August 31, 2004 > Interview with Mayor Mark Green, City of Union City
Interview with Mayor Mark Green, City of Union City
TCV: The obvious question for all cities regards fiscal concerns. What are the challenges facing your city and do you have any solutions?
MG: I think we've come up with a number of solutions this year which hopefully will continue for at least the next four to five years. In March, we were able to get Measure K passed, which in Union City's case required two-thirds of the voters to approve a parcel tax for fire and police services. That lasts for five years. At the end of the five years we have to take that to the voters again to get their approval or perhaps a lower number or a higher number depending on how the revenues are at that particular time.
I think the council did the right thing in ignoring the consultant's suggestion on that. They said if we went with the amount, about eighty-six dollars per household, that would be a loser - probably wouldn't even get a majority vote. We basically said "damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead" and I think that was probably the best decision, arguably, that we made over the past year. We pushed forward with that and were rewarded in a sense with the community's two-thirds majority support.
At the last council meeting, in August, we were also successful in getting the business owners and the land owners at Union Landing to self-assess themselves to the tune of about a half million dollars a year. It's a one year program and we have to re-institute that again next year. Hopefully, at the end of that one year, they'll see the results in a very positive manner and expand it for a longer duration.
So between those two items, we've generated somewhere close to two and three-quarter million dollars to bridge the gap. Another item which you could say is "thinner ice" is the 911 fee. Our legal council believed that it was sustainable and that fee, on all phone lines both land and cell, generates close to 2 million dollars a year devoted to public safety, 911 operations, both police and fire.
If you add all those items, we have put up somewhere between four and a half to five million dollars in revenue for public safety which we didn't have a year ago. It's really three different components; you had the city stepping forward, the business owners stepping forward and the city council being on the edge of the movement towards 911 fee. We've also have been very cautious in hiring. We have had some vacancies for periods of time including the public works director. In essence, our city manager has been sustaining both roles for over a year now. We have saved some money that way. We've gone without a Leisure Services Director for quite some time now, maybe a year or more.
When a person retires, perhaps that spot is not backfilled. We have looked at selling some city property. Our Finance Director has come up with imaginative, productive ways to save money. Refinancing our pension obligations has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars. When you put it all together, we were able to bridge the gap this year . Admittedly, a couple of layoffs did occur. You never know about the machinations out of Sacramento or a massive economic turndown which I don't foresee. We are still looking at a 2 million dollar gap we'll have bridge in 2005 which sounds large but when you compare it to the ominous 7-8 million we had to bridge this year, it's a much smaller magnitude.
Solving that problem basically comes down to three things; State economics, Development of Union City Landing and increase of sales tax revenues or the possibility of going to employee groups and negotiating. No city official likes to wrench down on employees but the reality is that city employees have to realize their pay is dependent on the city's ability to pay.
TCV: Have employee negotiating groups been fairly reasonable?
MG: We did float early this year the concept of having employee groups participate to a higher percentage the pension payments. As it turned out, it was not needed to bridge the gap.. Although it was very thin we were able to do that without going that route. Most of the groups wanted all hands to be joined in the circle, meaning that they didn't want to be the sacrificial lamb.
TVC: Do you feel that the employees need to be a partner in solving financial problems?
MG: Everybody's shoulder has to be at the wheel.
TCV: An issue that has arisen in this campaign is your leadership style.
MG: I think it's a big deal to some people because there really aren't any issues delineating this campaign as in other years. Style is almost like beauty - it is seen in the eye of the beholder. You can find people that would find me witty, charming and personable and then you're going to find those that take somewhat of a different viewpoint.
We have three sections in Union City council meetings called Oral Communications. We are the only city in East Bay that I know of that actually gives citizens three opportunities to share their vision of the world. We have a short one for three minutes, a longer one for five, and if you really want to hear yourself, you can request a ten minute slot in the agenda. Many people find it frustrating that they only get to speak in one Oral Communication and that they only get a certain amount of time under these Oral Communications.
