Union City mayor, challengers squabble over whether city is teetering on bankruptcy

Union City mayoral candidates: Councilmember Jaime Patino, Mayor Carol Dutra-Vernaci, and New Haven school boardmember Sarabjit Cheema.

Union City Mayor Carol Dutra-Vernaci last week refuted assertions by her two mayoral challengers that the city she has led for the past eight years is on the brink of bankruptcy.

Dutra-Vernaci said the statements about the city’s imminent insolvency is misinformation. “The city is not on the brink of bankruptcy. We have a 25 percent reserve. We have a professional staff that will continue to make recommendations as to the cuts to keep us solvent. That is a misstatement that has been perpetrated and I’m telling you, here and now, that is never going to take place,” Dutra-Vernaci said at last Thursday’s candidate forum.

The two challengers in the fall campaign, Union City Councilmember Jaime Patino and New Haven school boardmember Sarabjit Cheema, were undeterred by the mayor’s response about the state of the city’s finances. Both used similar language to describe Union City’s economy under Dutra-Vernaci.

“Either she doesn’t read the reports or she doesn’t believe in math. That’s scary. It makes me wonder if she even believes in science”

-Union City mayoral candidate Jaime Patino on the incumbent mayor’s belief the city is not near bankruptcy.

“Right now our city is in a financial crisis,” said Patino, who was elected to the Union City Council in 2018. “A crisis that is worse than any we’ve seen before and we’ve been doing the same things over and over and hoping for a different result. And that’s just the definition of craziness.”

Cheema said the pandemic and social movement that followed last spring led her to run for mayor, in addition, to the state of its finances. “Our city is on the brink of financial bankruptcy,” she declared.

Perhaps to the detriment of Dutra-Vernaci’s re-election, Union City’s Measure WW, a utility users’ tax on the ballot this November, has been framed as a last grasp for the city to avoid further financial difficulties.

If Measure WW is not approved by voters, the city will fall into bankruptcy, according to a common refrain heard in Union City. Measure WW would levy a five percent tax on electricity, gas, video and telecommunication services, and raised an estimated $6.1 million in new annual revenues. Seniors and low-income residents, however, can apply for a waiver.

But while Union City’s finances are certainly not booming, and like most cities in the East Bay, projecting falling revenues due to the pandemic, it still maintains a general fund reserve of $17 million, according to a city staff report published in August. If the city does not increase revenues or make budget cuts, the fund will be depleted by June 2023.

Dutra-Vernaci supports Measure WW and warned budget cuts will follow if it is not approved by voters. “Nobody likes to pay taxes,” she said. “Should the voters choose not to support Measure WW, then that’s fine. They have spoken. My job is to do as they say and I will make the cuts necessary. But make no mistake about it, those cuts will impact those people’s quality of life that they’ve come to expect.”

Patino also supports Measure WW, although reluctantly. “Just passing WW, just isn’t going to do it,” he said. “We have to fundamentally change the way we do business in our city. That will not happen with another four years of the same old, same old.”

Cheema, however, does not support the tax measure. Union City residents are already taxed too much, she said. She also criticized the City Council’s push for what would become Measure WW, calling it rushed. Instead, the city should have used reserves to balance the budget and wait out the pandemic in order to identify the true damage caused by the economic disruption.

Dutra-Vernaci disagreed on the assertion of Measure WW’s public process, noting the city had previously polled residents about three potential tax measures for the November ballot, before deciding on a utility users’ tax.

The question of whether or not the city is on the road to financial oblivion, however, continued to be raised during last Thursday forum

“Contrary to what the mayor says, our own city report, dated Aug. 4, says our solvency is at risk. It says it right here as clear as day,” Patino said, holding a copy of the report. “Either she doesn’t read the reports or she doesn’t believe in math. That’s scary. It makes me wonder if she even believes in science”

Dutra-Vernaci shot back that Patino lacks her experience in public office has not presented a clear plan for boosting the city’s economy. She did not reference Patino by name, but said, “I find it interesting that they have a plan, but they didn’t tell us what it is. That’s always interesting.”

Patino shot back that he only had two minutes allotted speaking time. “It’s going to take some time to fix the mess we’ve gotten in over the past eight years,” he added, and steered voters to his campaign website for details. Patino proposes to expand cannabis dispensaries to shopping districts, streamlining the city’s planning process, and expanding uses for the Mark Green Sports Center to include daycare, and other city services, according to his website.

After Dutra-Vernaci lauded the city’s business climate, it gave Patino one more opportunity to attack the incumbent mayor. “If you’re hearing about we’re such a great place to do business with, then, where are all the jobs? There’s more excuses. That’s all we’re hearing, and no accountability.”

Patino also accused Dutra-Vernaci of participating in a campaign photo opportunity with about two dozen supporters. Nearly all, including Dutra-Vernaci, were not wearing masks. But she did not take the bait Thursday evening. Instead, choosing to close the forum by highlighting her strengths, including temperament as mayor, her institutional knowledge, and contacts cultivated at the regional level.