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On balancing the city’s checkbook

Submitted by on 1, September 10, 2008 – 2:25 pmNo Comment

For the past six years that he has sat on the City Council, Frank Matarrese has seen the city’s budgets fall into deficit and its public safety benefit liabilities grow. Now, he’s working toward long-term solutions to the problems.

A few months back, he spearheaded an effort to assemble a group of experts to forecast where the city is headed financially as a basis for an Island-wide conversation about how best to balance the city’s checkbook. He’s also working to get the city to steer a few more pennies toward paying public safety benefits to get out ahead of soaring costs.

“Nothing is free,” Matarrese said during a conversation with The Island about these efforts. But he thinks it’s worth it for us to sort out how we maintain our Mayberry by the Bay.

Like many California cities facing the effects of a long-submerged economy and a screwy tax system, Alameda’s got a few little financial issues. Our Island collects fewer sales tax dollars per person than almost every other city in the county. And we lack a solid business/industrial base to help make up for that.

Home assessments are also going down, which could ultimately wreak havoc on city budgets. And as we all know, things aren’t exactly getting cheaper. The city’s public safety pension and benefit liabilities are escalating much more quickly than its revenues – they’re estimated at about $75 million over the next 20 years – chewing up an increasing amount of the budget.

And Matarrese and his other fellow council members are concerned the city could go bankrupt like its oft-cited neighbor, Vallejo.

So how does the city balance its checkbook? It can raise money by collecting more taxes (like the transfer tax increase on this November’s ballot), work like hell to bring in businesses that generate taxes – or start cutting services.

What should we do? Well, that’s where you come in.

“Our job is to make sure people understand the connection between services and the budget,” Matarrese said. And that’s a big part of what the fiscal sustainability committee aims to do. They’ll lay out the city’s budget situation in clear, understandable (we hope) English. And then it’s up to us to get involved in finding solutions to the problems they may uncover.

He said the committee will have recommendations for a minimum annual benefit contribution in October. It will also have 10-year projections and more by January.

We’ll keep you posted.

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