In order to keep a community propelling forward, there are times when I do not allow requests for long extensions so, consequently, people think I am impolite to them - they actually have to adhere to the rules of three minutes. There are other times when people like shouting up things from their seats. I remind you this is not the British Parliament; we do not have a chorus heckling back and forth. So I don't find myself the ogre that some people believe me to be.
My goal in all meetings, whether city council or others is that the meeting needs to go on, it needs to continue, it needs to finish inside the time limits allowed. I actually think I am very liberal in what I've let people say. The flip-side of this whole point about style is, of course, you get criticized for being too lenient on what you allow people to say.
TCV: Let's talk about transportation. What is happening with the Dumbarton bridge corridor? What are the effects on Union City and the rest of the Tri-City area? What do you see as the major choices that need to be made in terms of passenger versus freight traffic?
MG: San Mateo County, Santa Clara County and Alameda County right now have a committee of which I am a member, called the Dumbarton Rail Committee. We've met a couple of times since regional measure 2 passed on March 1st, which raised the bridge tolls by one dollar. We have made good progress in what we'd like to see happen, and when we'd like to see it happen. I might add a little background. It wasn't like this idea was born back on March 1st. There have been years of studies on this, years of planning; years of pushing this idea forward in three different counties.
I've had to push it forward back when we had the steering committee which I chaired from current measure B which lasted all the way from 1996 to 2000, on which we finally were able to get passage on the current half cent sales tax in Alameda County. San Mateo County, I believe, has it on their ballot this November and Santa Clara County had it under the last measure also. So, the idea has been developing for nearly a decade.
The hookup would be from the Union City Station at BART. We're building a new intermodal station there, two or three hundred feet from the BART line, over to the new rail line, which is not a BART train, but more of an Altamont Commuter Express type of operation. It would go from Union City to Centerville in Fremont, to a new station, off of Willow in Newark, and shoot across a new span south of the Dumbarton Bridge. The first stop in the West Bay would be in Menlo Park near the Sun Microsystems plant, and the next stop would be at the Redwood City CalTrain Station. From there, you'd be able to go up to San Francisco, or into San Jose.
Right now, we're looking at six trains. The initial service would be six trains in the morning going across to the west bay, to the peninsula, and then those six trains would be returning in the evening commute. It would be a Monday through Friday, commuter oriented service at the onset. Now, in terms of time, and I realize that you're going to ask how anyone can ever trust the transportation timeline, 2010 is when we'd like to see this up and running.
Besides the major component of the new span going across the bay, there is what some call the Shinn Connection, in Fremont, and some other issues in the west bay that have to be ironed out as to some people wanting another station, that type of issue. We're looking at about a six year time table for us to begin service. We' are looking at a 300 million dollar project. For our project, the current estimates are that somewhere in the neighborhood of 285 million dollars has been identified so that you're really looking at about a 5% gap. That is all that is needed at this point.
TCV: There's some discussion of the separation of freight and passenger traffic, and the impact that would have, especially on the Niles area.
MG: I can't say for sure what the effect on freight movement will be. Part of that, of course, is what does Union Pacific want to do with it? Do they want to move it all the way across to the west side of the east bay, up the western track? I don't think they do. I think that the whole idea in freight movement is that if you're living next to where that freight is going it's obviously not going to be a positive feature of your lifestyle. There are going to be people and some streets more impacted than others. There's no getting around that. On the other hand, do I think that it's going to make, as they say, and area completely unlivable? No. Like everything else in life, there's a cost, there's a value, there's a benefit, and hopefully the benefit on this will be greater than whatever detrimental effect happens.
TCV: How does the intermodal station relate to the Dumbarton Rail Corridor?
MG: It is an overlap. They are not completely disjointed by any stretch of the imagination but there is some separation. We are working with BART right now to have a new parking structure put in for the BART station. We will have a number of new bus bays, because we run our own transit system in Union City, UC Transit, but AC Transit also visits the BART station. I think the odds are at some point, the Capitol Corridor will have Union City as a stop, making us as the direct linkage across the track to the BART station.
TCV: What is going to happen with the Highway 84 right-of-way?
