120 a year (property tax)?” When the answer is going to be a resounding no (on the property tax). But if you are asking the voters, “Would you like to dedicate X number of dollars a month – it could end up being $5 a month – to police services?” I think the voters might have a whole other opinion. As a council we might be debating that issue differently than we did. So the real issue is: How do we grow revenue? If I was a City Council member I would have debated it very, very differently than it was.

Reggie Moore: What the council decided to do was to ask the residents of Antioch are they willing to tax themselves for vital services. This only happened after years of serious cuts on behalf of this council. This council turned every rock over and tried to find every savings that we could find. Our employee groups have been wonderful on this question. They have given back in the form of furlough days, they have given back in the form of wage concessions. We don’t have a spending problem; we have a revenue problem. This council has done a wonderful job of cutting costs while maintaining services. But there comes a point where if you’re going to maintain the level of service that the community deserves and address the entire spectrum of city services and not just stay focused on one issue, you have got to raise revenue. And we are at a point right now where we need to raise revenue to meet those needs and those concerns in our community.

I hear from a wide range of people in our town that “I want my level of services to be maintained.” And this particular budget cycle, unlike any other, those who support recreational services come out, those who support animal services come out and, of course, those who support public safety come out. And as an elected leader you have got to make tough decisions. At this point in time to enhance the quality of recreational services. When I hear from parents that “My child has grown and become a better person because of the programs we have in place,” I don’t want those programs to go away. Then I take it as a charge to make sure we have those services. When I hear “We are not treating the animals in our town the way we want them treated,” I take that seriously. Of course, we know that public safety is best met through preventative programs. While our police department does a fantastic job of solving crimes, they can’t be everywhere all the time. So it becomes a balancing act. But this particular revenue enhancement measure is really going to be decided by the people. And our charge as council members was to ask the question. And we have asked the question, and it’s up to the voters to decide. Yes, I will be voting in the affirmative on this particular measure. I think that 50 cents per $100 is a nominal amount of money to be spent to improve the quality of life in Antioch.

Antioch Council members Reggie Moore and Martha Parsons

Question: A poll of city residents said that 63 percent feel the city is on the wrong track. Do you agree? What would you do to change it?

Simonsen: That was a sad result on the poll, and a commentary on what’s happened in the year and a half since I left the council. When I left the council, we had a very healthy reserve. But I also warned the council about the problems that are on the horizon, and they didn’t listen. In 2007 I warned about a potential housing bubble coming down the road, about the bond market, and it seemed that nobody was really listening to the Federal Reserve, the bond markets, the financial markets, housing markets. The projections were so optimistic that I actually had to vote against the budget because I said it will lead to a deficit. And guess what – it did lead to a deficit. Things a city could have done. There are ways to get the revenue back in line. When I was elected the mayor Verne Roberts told me, “Arne, you’re now responsible for every bad decision the city has made since 1872 – 128 years.

One of those mistakes is the council back in the ’70s and ’80s decided that they were going to pay the employees’ portion of CalPERS (California Public Employees Retirement System). That means that not all of our employees are contributing to our retirement plan. But we in the private sector have to pay our portion of Social Security. If the city employees back in 2006, 2007 had agreed to that, the city would have over $2.7 million a year that they would have to be able to retain the positions. It would have softened the blow from the economic downturn. If you look at whether we should be funding the county in operation of their branch library in Antioch, we should have our citizens go after the (county) board of supervisors for not properly funding it. Or do we look at privatizing Prewett Park, which can provide more money? The wrong track is what’s happened since 2008.

Parsons: I agree (that the city has gone downhill). I actually took the poll. I disagree with Mr. Simonsen. The first meeting I had after being appointed to the City Council in 2008, we were already talking about our budget cuts. So it didn’t end with his leaving. It started prior to that. The reason we’ve had to cut so much is our lack of revenues. The state has taken it. The assessors lowered our values. We’ve had numerous foreclosures because of the growth that had taken place prior. And we’ve done an enormous amount to get us to where we are now. In 2006-7 we had a budget in monetary revenue of $47 million. At this point we are $34 million. That is an enormous amount to cut. But our citizens have stepped up. We had Keep Antioch Beautiful. We’ve had Neighborhood Watch groups. I believe in the city of Antioch, and I believe that we can get back on the right track and maintain our quality of life.

