Pleasanton Weekly

News - January 14, 2011

San Ramon 'fiscally sound' despite lower revenues

Mayor Abram Wilson gives his final 'State of the City' address

by Glenn Wohltmann

San Ramon is in remarkably good shape, especially compared to some other California cities, according to Mayor Abram Wilson who, because of term limits, is serving his final year as the city's mayor.

"The city of San Ramon is financially sound," Wilson told a crowd of more than 100 in his annual state of the city speech at the San Ramon Golf Club.

But that doesn't mean things are perfect, he said.

"Let there be no question in anyone's mind that the next two to three years won't be a challenge," Wilson said. "We don't live in a vacuum."

But with an unemployment rate of 4.6 percent, he said, "San Ramon does not have the same nightmares that other cities have."

Despite that low unemployment rate, the median income in the city has dropped, from $137,700 annually to hold steady at $111,600 for the last two years.

Wilson, who brought the crowd to applause several times during his speech, quoted his parents, saying, "Romance without finance just won't make it."

"San Ramon has always had a realistic budget," he said, even though the 2010-11 budget drew $2.1 million from its reserves. That's because San Ramon spent $37.6 million while collecting $35.5 in revenues, a three-year low, down from $41.1 million in 2008-09. Expenditures are also down, although not as much, from $39 million in 2008-09 to the current $37.6 million.

Wilson outlined a number of steps the city has taken to keep itself solvent in troubled economic times. For instance, while other localities are beginning to worry about pensions liabilities that continue to grow, San Ramon solved its problem with a $17.6 million bond issue.

"We continue to look constantly about how to bring expenditures down," Wilson said, comparing the bond with a mortgage that will ultimately be paid off, as opposed to paying the minimum payment on a credit card, which he implied is how other cities are dealing with pensions.

Also regarding pensions, he said, "We're making sure there's no spiking when people retire."

Wilson drew applause when he talked about the city's AAA bond rating and San Ramon's certificate of achievement for excellence in financial reporting.

Regarding expenditures, he pointed out that more than 27 percent of San Ramon's budget is spent on police; that percentage has increased steadily over the last three years.

"What good is a community if you don't feel safe?" he asked the crowd. Crime in San Ramon is down 3 percent from 2009-10, he said.

Public service expenditures have been cut to 22.6 percent of the city's budget and spending on parks and community services is down "1.2 percent in the last three years," Wilson said. Although the city already has 54 parks totaling 359 acres, it's set to open a "Park and Bark" -- combination park-and-ride facility and dog park -- this year.

The city has had a hiring freeze since 2008 and a pay freeze since last year; with budget problems continuing, it may consider furloughs and salary reductions in the future.

It's also taken a legal step to keep the state from raiding its coffers, by encumbering funds -- essentially earmarking them for departments rather than leaving that money in its general fund.

San Ramon has replaced its incandescent street lighting with LED lights, which will save the city money and has an added benefit, according to Wilson, who said, "When you look up, you can see the stars."

The city also expects to save 15 to 30 percent on its water bills after bringing a new computer system online.

Wilson's speech also highlighted:

* A 30- to 50-year partnership with schools, collaborating on after-school programs, and sharing use of the Dougherty Valley Theater and gyms;

* City lights volunteers. With 1,800 volunteers contributing 18,000 hours of services, Wilson said they've saved San Ramon $375,000;

* The city's new traffic light system, which should mean fewer red lights for drivers on Crow Canyon and Bollinger Canyon roads;

* Work on San Ramon's downtown;

* Collaboration with Contra Costa County and Diablo Valley College on library services, giving San Ramon the highest circulation in the county; and

* The city's climate action plan, which Wilson said is a model for other cities.

Wilson also defended some hot-button issues. Regarding the North Camino Ramon Specific Plan, which has come under fire by some slow-growth advocates and at least one small business owner, he said, "Let me go on the record and say we support all the businesses in San Ramon," explaining the NCRSP "is just a plan" so development doesn't happen haphazardly.

He said the city may consider reenacting Ordinance 197, which blocks development on San Ramon's hills, after the defeat of Measure W, which city officials said would have given them -- not the county -- control over development. Wilson raised the possibility that Measure W could be reintroduced in the future.

The mayor also again defended the salary of retiring City Manager Herb Moniz, who made nearly $359,700 last year, with help from resident activist Roz Rogoff, who prepared a chart comparing Moniz's salary with other city managers and concluding that the city manager costs about $5.69 per resident per year, considerably less than Danville, at $10.58 annually per resident but more than Tracy, at $5.22 a year.

In closing, Wilson noted he terms out this year.

"This is my last 'State of the City' (address) as mayor," he said. "It's been a great eight years."

That brought the crowd to its feet for a standing ovation.

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