MG: I'm a pragmatist and a realist, and I do see a solution. I think a solution will come forward, that can be agreed upon by at least three members in Fremont. That's the beauty of democracy; if we can get three in Fremont, we're happy. What people need to realize is that there is a ticking time bomb to this money right now. I sat on ACTA (Alameda County Transportation Authority) and we had put out, as a deadline, the end of this calendar year for Fremont and Union City to come up with some agreed upon solution to this problem. If we don't, then what's known as the contingency money for the highway 84 project will be separated off and thrown into a pool from which it could be possibly drawn into other areas of the county.
Now, that amount is over 40 million dollars. If I'm sitting in another part of the county, I would find it entirely justifiable. In fact, just sitting in Union City I would find that to be entirely justifiable given the fact that every vulture these days is circling around transportation dollars, not just in Alameda County or the State, but the entire State of California as well as federal money, and everything else you can identify as far as transportation dollars. Everybody is under the gun in terms of budget shortfalls, cost overruns and there are plenty of projects in Alameda County where the money, instead of sitting around drawing our 1.8% interest, could be put to use in alleviating congestion and improving the lifestyle of people whether or not they're in the Tri-Cities, Almador Valley, the Oakland/Berkeley Area, or wherever. As a neutral party, you sit back, and look at these two squabbling "Hatfields and McCoys" down here. If they can't get it together, why shouldn't the money be used somewhere else? There isn't any great reason to argue against it. I haven't heard one yet.
This isn't just a policy to pick on poor Union City and Fremont. We did the same thing in Hayward with their Hwy 238 program. It's time to move forward or the money needs to be moved elsewhere where it can be utilized. Hayward is under the gun on 238 with the same timetable. In their case, they only have the one city council that has to vote on it.
We need to do something in the two cities and say, "look, this is what we'd like to do. We may need a plan amendment, and I'm very comfortable with having to advocate that, just to be safe so that we don't have any legal challenges down the road if a solution isn't what was printed on the 1986 ballot.
Amending the plan, in this case, means that under the '86 sales tax measure, you have to get a majority of the cities, representing a majority of the population of the county, at the city council level, not at the voting level, to approve this. The board of supervisors has to approve it as well as the Alameda County Transportation Authority. Do I think we could do that? Yes.
What is that solution? We have retreated across vast amounts of transportation territory as Union City, just on 84. Originally, it was going to be a freeway -880 to Mission. Then it was down to an expressway. Now it's down to a parkway. If it was built from 880 to Mission right now, it would probably be the most attractive parkway, the most attractive major street in either city in terms of landscaping, pedestrian, and cycle access.
Fremont does want to have any part, at least 3 out of 5 members seemingly don't want to have any part of that going through North Fremont. I feel that there's some kind of middle ground. We are desperately going to be needing traffic flow and in my heart I still believe that going from Mission to 880 is the proper thing to do although it would just be a parkway, I would accept that it's their current reality and I'll buy that. At a minimum, I think we'll need to get it from Mission to Paseo Padre and alleviate the stresses on both the Decoto and Paseo Padre intersections as well as the Decoto and Alvarado Niles intersections in Union City.
We said to the Fremont City Council, and I've said this in public, we would be fully supportive of Fremont taking whatever money is left over. We would say, "Here it is, take it to wherever you think that it's best needed in the city of Fremont." I will vote that way. Is there something beyond that that could be done? I'm not so sure.
The frustrating part of this has been that if you took a matched version of our two councils with all ten members going in, we have seven members right now ready to do something, maybe seven members willing to take it all the way out to 880. Which is a simple majority, but we have this split voting where you have to vote in groups of five and we have five on one side and only two on the other. Will the Fremont election change anything? It's been our perception that the person most adamantly against it has been Mayor Morison. With his departure, it may nudge things into the direction of a compromise. Of course, the other item is who replaces Pease's seat. It has been our impression that the Fremont staff has been in favor of Hwy 84 construction.
TCV: Union City and Newark have formed some very strong relationships Do you see more interaction with Fremont with the change in leadership? Do you see regionalization of services as an trend in municipal government?
