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City-State Funding Battle, Praise for Public Art Aired at El Cerrito City Hall

Members of the El Cerrito Council expressed praise Tuesday night for wind sculptures by two Berkeley artists planned for city streetlight poles, and also learned that the state rejected city plans for keeping former redevelopment funding.

The El Cerrito City Council's bimonthly meeting Tuesday , in subject and emotion.

The meeting's mood ranged from a congratulatory conclusion to a three-year planning effort for what will be the – a dozen abstract copper sculptures on San Pablo Avenue streetlight poles – to a worrisome report on the ongoing battle between the state government in Sacramento and local jurisdictions over the income and assets that once belonged to the former 400 Redevelopment Agencies in California.

State vs. cities over Redevelopment Agency remains

The city's former redevelopment manager, Lori Treviño, who now serves as development manager, told the council that the state Department of Finance had rejected the city's plan for retaining assets and revenues of the dissolved Redevelopment Agency on seemingly narrow grounds, while she and City Manager Scott Hanin indicated that El Cerrito and many other local governments around the state are encountering state resistance to their plans for holding onto sizable portions of the property and funding that once belonged to their Redevelopment Agencies.

The feedback that El Cerrito is hearing from other cities is that state Department of Finance officials "are taking every opportunity they can" to hold up approvals of city spending plans known as a "Recognized Obligation Payment Schedule," or ROPS, Hanin said. The state legislation that dissolved local Redevelopment Agencies permits local jurisdictions to continue to meet the recognized obligations, such bond payments and projects in progress, of their Redevelopment Agencies.

"All the cities are hearing, anything they put on their ROPS, even the remotest issue, is getting held up," Hanin said. Compounding the problem is that different agencies that must work together to coordinate the funding have different calendars that are out of sync, he said.

"As we've talked about over the past year, the process is largely getting invented on the fly," he said. "...It's just a mess."

One pressing concern, Treviño and Hanin said, is whether the city will receive its promised funding under the reorganization in time to meet its approximately $1.5 million in redevelopment bond payments due to trustees for the bondholders on June 15. Even though the Redevelopment Agency no longer exists, the city opted to become the successor agency for the agency's assets and obligations, which include the bond debt payments. 

To help close the state budget gap, the state legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown last year agreed to dissolve the state's Redevelopment Agencies in order to obtain much of the property-tax revenues that the agencies were receiving to foster economic development in local blighted areas. Cities and counties filed suit to block the move, but the state . 

Now, the state is finding that its anticipated windfall is not pouring in. A chief reason that the state is not seeing the added $1.7 billion that it was counting on is the drop in assessed property values, Treviño told Patch after the council meeting.

Wind sculptures on San Pablo Avenue

On a much different note, council members praised the outcome of the prolonged and once controversial effort to design a $100,000 public art project for San Pablo Avenue. The two artists who won the comission to do the project, Jonathan Russell and Saori Ide of Berkeley, gave a presentation to the council, describing the 12 abstract copper sculptures they will soon begin installing on streetlight poles on San Pablo Avenue.

Their presentation was prefaced by comments from Nancy Donovan, vice chair of the city's Arts and Culture Commission, which gave its final approval to the plan on March 22, more than three years after the city issued a call for artists to submit proposals.

"It's been incredibly exciting and a lot of hard work on this project over the past number of years," Donovan said. "I think any kind of art can be controversial, and public art cna be very controversial. I think ultimately the goal of art is to beautify and make peope think and enjoy. ... I'm really proud of the work the artists have done and the commission has done."

Russell told the council, "It was a great experience, and I really want to commend all of the arts commission. We're very grateful that they worked with us."

Councilwoman Janet Abelson pointed to fact that the copper forms will turn with the wind. "I like the idea of having the objects in the center spinning," she said. "That really appeals to me – the idea of moving artwork. And I would like to think it represents a moving community. I really appreciate all the effort you've put into it. It's really quite creative.

Mayor Bill Jones said, "I think you've come up with a very original piece of art for the avenue, certainly something that will distinguish El Cerrito's part of the avenue from others. And that was one of the goals when we started the San Pablo improvement plan."

Councilwoman Rebecca Benassini noted extra effort made by the volunteer arts commissioners, who  and held numerous meetings to go over designs with the artists.

"I want to just make note or highlight the perserverance that the commissioners and the artists and the staff and the public have shown in this project," she said. In addition to being works that provoke thought, the sculptures are "also markers for the avenue," she said. "Now you have more a of a sense of place at these various intersections. I'm really looking forward to seeing them up."

The warm reception for the art stood in marked contrast to a year ago when the artists' first proposal for lightpole art – 50 brightly colored simple images of people and objects – was .

Russell told the council that he and Ide, who are married, discovered that they now spend more time in El Cerrito than in Berkeley, not just because of the art project but also because of various school and other activities in the city that their kids participate in as well as the shopping options they enjoy here.

He also extended a special thanks to Karen Pinkos, assistant city manager, and Suzanne Iarla, community outreach specialist for the city, for all the help they provided in their roles as staff liaisons to the commission.

Council action on other items

In other business, the council gave its support to the Measure K parcel-tax ballot measure for West Contra Costa schools, a "Choose Civility" initiative to promote greater civility among citizens, and a proclamation commending Cynthia LeBlanc of Richmond on her selection as the American Cancer Society's national board chair and winner of the society's prestigious St. George Award.

The council also approved an amendment to the 57-unit Ohlone Gardens affordable housing project planned for Portola Drive near San Pablo Avenue. The project was designed to include 10 units for special-needs students from the Hatlen Center for the Blind, but Hatlen withdrew because it was unable to meet its fundraising goals. 

The remaining partner, Resources for Community Development (RCD), proposed the 10 special needs units be "occupied by five households with persons living with HIVIAIDS and five households with mental health consumers," according to a city staff report. The council agreed, though Mayor Bill Jones expressed a desire to explore alternatives to the planned commercial space on the ground-floor, given the city's high ratio of commercial vacancies.

All of the evening's votes were 4-0. Councilwoman Ann Cheng was absent.

Kathy A. April 19, 2012 at 02:37 AM
Can someone explain more about the problems the city is having with it's successor to the redevelopment agency? It really does sound like a mess, with state agencies holding up approvals that the new agency needs to move forward. Things involving funding and property on this scale should not be "invented on the fly" -- how can cities plan under those circumstances? i am unclear on where the "expected" funding to meet bond obligations is coming from. Also unclear on who currently owns the properties at issue -- and which properties we are talking about. Probably a beginning problem is that I do not understand what happened in the first place, with the dissolution of the redevelopment agencies. Apologies if this has been explained before.
Charles Burress (Editor) April 20, 2012 at 12:05 AM
Kathy, I hope someone more informed than I will chime in here. As I understand it, Redevelopment Agencies were funded by bonds and a share of local property taxes, and the state law that dissolved Redevelopment Agencies allows the successor agency (in this case the City of El Cerrito) to keep receiving enough of those property taxes to meet the continuing obligations incurred by the Redevelopment Agency. It also has provisions that allow retaining some property subject to certain conditions. Details can be found in this city staff report: http://patch.com/bvbFR. A state overview can found in this Legislative Analyst's report: http://patch.com/bvbFS. The questions of who ultimately decides how big a check El Cerrito should get and whether it has to relinquish any properties are ones that I'm still seeking answers to.

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