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False Promises of Fixed Streets in Richmond?

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A pothole-filled street in Richmond. (Andrew Stelzer/KQED)

Gail Anderson is driving around her Richmond neighborhood, checking out all the best spots -- for potholes. She says they’re actually not very hard to find.

"See these cracks in here. ... A whole line just tore up. ... They go anywhere from 2 to 3 inches deep," Anderson explains, as she swerves to stay on flat ground.

Anderson is frustrated about the state of the streets, but she’s even more upset about the mattresses, furniture and other trash piled up on the sidewalks, and a tree branch that fell on her house last year -- she’s afraid the whole tree will fall soon. On all of these issues, the city has not given this life-long Richmond resident the help she thinks citizens deserve.

“They’re not taking care of the citizens of this city. The graffiti, the holes in the road, the dumping which is just outrageous. It just makes the city look unclean, “ says Anderson.

Gail Anderson and a pothole in front of her house.
Gail Anderson and a pothole in front of her house. (Andrew Stelzer/KQED)

“This is embarrassing to me that we can’t keep our city together. They call it a city of pride and purpose, but it’s pathetic and pitiful to me,” she added.

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Although Richmond’s crime rate has significantly improved in the last few years, it’s not necessarily sharing in the Bay Area's economic boom.  New businesses have been slow to invest, and wealthy newcomers have been gravitating toward other East Bay cities, like Berkeley and Oakland.

In 2014, Richmond came up with a potential new revenue source: a half-cent sales tax called Measure U. In informational mailers paid for by the city, Measure U was promoted as a way to help fund improvements to roads, as well as public safety and youth programs. However, Mayor Tom Butt says it didn’t quite turn out as planned.

“Measure U was actually born with the idea that it would provide additional revenue, some of which could be used for streets. And as it developed, we came to realize that it probably wasn’t all gonna be used for streets,” Butt explained.

All of the money raised through the tax has gone straight into the city’s general fund. The way the initiative was worded, that's completely within the law. But Jack Weir, president of the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association, said it’s a bad way to run city government.

"The whole controversy about Measure U. It's not just about that they didn’t use the money the way they said," said Weir.

An 2014 election season mailer, touting how measure U would improve Richmond's streets and other city servives.
A 2014 election season mailer, touting how Measure U would improve Richmond's streets and other city services.

“If the roads aren’t properly maintained over time, taxpayers wind up having to pay way more to keep the infrastructure capable of fulfilling its expected useful life. And that’s bad management, both from a policy perspective and from a fiscal perspective,” he added.

Richmond is in a tough place. It's been facing budget deficits for years. Last year Moody’s downgraded Richmond’s bond rating, and the California State Controller’s Office briefly opened an investigation into the city’s finances. To try and keep its financial reputation afloat, the city's 2016-17 draft budget again routes all the Measure U revenue, almost $8 million, into the city’s general fund. Nothing is earmarked for streets.

Richmond City Manager Bill Lindsay admits no one is tracking how the Measure U money is being spent, but says, "The Measure U story really isn't done yet.”

Lindsay says population growth should lead to more sales tax revenue in the next few years, which could free up the City Council to fund things that the Measure U campaign promised.

“Two, three years, four years down the road, looking back, I expect our pavement condition index is going to be better, and my hope is that the voters feel like it was a good investment,” said Lindsay.

But in the meantime, there may be more new taxes coming soon. Mayor Butt is pursuing a hike in the city's real estate transfer tax and a “litter” fee on cigarettes, to appear on the November ballot. Both of those pots of money, he says, would go to the general fund as well.

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