Group: Not trying to ‘turn off the lights’
On Tuesday, the Benicia City Council will vote on a resolution to renew the Benicia Business Improvement District (BID), in which businesses in designated areas of a town are required to pay taxes to help fund projects within the district’s boundaries. In 2012, business owners on First Street partnered with the city to form a BID, which is comprised of all businesses on First Street between Military and the Carquinez Strait as well as companies at 117 East F St., 120 East G St. and 164 East H St.
The BID was approved by the council in 2012 for an initial five-year term, but if approved on Tuesday, the BID would have a new 10-year term beginning on Jan. 1, 2018 and running through Dec. 31, 2027. The approval of the BID led to the formation of the Downtown Business Alliance (DBA), a volunteer nonprofit group of First Street merchants responsible for oversight of the BID.
One of the main projects initiated through the BID has been installing decorative lights around trees on First Street to be paid for by the businesses. The goal of the lights is to promote First Street as a vibrant commercial destination and attract people to businesses.
While staff is recommending that the council approve the renewal, not every business owner is happy with the BID. A group of downtown business owners, spearheaded by Norma and Jim Parrie of Old Capitol Locksmith and Barbara Patrick of Barbara Patrick Skin, crafted a petition taking issue with such aspects as the assessment fees, perceived lack of benefits and inconsistent maintenance on the lights. As of press time, the petition had received signatures from 86 local businesses.
Norma Parrie said the decision to craft the petition came after receiving a letter from the city notifying her and her husband about the plan to renew the BID.
“(We) realized we finally had an opportunity to speak our voice because we weren’t provided that privilege five years ago when the BID was created,” she said.
The main concern of the group was the high assessment fees. According to a report by Economic Development Manager Mario Giuliani, annual assessment rates are $192 per year— or $16 per month— for one-story or downstairs businesses and $60 per year— or $5 per month— for upstairs businesses.
In their petition, Patrick and the Parries noted that the BID has 190 businesses consisting of 153 downstairs businesses and 37 upstairs businesses.
“Using these current figures, a total of $31,596 will be collected each year on the next businesses license renewal,” they wrote. “This amounts to $315,900 collected over the proposed 10 year period.”
“The city, and the people that have put this BID together have given us a threshold burden of $31,596 of which we have to get half,” Norma said.
Norma noted that the BID packet put together by the city contains an appendix that contains the figures, including the threshold.
“It doesn’t match what’s been taken in because the average is $26,000 a year, but they’re making us meet a threshold of $31,596, almost $5,000 more than what the city averages,” she said.
In regards to the lights, the group said they support the lights but wish they were better maintained in a manner to justify the costs.
“It has never been our intent to turn the lights off,” Norma said. “Our intent has been to eliminate the assessment on the First Street businesses in the district.”
The lights were turned off Thursday to allow for maintenance of the trees and are expected to be reinstalled in October. Norma said many issues stemmed from the maintenance of the lights. She had spoken with All That Glows, the company that worked on installing the lights, and was told they were not expected to last more than two to three years.
“They just fade out and need to be replaced,” she said. “Over the past five years, we’ve paid $64,800 to All That Glows.”
“According to All That Glows, the budget restricted their ability to make these lights function properly,” she said. “They said they would have to pick and choose their battle. If they had a block that had eight strands out and one person had one out in front of their business, they’d go for the eight strand. They tried their hardest, and in all fairness so did DBA, to keep those lights going.”
In his report, Giuliani noted that there would be changes to the lights under the new BID: fewer lights would be installed so as to allow pruning of the trees every three years, using solar cells instead of timers so the lights can turn on when night hits and hiring a new company, Electrical Independent Construction, to install and maintain the new lights.
“While the original company hired to install the lights five years ago did a fantastic job with installation, their monthly maintenance was lacking and they had insufficient staff to meet their monthly maintenance obligations,” Giuliani wrote. “The DBA is excited and optimistic that the new company who specializes in electrical work will be more responsive and fix problems on a more timely basis.”
However, Norma suggested the lights should be maintained by the city, Benicia Main Street or another organization with paid staff.
“A lot of people in town state they love the lights and we do too,” Patrick said, “but they don’t know who pays for the lights. The downstairs business owners pay $192 a year, which after this five-year assessment is $980, and the upstairs pays $60 a year.”
Patrick also noted that Vallejo has lights in its downtown, and their property owners pay for them after being given a vote.
“They can vote yes or no if they want to,” she said.
Norma said the main goal of the BID protest was to settle on a compromise where the lights can be kept up while the assessment fees are eliminated.
“I’m trying to find a solution where everyone can be happy,” she said. “Merchants don’t pay the assessment fee but the lights stay on.”
One alternative Patrick suggested was for all the businesses to pay a more reasonable fee.
“The whole city benefits from the lights,” she said. “Everyone loves the lights, so let all the businesses pay a small, equal, fair fee like $20 or $25 and let the city pay the rest, which they do pay part of it,” she said.
Patrick said the goal of the petition was to give a voice to downtown business owners.
“When they formed the DBA, it was not done by a vote,” she said. “It was done by a few businesses that came up with a money amount that represented them, and the next thing we knew, we were in it. This protest petition is our only chance to have a voice and have a say.”
As of press time, six businesses had submitted letters of protest to the city but two of them were later rescinded by the owners. Giuliani anticipated that more protest letters would be submitted by the deadline, which is the night of the council meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 5.