MG: I think that in the broader spectrum, that is the key that needs to be discussed. We tried a mini-regionalization about a decade ago. I was certainly in favor of that when we went with our combined fire services. At the time, it helped save money, we had paramedic services up, our ISO rating lowered. I was against it when we decided to split off. Our fire budget ha shot up astronomically since we've gone back on our own. We've had to build our fire station on our own, we had put management back in place.
If you look at a map, you'll see that Newark is not a contiguous with Union City. Now we have two cities with mutual aid partnerships, but they drive through another city to get to each other. You don't have to be a geography expert to realize that there might be a better solution. We need to be moving more in the direction of regionalization all the time. There are other services, but to me that's the easiest, most important one to start with. Besides the cost saving, this is not the best way to deliver services to the people.
Certainly, when we went back and pulled the rug out from under Fremont in bringing the fire department back to Union City, the city manager and city council members who voted to bring them back cast a lot of bad darts and poison arrows. I thought it was very unfortunate. I thought [Dan] Lydon was an excellent fire chief and he ran an excellent department. There's no doubt in my mind that some of that bad blood that we're having on 84 is in many ways, traceable to that breaking off of the fire department. Newark has had a long battle with Fremont over initial incorporation, zoning, freeway overpasses and garbage transfer stations. The list goes on and on and on.
Some of the issues between cities are from the somewhat imperial position that Fremont takes, "We are the fourth largest city in the bay area." They're the fourth largest city, and Union City and Newark combined are about half of their size. It's somewhat discouraging for Fremont to cast the idea that our cities just aren't large enough to hold the same importance as the fourth largest city in the bay area. I don't know how many times I've heard that mantra spouted over the years. They feel that the smaller cities should just follow what they do.
I don't want to give the impression that everybody hates each other in the three cities. There's a certain amount of rivalry that takes place among cities, especially since Prop 13 where everybody is trying to get sales tax dollars into their cities. There's going to be some of that competition. There's competition along athletic lines at the school level, and the league level. But, I think that there are many areas where these three cities do try to get along. Some of the most heated meetings are when Morison, Smith and I and perhaps a couple of supervisors sit together at a Planning Area 3 meeting at the congestion management agency and try to divvy up discretionary dollars. Those are some warm meetings!
TCV: What about redevelopment? How has Union City used its money?
MG: We have utilized redevelopment dollars for police service in both Decoto and Contempo. I'm not going to sit here and say that, in an ideal world, that is how we would have to go about servicing those two parts of town to give them the extra police attention. Legally, it was considered okay to do that because these are blighted areas. They are going to need those services for years to come until those areas are sufficiently redeveloped so that the crime rate is suppressed. Will it still happen with redevelopment dollars is a question? We are not taking a large percentage of the redevelopment budget to do this and we have done it selectively this year. I think that we've done an admirable job in utilizing our redevelopment dollars in most cases.
There have been a couple of instances where I think we've been misguided. I voted against several properties - at Union Landing as an example, we're still paying the benefit assessment district fees for two major landowners out of redevelopment dollars and that's costing us like $450,000 a year. I voted against both of those giveaway programs. In fact, the Business Improvement District that we put through in some ways is just corrective action for that.
The other good thing we've done in redevelopment is a 20% minimum for affordable housing off the tax increment basis. We have actually stepped up above that amount. We have a first time home buyers program in Union City. I'm not pretending it's solving all the ills of affordable housing, but we have something like 22 or 23 percent that we're committing to housing to help some people that were not able to qualify in the past.
We're not just pouring more money into the police department; we're also pouring money into affordable housing, where the tax increment goes. I think we have a tract of several areas of major blight in Union City in the housing area. Mission Boulevard, as you enter Union City from Hayward, is set to have about 120 units of affordable housing go up. We had a dilapidated small trailer park in there.
