Facing projections of serious financial shortfalls, Union City officials are requesting approval in the Nov. 3 election of a new utility tax on the same ballot that the mayor and one member of the City Council seek reelection.
Voters should approve Measure WW, an eight-year, 5% surcharge on landline, cell phone, cable TV, electricity and natural gas service provided within the city. The tax is expected to generate $6.1 million annually that the city needs.
At the same time, to best help the city make it through what are forecast to be some financially difficult years, voters should reelect Mayor Carol Dutra-Vernaci and elect Sandra Holder-Grayson to the District 1 seat on the City Council.
Even before the pandemic, Union City was confronting long-term budget imbalances, which city leaders were beginning to address when the economic downturn struck. Since then, they have increased the number of budget-cutting measures.
The trims have included closing an underutilized fire station, a hiring freeze for non-essential positions, a start on reorganization of top managers, reducing library and community center hours, eliminating community policing services and school resource officers, and deferred repairs, maintenance and vehicle purchases.
But the biggest budgetary problem is the expiration at the end of this fiscal year of the city’s parcel tax. City officials in March had asked voters to extend and slightly increase the tax, but the measure fell short of the needed two-thirds approval.
So, this time, the City Council is instead seeking a new utility tax, which only requires majority approval because the money could be used for any legitimate government purpose. While we recommend support, we have some frustrations.
First, city voters should be angry about the city’s use, once again, of public funds to campaign for a ballot measure, walking up to the legal line with a so-called informational campaign that doesn’t actually say “vote yes” but leaves no doubt what it’s advocating.
Second, as we wrote in March, it’s financially foolish that the city, while facing such shortfalls, continues to engage in a pension payment accounting scheme that effectively boosts the retirement plan’s costs by about 8%.
Nevertheless, Union City’s finances are so tenuous because of the expiring parcel tax that it needs the utility tax. Even if it passes, city officials must take other steps to control spending and maintain prudent reserves. Which brings us to the candidates.
Mayor — Carol Dutra-Vernaci
Of the three mayoral candidates, incumbent Dutra-Vernaci, seeking her third term, is the best choice. She clearly understands the nuances of the budget and the need to address the city’s finances.
The other strong candidate is Councilman Jaime Patiño, who is halfway through his first term. While he understands the city’s finances, he offers no compelling reason why he should unseat Dutra-Vernaci — especially when that would create more political instability because the council would then have to fill the seat he would vacate.
The third candidate, Sarabjit Kaur Cheema, a trustee of the New Haven school district, argues that the tax isn’t needed to balance the books. That’s an unrealistic gamble that could force city officials to make major service cuts.
District 1 — Sandra Holder-Grayson
We were struck that the challenger in this race, Holder-Grayson, was as conversant about the budget as the incumbent. She understands the need to right the city’s finances and to pass the utility tax.
And she doesn’t have incumbent Gary Singh’s baggage, most notably his serious campaign finance violations during his unsuccessful 2010 run for City Council. Also problematic is Singh’s refusal, on religious grounds, to consider approving any marijuana business in the city, even though state voters have legalized the use of pot and Union City voters have overwhelmingly voted to tax it.