August 17, 2004 > Carol Dutra-Vernaci Vies for Top Union City Office
Carol Dutra-Vernaci Vies for Top Union City Office
Final local filings for the November election have been received and Union City voters will be asked to retain current Mayor Mark Green or install Councilmember Carol Dutra-Vernaci as their new mayor. Tri-City Voice asked Ms. Dutra-Vernaci about her campaign to replace the current mayor.
TCV: Why are you running for mayor?
Vernaci: In terms of progression, that's the next logical step for a councilmember. I have no interest in going any higher in terms of an elective office. I have proven that I can be a strong and effective leader for Union City, and want to offer people a choice for mayor. I believe my background shows that I am a better choice for mayor.
TCV: What are the primary differences between you and Mayor Green?
Vernaci: Leadership style; my style would treat people with respect at all times. It would be a style of welcoming comments and suggestions - accepting them as part of the deliberative process without snide remarks or criticisms. My style would be one of visibility, accessibility, and involvement - a style that I already have as a councilmember. I would have a presence at city hall with stated office hours so that if people want to contact the mayor, they know when the mayor will be there.
I will always try to impart a positive tone for the city and city business. That positive tone would be one of respect that respect flows down to the littlest issues, like attempting to start the meetings on time, and maybe rearranging the way we do business. Many times, we are starting council meetings late because closed sessions are held at the beginning of the meeting and those run late as well.
Simple changes can be made, such as putting the closed sessions at the end of the meeting, and having our meeting break stay on schedule - a ten minute break means that in ten minutes we are back at work, not leaving the viewing audience and participants in the council chambers wondering when we're going to start again.
Those are simple things. Another is returning phone calls as promptly as I can and continuing to be involved in the community by participating in as many if not all of the events that I am invited to in addition to events that I just happen to hear about. I believe that the best way to deal with people is one-on-one, as opposed to having to come to the council chambers.
TCV: That can be intimidating.
Vernaci: Yes. I remember all about that from before I was a councilmember.
TCV: What do you see as a viable plan for Union City to survive its current economic crisis?
Vernaci: The answer is twofold. First, we need to pay close attention to what's going on in Sacramento. As an example, Proposition 1A, should it pass in November, does give us some constitutional protection of General Fund money but not redevelopment money. We need to monitor Sacramento very closely so that we can adjust.
The second component of the financial plan is to deal with our own structural deficit that we have in Union City. The way to do that is by doing what we can to increase revenues. When I say increase revenues, I am not talking about any new taxes. The first thing that comes to my mind for increasing revenues is working with our economic development department and the Chamber of Commerce to attract and retain business. We have had a problem this year with some businesses leaving town.
TCV: Although retention efforts might be effective immediately, attracting new businesses may be a rather long range approach.
Vernaci: Those are goals. We can achieve these goals by working with businesses in the community through our Economic Development Department to review our policies and make adjustments where necessary creating a more competitive environment. We may have policies that have become antiquated because of changes in other laws impacting the city such as federal or state laws. Do we have some policies that are designed as 'one size fits all' instead of tailoring them? A 'one size fits all' approach doesn't always work. Some of our policies need to be revised.
I think we need to be more attuned to contacting businesses; having a relationship early on to address issues. In some cases, we find out after the fact that a business left our city because they haven't contacted us or the chamber to say that they have issues. Therefore, they just look elsewhere without talking to us first. We need to be as facilitative as possible early in the game to have them stay rather than relocating.
TCV: Is the 911 fee being challenged?
Vernaci: Yes. A challenge was withdrawn, and now it's back.
TCV: What's the current status of that?
Vernaci: The status is, as my understanding, that it's been just recently filed, so at this point I don't have any additional information on it other than to know that Union City is once again involved.
TCV: Are collections taking place or are they on hold?
Vernaci: The city is continuing to collect the fee. We started collecting the fee last fiscal year, so moneys from the last fiscal year are now hitting the books; ongoing fees are being collected.
TCV: Have these fees become significant yet?
Vernaci: They are significant since the '04 -'05 budget didn't include them. Speaking with our finance administrator this morning, I was told that from '03-'04 we have collected, I believe the number was $466,000. That is significant in the sense that that was not budgeted, giving us a bit of a cushion to work with for our '04-'05 budget.
TCV: Is the budget currently balanced?
Vernaci: Yes. I'm feeling more comfortable now because when we had to adopt it at the end of June, there was so much that was unknown. But law requires us to adopt a budget so we did the best we could. Of course, one of the unknowns was what was going to happen in Sacramento, so we did include in our budget the state takeaway for this fiscal year, $758,000 for Union City. The good news is that that is what's in Proposition 1A for the next two years, is the same dollar amount that we had already assumed.
We balanced the budget using $1.8 million dollars of one time monies, shifts from funds, sales of some properties and that type of thing so we do need to be cognizant of that fact as we move throughout the year and plan our future budget.
TCV: What reserves does the city have at this point?
Vernaci: Our reserves are down to about 3% of our general fund budget of $32 million.
