September 14, 2004 > Interview with Ben Elias
Interview with Ben Elias
TCV: How long have you served on the Union City, City Council?
Elias: I was elected in 1993 to fill a term from '93 to '95 that was left open when Mayor Oliver was recalled. I have been reelected twice. Overall, I've been on the council for over ten years.
TCV: What's the term limit?
Elias: I don't feel people should be in office forever; give other people an opportunity but three terms is good enough to be able to learn the job and effectively work as a council member so we set a limit at three terms. We're one of very few cities that did that. I brought that forward, and we put it on the ballot for the citizens to approve.
You can go to mayor from council member and then have another three terms there but you cannot serve in the same seat. Let's say somebody has served their three terms and then they can sit out for two years and then go back and run again. That way, we thought it was fair enough that other people would have an opportunity to run.
TCV: How has the council responded to the economic problems of these times?
Elias: If we go back to when I got on the council in '93 the city had less than $400,000 in reserves. I used to joke abut that, because I said if somebody walked in and slipped and sued the city, we would be out that $400,000 and I used that as an example when we talk about our reserves
I've seen the good times and we're seeing okay times right now, I think this council has done a good job of addressing the issues from budgets, development, economic development in different areas and we have looked at everything carefully; we're still not out of this whole thing. We were able to manage our budget and balance our budget this year for 2004-2005, and that's through next fiscal year at the end of June. 2005-2006 starts next year and I don't want to be put in the same situation. That is why we have to be very careful this year and in the years-to-come to make sure that we are doing the right things.
I set up the citizen's advisory committee. I brought that up to the council late last year, and it went into effective at the beginning of this year. Basically, what they do is observe, look at different expenses, different items that the city is doing whether it's in economic development or redevelopment, and make recommendations to the city council. They're made up of a group of citizens of Union City. We brought a lot of those people into the picture to help us get some feedback to make some tough decisions. We were able to maintain all of our police, all of our fire services, public services, public safety, and other programs that we have in this city.
There is a lot of potential for the city to continue to grow and bring in additional businesses - you have to bring the right businesses to a city that will be able to generate as much revenue as possible.
TCV: What is your vision of Union City in terms of these businesses?
Elias: Years ago, Union City was seen as a bedroom community. To some people, it's still a bedroom community but the businesses that are really bringing our bread and butter are retail. We have some areas that are going to be developing - the new PG&E and downtown Intermodal station - where we have an opportunity to bring some other businesses, maybe professional offices and companies where the old Pacific States Steel development site is, not just focus on the retail.
Retail is great, it gives you a lot of revenue, but also it brings a lot of other things with it. It could be traffic, noise, and so you have to balance the two. Union Landing, for example, is a very, very successful business area. A lot of businesses have been there for six years and none of them have gone out of business, or closed, or moved. That means that we are on the right track.
Union Landing businesses have voted to pay for police officers. I though that that was a vote of confidence because that's three or four police officers with their sergeant. If they didn't pay for them, we were going to have to pull them out and they were going to have to provide their own security. This is a good sign. They've had, really, five or six wonderful years. Like I said, every business there has been excellent as far as generating revenue.
As a councilmember, I have never shied away from talking to businesses, trying to recruit businesses, bringing them to Union City; picking up the phone and calling our economic development and saying, "hey, why don't you talk to so and so because I think they're looking at a spot. What we need right now is a combination of the retail, R&D, professional offices; we need that type of as mix with Union City, especially with the 100 acres where we're going to have the Intermodal station. There's a lot of potential there.
With the Pacific States Steel site of homes being built, there's a lot of potential. I want to be specifically focused on what we need to bring in rather than just going out and throwing a building up and opening anything. We generate a lot of revenue from property taxes. The city has grown quite a bit, but I think that we're at a point right now where we have to be very careful to not just throw more homes in the remaining open space that we have.
TCV: More homes can also translate to more services required of the city.
Elias: Nothing comes for free, there's always a price to pay. When people move in to Union City, it will require more services, but it's going to be offset as they spend money in local stores and restaurants.
Developers are coming in and we are asking them to put in parks and dedicate money to the city. From the last project that was approved of 60 homes or so, we're getting a fire station and one of the largest soccer fields.
The next project that's going to the council is probably going to produce a large park It will probably be one of the largest parks in the Tri-City area.
TCV: On the 911 fee, what's the contingency plan if it fails in court?
Elias: We have money set aside; we are not spending this money until the issue is resolved. It was not incorporated into our budget, so if for some reason or another it does become an issue where the money is returned, by then we have other items that are coming in projects and constructions that will balance out the 911 fee. We're not spending that money, we're not touching it. It'll stay there until we find out what's going to really happen with it.
TCV: How is the Highway 84 controversy going to be resolved?
Elias: I believe that the Tri-Cities have a really good working relationship. This is one issue that has come up that is just a matter of opinion. We both want to see something good happen in our cities. What I think we need to do is to bring Hayward, Newark and other cities into this. Really, when you look at Highway 84, it's not about Union City, it's not about Fremont, it's a regional issue.
We have worked on other issues before. We are not building a divider between Fremont and Union City. I think both city councils need to look at this as a regional project and see what will be best for the entire Tri-City area, including Hayward and the other cities around us. With the Intermodal station coming, people from Hayward to Union City and people from Fremont will come to Union City and take BART. I believe that the city councils don't need to wait, hoping that somebody will change, because really, when it comes to something like this, it really should not be a three/two, squeeze it out vote. It really should be unanimous, because then you truly know that all five council members on both sides felt comfortable enough with the project and they voted for it.
This is a time that we need to get together and work on it. We shouldn't wait for a change of council members to be able to work together. If that was the case, we would never be able to work with other cities. We've never really done that when it came down to the issues.
TCV: What other projects are facing the council at this time?
Elias: I really wanted to see the city continue to explore expansion of our library. Another concern is about our police station; the police department has been in the same offices since the early 70s and it's used 24/7.
We were able to save our public safety, from the last go-around, and the question is can we continue to do the same thing? People still want their streets swept, they still want the parks maintained, they still want the library hours there, they still want the city hall to be open. If you want to take your kids to the park, you want them to be able to play on the equipment and use the facilities. You want all of those things. You can't just tell people that public safety is covered and everything else is going down the drain. We have to look at all of those issues. The vote of confidence was the almost 70% we got on measure K. I think the city council is doing a good job trying to balance everything.
I've offered a lot to the city, and I want to continue to offer a lot more. I think I have the experience, the leadership, the vision and I'm on the right track. I think we have a good council. These next four years are going to be very, very critical for Union City and you need people who are going to be able to make tough decisions, and be able to work with other people and be able to contribute ideas and bring something to the table. That's what I feel I have to offer to the residents.