CLAYTON, CA (Sept. 14, 2022) — Fiscal sustainability for a small town with a $6 million general fund budget is the main driver for the four candidates running for two seats on the City Council.
Jeff Wan, 46, a CPA for the California State Automobile Association Insurance Group, is running for a second term. CW Wolfe will step down to move on to other roles in the community.
Hoping to unseat Wan and claim the second seat are planning commissioner Ed Miller, 52, a data engineer for what he describes as a “small, lean insurance company,” Bridget Billeter, 50, a deputy attorney general, and marketing consultant Kim Trupiano, 61.
All four candidates point to fiscal and economic sustainability as the key issue this November. With projected expenses increasing at an annual rate of 4% and revenues lagging behind at only 2-3% growth, Clayton will be in a fiscal hole by next year.
How will the city fill this gap? Raise taxes? Cut expenses?
Neither option puts residents or candidates in a happy place.
Varying cost-cutting options
Wan says while significant, the looming deficit is not monumental – but it does need to be addressed now.
“I don’t want to be an alarmist and say the house is burning down, but once you know something, you can’t unknow it,” Wan told the Pioneer. “It requires you to take action immediately.”
Wan wants the council to sit down with staff and do a line-by-line analysis, then start cutting “low-priority” services. “All things may be good, but not all things are as good as everything else.”
Billeter wants to see increased efficiency at City Hall by upgrading systems and bringing more interaction online. “There might be costs in the frontloading,” she notes. “But it would make the city more efficient and accessible. We should be doing more to make it easier for residents to get answers.”
All four agree that raising taxes and cutting staff are last-ditch resorts.
Miller says a parcel tax is inherently unfair to newer residents. He says the city should be taking a long-range look at sharing costs and services with other cities or agencies, much as Danville and Orinda do with law enforcement. Both cities contract with the county Sheriff’s Department for their police services.
Trupiano says the city should be concentrating more on the economic vitality of the Town Center.
She bemoans all the empty storefronts. “Do we have anyone on (city) staff doing economic outreach? Maybe a citizens’ committee could work with staff to help with the research.”
Tackling housing mandates
Few things will raise the communal blood pressure faster than a discussion of state-mandated housing requirements. The governor has made housing a state priority, and cities are required to provide for more and denser housing than many in Clayton prefer.
In June, Clayton submitted its most recent Housing Element draft, which, if approved by the state, will require the city to zone for 570 new units in the next 10 years. The city itself is not required to build the units. But if a developer brings a project to the city that meets the state’s requirements, the city has no legal choice but to approve it – to wit, the Olivia, an 81-unit, three-story apartment complex approved for the Town Center.
Miller says residents are constantly asking if he voted to approve the Olivia when it came before the Planning Commission. Miller was not on the Commission when the project was originally approved, however he voted for the extension of entitlements until Mar 2023 “because there was no legal way not to,” he said.
Opponents of the project learned this the hard way when they sued the city and the developer to stop the project – and lost.
Rather than seeing the current law, which basically removes land use control from local jurisdictions, as a “done deal,” Miller says the city needs a strategy to change the future. “We’re all tilting at windmills here” he told the Pioneer.
“There is lots of handwringing, but no one is reaching out to state legislators and other coalitions to lobby the state in a different direction,” he notes. “We need to push state and public agencies to move jobs from the dense urban areas to places like Gilroy, Tracy and Brentwood where the land is plentiful and where the cities want to grow.”
Off in the weeds
During the past two years of global pandemic, lockdowns, supply chain failures, staffing shortages and drought, it seems the only thing that grew with abandon were Clayton’s weeds – a flashpoint leading up to this campaign and further feeding the rancor and division characterizing Clayton politics the last few years.
“I hear a lot about ‘the divide,’ ” Wan said. “But I don’t agree with that characterization or the nature of the problem.
“Prior to my being elected, the council was virtually unanimous all the time,” he told the Pioneer. “But all the people don’t agree all the time. And if the council truly represents all the people, division isn’t bad.”
Billeter wants to see more compromising and advocates more ad hoc committees to work between residents and the council, because most people won’t sit through a three-hour council meeting to decipher intense, complicated information.
“Social media isn’t the place to do this,” she says. “When people are face to face, they are more likely to work out issues.”
She wants more communication between the city and residents. “Maybe the city should go back to doing a regular newsletter – perhaps a volunteer could do it.”
Trupiano, too, calls for more community engagement.
“People aren’t being heard,” she said. “Perhaps it’s as simple as going out to the people with more town halls. You can’t be in your corner all the time.”