TCV: What is the normal amount?
Vernaci: We're not mandated by law to have a certain percentage in reserve. However, the amount we currently have needs to be increased as our financial situation improves because all it takes is one disaster for our reserves to be wiped out. It's a very uncomfortable level. A few years back we set the reserve at 15% and did get up to that level. It came back down because we needed the money to balance our budget.
TCV: Are redevelopment dollars being used for services in redevelopment areas, even extending to police services?
Vernaci: One of the definitions of blight in redevelopment law is crime. The removal of crime is, in essence, removing blight which is the goal of redevelopment. We used redevelopment money for our crisis intervention counselor - $185,000 dollars - in the '04-'05 budget to retain that position. We also used redevelopment funds to fight crime and blight - the COPS program, I believe - in Decoto and in the Contempo area.
TCV: Is this an ongoing cost to redevelopment?
Vernaci: This was a one year budget that we put together. It is ridiculous to make a commitment longer than that without knowing how the economy is going to turn around on a year by year basis.
TCV: Technically, redevelopment dollars are used to correct a situation so that when redevelopment funds stop, you have something that continues.
Vernaci: You are right. Redevelopment's purpose is to remove blight, but it is also to stimulate the economy. We used redevelopment dollars in Union Landing; redevelopment dollars were intended to fill in the gaps, because we needed the money to get the project going and put businesses in place that would generate jobs and revenue for the city. One of the goals of redevelopment is to be able to create an ongoing entity.
TCV: Has Union Landing now formed its own improvement district?
Vernaci: It is called a "PBID," a property owners and business improvement district. The property owner majority did vote to form the district so that is moving along also.
TCV: That will relieve some economic stress on the city.
Vernaci: Yes, to the tune of $400,000.
TCV: Any comments on the transit center, and the Dumbarton Rail Corridor.
Vernaci: I am familiar from the standpoint that I read the materials that we as councilmembers receive about these projects. If elected, I can jump right in and if there is something I don't already know, I can certainly pick up the pieces quickly. The inter-modal station is a combination of the Capital Corridor, the Altamont Commuter Express, Dumbarton Rail and AC Transit connecting in Union City. At our next City Council meeting, we are moving to the next phase and awarding the contract for design. That is going forward with Measure B funds of $10 to $12 million. Although Prop 42 funds have been put those on hold, this will not hold up, or impact our intermodal project. Fortunately, the bridge toll increase passed. That certainly helps us with the Dumbarton rail project.
TCV: Union City, Newark, and Fremont are all part, traditionally, of the Washington Township. Along with this historical relationship, there have been some disagreements, especially concerning Route 84. Fremont will have a new mayor and city manager, councilmember and planning director. If you elected, the City of Union City will have a new mayor as well. Do you see that as an opportunity for mending relations?
Vernaci: I think it's a tremendous opportunity to mend relations with Fremont in particular. There has not, with me personally, been any hostility with the Fremont council or staff. As a matter of fact, back in 1997 when Fremont participated in the All America Competition and won, I was on the team. I was able to do that was because I was president of the Union City Chamber of Commerce, participating in the Chamber's leadership program. The leadership program through the Fremont chamber was one of the key components in the All America City competition that year. I was part of the team that went to Kansas City.
Even then, before I was elected to the city council in Union City, I was given the opportunity to establish a relationship with Jan Perkins and Gus Morrison, and others. Since I've been a councilmember the last seven and a half years, I've developed relationships with other councilmembers: Dominic Dutra, Steve Cho, Bill Pease, because of my other involvement with the League of California Cities, as well as the Alameda County Housing Authority. With Bob Wasserman, one of the candidates for mayor, there has been less interaction, but only because we haven't served on the same committees but I look forward to working with Bob or Bill.
TCV: How does your non-political career interact with your role in city government?
Vernaci: I think my career as an Enrolled Agent is a tremendous asset. In times like these we really need to pay attention to the budget. I love looking at numbers; that's what I do for a living. On the other hand, there is the people component as well. I think my Bachelor's degree in psychology helps with the people component. It gives me the empathy that's necessary when dealing with emotional situations. I think from both the numbers/money background and the people background, it's a good mix for this position.
TCV: There have been some tumultuous times in Union City; situations where the New Haven School District has been at odds and others when citizens have complained about Police Enforcement. How will you deal with these issues differently?
Vernaci: My background will help because I'm sensitive to people's concerns. If residents are upset about something, what I try to do is look at the situation and realize that my role as policy maker is to ask myself what I can do as a policy make to improve the situation for these residents.
Sometimes there's not much that can be done, but other times there are things we can do and have done. So, I think it's just a matter of listening. The mayor does not operate in vacuum. The mayor operates with the council and with the community at large. When we have these issues, I want to be able to work with the community to address the problem.
I think that it's important for those people who have not been paying attention to what is going on in Union City on a daily basis to know that I have the proven track record of being visible, accessible and involved, and will continue that commitment. I offer people a choice and believe that I am the better choice for mayor.