We gutted out E Street a number of years ago, in the mid-90s and removed a lot of drug havens, prostitution houses, etc. and converted much of that into single family dwellings and put some senior housing next to City Hall. We have done a lot of great things with redevelopment dollars. In fact, we were the only city that the Bay Area Council gave A's earlier this year in their independent assessment of housing production on the jobs/housing balance and how close me met with the reaching ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments) goals. We're the only city in Alameda County that got A's in all three categories, not only upscale housing, but senior housing and new affordable housing. We have "inclusionary" zoning in town, as well as our first time home buyers program, so we've taken a lot of positive steps in the housing area.
TCV: Is the City of Union City primarily industrial based?
MG: My viewpoint of Union City has always been that it is residentially based. If you took the non-residential part of town, it would be mostly retail. Actually, some of our biggest sales tax producers are simple business to business people - selling goods to each other. There's some erosion perhaps, in a percentage standpoint, only because of the success of Union Landing. At one point, 90% of the sales tax came from business to business, and now it's down to 80%. We are not necessarily losing business; retail is starting to diminish that percentage.
I think you're going to see around the intermodal area, at some point, an office section of Union City starting to increase. If you notice along the BART line, especially in Contra Costa, Walnut Creek, Pleasant Hill, you'll see that. I think Dublin is going to be the same when they get their new station.
The whole concept of "transit smart growth" is what this intermodal station is all about. There will be so many different types of transit and a lot of housing, some commercial and some retail we're going to put in there. People will it not only a good place to live and commute or go to work somewhere else, but eventually people will be able to commute in. People in Union City will be able to go over there and spend some time in the evening and on weekends. If we can get a small performing arts center in there, it gives us another whole element of night life, which we don't have right now. There are a lot of components which are not going to take place over the next six months, but rather over the next decade. I once told a former editor of another printed newspaper, that Union Landing was going to have a huge transformational impact, and it took place. I think that the intermodal station area - around the BART station - will be ten years from now, as dramatically different as what Union Landing was ten years ago.
TCV: Do you see vertical growth at the intermodal area?
MG: I think that that's just a fact of contemporary life in California. Look at the hills of both Union City and Fremont; there are fairly stringent prohibitions about building on the hills for a lot of good reasons. I was a big proponent of our hillside protection plan back in the early-90s. However, vertical building has many blessings to it. One, of course, is that if you have stacked parking lots, it means that there's more room to develop buildings for people to live or work in. Few flat areas are left in Union City, we're probably a month away from handing in an application for what's going to be the last, as I see it, the last single family home development west of 880 unless there's a major rezoning of some land out by the sanitation district plant.
It's getting to the point where, between 880 and Decoto Road, we may have one small nursery to go and that's going to be about it to that section. Our goal in Union City over the next decade is going to be centered around the BART station. I've had discussions with people thinking of developing apartments four to five stories high. It's not San Francisco height, but compared to two stories, that's a large increase in density.
TCV: Other thoughts?
There are a couple of issues that I would like to press forward in another term. One of which is the library in Union City, built in the late-70s, when our population was essentially half of what we have right now, and without the technological advances over the last 25 years which were , of course, not incorporated into that library's planning. The goal of the Americans with Disabilities Act wasn't part of the scheme back in the late-70s. We are hopeful that a grant can come through Sacramento on our library physically, but nearly quadrupling it in size - building a complete new library opposite to the lagoon area. I want to make sure that even if we aren't a success on the grant that we still keep moving forward on getting that built; it's a matter if priorities.
On the west side of town, we have secured and cleared ground, we own for a public gymnasium; not to the grandiose extent of the Silliman Center in Newark, but it would have, for the first time, the city owning an indoor, multiple court structure. Basket ball, volley ball, badminton, ping pong, dancing, wrestling, etc. would be available as well as weight lifting and some rooms for daycare.
From the perspective that it's a benefit which the city has needed for years, from a youth activity level as well as the middle-aged and the seniors, all age groups need this kind of facility. There is so much talk in the United States about obesity, about people out of shape, about heart disease, about strokes, on and on and on. As Aristotle once said, "He who does not use his body is not using his mind." I firmly believe that myself. I think that these two projects of body and of mind, a library and a gymnasium, are two needed components to keeping Union City moving forward for the wellbeing of its citizens.