Agopian: In that same poll 82 percent of them are likely voters. So these are people who really care about Antioch. And 69 percent of those voters were also dissatisfied with how the city was handling its finances and budget. Those are big numbers. There’s a great deal of dissatisfaction in Antioch on a number of different issues. It was instructive in that same poll that clearly 80 percent of those same voters want police and safety to be the number one priority of this council. I pointed out earlier that we had a $10.5 million drop in revenue but only an $8.5 million reduction in expenditures. We have still not closed the gap. We have been deficit-spending now for the last three years. We are going into year four and projecting year five. So if someone on the council is telling you they have done the heavy lifting, they haven’t done all of the heavy lifting that they need to do. They have only done part of the job. And that’s one of the reasons why we have the $4.5 million gap that we are facing for next year. With that type of backdrop what we need to do clearly in this city is re-bench expenses. We have a new normal.

When is the (real estate) market coming back? Well, it isn’t coming back, because it was inflated artificially. When you lose 32 percent of your taxable value in a city you have to seriously think: Are we going to get 32 percent back? How are we going to live? The question I have is: When was the last time we had a budget of $34.5 million? How did the city survive? What was the level of police service? What type of benefits did we offer? What are the weighted benefit costs today versus 10 years ago? What are we paying for medical insurance for workers compensation? The water park, should we privatize it? Should we handle it the way we do with the Lone Tree Golf Course? Have a board of directors, a nonprofit and say we are not going to subsidize that any more. There are a lot of things that we still need to do in order to get right-sized. Having said that, I need to emphathize that we have a Gottschalks that closed, we have two Mervyns that closed. And the drop in retail taxable value in this city is also a huge component in the problem that we are facing. We have to have a full court press in that area in order to get those tax dollars back.

Moore: I can respect and appreciate that (people think things are not going that well). I think with a deep economic recession, people become frustrated with the level of service that the city provides. I think overall my town is a wonderful town. Those who knock the town for political gain really troubles me. I would argue that Mr. Simonsen was on the council for two terms. And during the boom years, yes, we had significant income from new housing starts. Yet Mr. Simonsen did not push for a 30 percent reserve, which would have put this city in much better stead today with the drop in revenue. Currently we see $25 million of the $34 million go to police services. We are funding the police as well as we can fund them in today’s environment. So it troubles me when there are those who play the politics of fear instead of the politics of optimism. How do we turn this around? I think this council has taken the very first step that’s necessary by placing this revenue enhancement measure on the ballot. And it is my hope that the people of Antioch will support this measure. What we know is that this economy will grow and turn around. The American economy, even though we have gone into a global environment, is one that is built upon a very strong foundation, and at some point we know that it will turn and it will grow. Housing starts will at some point begin anew. We know that the foreclosure rate at some point will stop.

It’s a tough time to be in leadership right now, there’s no doubt about it. I often wonder why the five of us are even running right now, given how tough a job it is. But it’s not a time to play politics. And it’s not a time to say “If I were there I would have done this.” This council has been as responsible as any council in the county when it came to addressing these very tough needs right now. Do we need to ask the employee groups, who by the way are in contracts, to give something to their pension? Absolutely. As a public employee I pay some 7 percent into my pension every month. I think it’s what we should be doing. And I do think it’s unconscionable that employee groups are not paying into their pension. As we negotiate new contracts they are going to have to understand that there is a new norm, that the days of 100 percent-funded pension by the taxpayers are gone. Those days don’t exist any longer. And we can’t move forward in that environment. The people of Antioch are going to have to be patient right now. This council has made some serious steps toward righting the listing ship. And I believe that with their support we can get it done. But I believe that they are right. I as a 20-year resident am one of them who think we may be headed in the wrong direction. But I’m very convinced that it can be turned around. And it’s not going to be hard to turn around and we are going to get it done.

Harper: I think the incumbents here and everyone realizes that we can always better our best. This recession was not caused by this City Council. We all understand that. There was a sharp decline in property tax and taxes. We all know that if our outgo is greater than our income then our upkeep is in for a downfall. We all realize that. We can’t continue to deficit spend. I see the foreclosed housing. I see the lawns that are yellow. I think we all realize that we have to turn it around. We have to stop deficit spending. We have to properly staff the police department and fire department. I think they have made concessions. There’s been about 13 police officers that were laid off, 11 community service officers laid off, code enforcement officers laid off.

So we have to get together. In the city where I work I facilitated budget workshops, and we have come up with ideas to reduce spending and bring in revenues. We listened to all of the community. We have to involve the community in the decision making, have town hall meetings, get them to be a part of the solution. We came up with 900 possible solutions. We did the same thing with the school district. We need to sit at the table with the community members, with business leaders and synergize and come up with the right ideas to move this city along in the right direction.

