Plenty of ‘what-ifs’ built into city’s budget forecast By Steven Tavares
You don’t need the Ragin’ Cajun James Carville to tell you, “It’s the economy, stupid!” but with five months before San Leandro decides whether to give Mayor Tony Santos four more years or give someone else a chance, some are running from the issue, leaving the possibility of a lonely tax measure saving the day.

It is quite troubling when the answer to the question of how to improve the local economy’s tax base elicits identical responses amounting to “I don’t know. Do you have any ideas?” That was the tenor of the responses from both Santos and Councilman Jim Prola last week after the city’s $69.6 million budget passed last Monday night with nary a peep from the mayor or his challenger on the council, Joyce Starosciak.

About six months ago, there was question as to whether the economy would be the main issue confronting the mayor’s race. There was indication back in December the city’s role in the San Leandro Hospital situation could shape the race or even public safety, which is an offshoot of the poor economy and budget cuts, but recent news from both the national and state level only highlight a perception things may get worse before they get better. After last week’s sobering budget news, San Leandro is barely treading above water with yet another major storm on the horizon.

Mayoral candidate Stephen Cassidy has been the only candidate willing to speak of the impending economic problems about to hit San Leandro–making it his signature issue–but, he too has lacked any ideas on how to actually fix the problem. For instance, the root of the city’s ills are far more endemic than cutting gym membership for city employees, as Casiddy has written over the past few months.

The poor economy would appear to be a cinch for any challenger, but Starosciak has been redolent of someone not willing to fully confront the problem. Surprisingly, she admitted at a reception for the deceased former city manager a few months ago that she was part of the problem. Starosciak’s decision to make no comment regarding the budget last week spoke volumes towards her shakiness on the issue of the economy. It persists questions of just when she will actually begin her campaign for mayor, if ever.

For most of the last two years Santos and the council have perpetuated a feeling of victimization. The governor’s decision to revoke the vehicle license fee hurt us, they say. Sacramento’s numerous take-aways hurt us, they add. The national economy is killing us and lament being passed over for grants to add more officers to the police force. All are true, but not every municipality is created equal. For every Vallejo, there is a Walnut Creek and San Leandro seems striving for something in the middle.

Santos, for the first time, used the big trump card against his challengers and the economy. His campaign sent an email last week trumpeting a 2005 decision by former Shelia Young and the council, of which Santos was a part of, to set aside $20 million in reserves. The forward-thinking move is the reason San Leandro stands in better shape than many neighboring cities during this harsh economy, except the fund is nearly exhausted leaving the question hanging in the air of, “now what?”
There is a sense among economist of a looming “double-dip” for the nation’s economy of which California has bore the brunt of the worst. There is sense from comments made by councilmembers and city staff of a “wait-and-see” attitudes hoping for the best in the near-future. Interim Finance Director Perry Carter says the new budget is conservative, but also cautions even a one-percent dip in their estimate will likely wipe out the remaining $1.3 million in the reserve fund.

The city’s plan for the future is highlighted by a litany of very big “what-ifs” predicated on the economy improving over the next year based on the faith voters will approve by a two-thirds margin a quarter-cent sales tax hike. The city, for its part, is already setting the tone of the likely tax measure. In numerous budget presentations, the sales tax increase is positioned as the tonic to renew funding of vital public safety programs that are only budgeted for the first six months of the year. In essence, the city’s tactic this fall will be to tell voters funding for two police officers and a fire ladder truck will cease if you do not pass this measure. It’s a gamble that runs the risk of alienating voters, but in absence of any long-term economic plan, it’s all voter can expect.