Question: Reggie Moore said employee groups must accept that they are going to have to pay some or more into their pensions. Do you support that?

Parsons: I do. I think they realize that. Our employee groups have been wonderful. I was not part of any of the contracts that were signed. However, the employees have stepped up to the plate. They are working harder, fitting more into less time. They are reevaluating and doing a wonderful job, including our police department. It’s not 11 community service officers, it was actually 22. I took three ride-alongs. We’ve put a tremendous amount of impact on our police department because of that (loss of community service officers). They know what they need to do and they are willing to help us out.

Agopian: I agree with the concept that underlying some of this is a weighted cost, a future expense that is extremely costly to the city currently. There’s a good model out there that we need to look at and consider doing. The State Highway Patrol has made agreements in exchange for certain other kinds of things that protected jobs, which would have been a great model for Antioch. Oakland PD just did the same thing and they are actively supporting a parcel tax in order to rehire police officers, which is something that we should be considering.

It’s a push-pull type of situation. We have to be looking at how we can restrain growth and expense and at the same time prioritize where we need to have the bodies doing the work that we know is most important. Remember, 80 percent of the people polled said that crime and violence and gangs was the number one priority of the city. All you have to do is drive into Antioch and look at the graffiti and look at the blight. I’m really concerned also when we have an opportunity to enhance a tax base and allow a retailer the opportunity to expand and do the work that they should be doing. That’s a central part of the strategy. Retail sales growth comes from that.

Moore: We have yet to lay off a single police officer in the city of Antioch. I’m uncertain where the 13 layoffs of the police department is coming from, but it’s not true. When I hear the politics of fear, its very troubling about gangs and violence and how bad Antioch has become. If we are ever going to attract middle class families to Antioch and increase the revenue stream in Antioch, we have got to stop playing that game with the people of Antioch. It’s just not fair. On the pensions, yes we are in contracts and its definitely my hope that every employee group will come to the realization that there is a new norm and they have got to pay into the pension. It’s a nominal amount. I’ve paid it for years. I’ve been a public employee for almost 20 years and I’ve always paid into my pension and I think its the appropriate thing to do.

Harper: I’ve met with the president of the Police Officers Association. Law enforcement understands that there is going to be a two-tier retirement system. I’ve been a police officer for 22 years, currently serving as a lieutenant. We were threatening to lay off police officers and we all gave up our raises. We agreed to a two-tier retirement system. So we understand that that is what it may come to. But what we don’t understand is that the life expectancy of a police officer after retirement is only about five years. So that’s why they had the better retirement system. So I don’t think we should try to take away from these law enforcement officers who have served us and who have dedicated their lives to us. And a lot of them are about to retire and now we are going to tell them that we are going to take away your retirement. But I do understand a two-tier system is long-term. That won’t help us right now, that’s long-term. I do think police departments have made concessions and they do understand that it is coming to a two-tier system.

Simonsen: I want to correct one thing Wade just said. According to CalPERS actuaries they show that the average life expectancy of a CalPERS retiree non-public safety is 81.4 years. They also show that the life expectancy of a sworn police officer in the CalPERS program is 81.4 years. It’s exactly the same. So we have to deal with reality and the facts. They are living longer. I’m retired military and I’ve almost been retired longer than I was actually in the service at this point. We need to have the employees pay their portion. When I first got on the council in December 2000 the first thing I did when we had our first negotiations was ask why aren’t they paying into the program. I tried at every negotiation we had to get them to do the same thing we do in the private sector. I never could get support. The last round of negotiations we had I said, “OK, let’s try to get them to pay at least 1 percent. A long journey begins with one step.” The city manager said, “You’re not going to believe this – they accepted your proposal.”

We are all seeing what other cities and counties are experiencing. They also have their post-employment benefits that we have to deal with. Reggie was directly involved in this with me. We realized that we had an unfunded liability that we had to take care of. We took $6 million and we put it in a nonrevocable trust with CalPERS that draws interest. All we had to then do was put in an additional $1 million over the pay-as-you-go amount and in 10 years we would have a 100 percent-funded program. So we were taking the right steps. The economy obviously has hurt that. When we look at employees having furlough days, they call that a pay cut. The real cut is to the services to the citizens of Antioch. Being closed on Fridays. A roofer wanted a permit and I told him “You picked the wrong day, they’re closed.” For a contractor coming in that’s really tough.

the attachments to this post:

Antioch Council Moore Parsons

Antioch Council candidates Arne Simonsen, Wade Harper and Gary Agopian

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