High-speed rail, envisioning the future of the city’s infrastructure and keeping the city in good financial shape are top concerns for those seeking the three open seats on the Burlingame City Council.
Eight of the nine seeking office — Vice Mayor Michael Brownrigg and Mayor Ann Keighran are joined by Nirmala Bandrapalli, former councilman Russ Cohen, Steve Duncan, Alexander England Kent, Ricardo Ortiz and Andrew Peceimer — spoke with the Daily Journal for endorsement interviews last week. Incumbent Cathy Baylock opted not to run again. Candidate Robert Schinagl could not be reached, while Kent sent in responses to the same questions candidates were asked during in-person interviews.
Development and finances are key issues with the candidates but their approaches differ.
With many projects in the pipeline, Bandrapalli said it’s important to prioritize which are most important and prudently managing finances.
“We don’t have the money to do all the projects,” she said.
Duncan agreed that prioritization of projects such as a library renovation, downtown parking and a new recreation center, is necessary and noted that the city needs to have a plan in place.
Candidates such as Peceimer were concerned with ensuring pensions are in the city for years to come, while also earthquake retrofitting City Hall and the recreation center at Washington Park.
“The last seven years, we’ve seen unwise choices in spending of public money,” Peceimer said. “Yet we’ve cut the police and fire budgets and seen services cut back. We should have built a parking garage before the Burlingame Avenue [Streetscape] project.”
In contrast, Brownrigg noted that the city has gotten the pension situation in much better shape, putting $6 million in a lockbox.
“You can’t solve a $75 million health problem overnight,” Brownrigg said. “There’s so much misinformation [from Peceimer] that it’s hard to start. He doesn’t have the expenses or the bonding right.”
Kent agreed with Peceimer, noting that Burlingame’s current financial position is the direct result of Burlingame’s past city councils allowing unsustainable fiscal practices such as free-health-care-for-life to city employees and their spouses after only five years of service, and if the employee retired after age 50.
Kent also wrote the single most important issue facing the city in the next four years will be delivering state-mandated housing additions.
“State law requires Burlingame to deliver 865 new housing units by 2022,” he wrote. “The most contested location would be 100 units at Parking Lot E and the post office. Complying with this state requirement, if we choose to, will help to create budget surpluses which will pay down our $76 million in unfunded pension health care liabilities.”
The council decided to first tackle the foundation of the city by improving the infrastructure, Keighran said, which she noted is not necessarily a “sexy thing.”
Ortiz said his biggest fear moving forward is there is too much focus on pet projects and forgetting to keep fiscal discipline.
“Nothing is set aside to rebuild the community center which is structurally unsafe,” he said. “There should be something set aside.”
Candidates also discussed how they would like to see the post office and surrounding parking space developed.
Kent wrote he would like to see a combination of new, underground parking, with street-level retail and some transit-oriented development apartments topped with a grassy roof deck and jazz wine bar.
“While the City Council bowed to the state’s assertion to keep the entire lobby of the post office, we should have just preserved the key architectural features,” he wrote.
A community vision of the downtown planned was hashed out, Brownrigg said. The streetscape is aimed at creating more vibrant and pedestrian-friendly streets. A town square is part of that vision for the post office area, he, Keighran and Bandrapalli agreed.
Additionally, a park and theater, as long as they were consistent with the downtown plan, would be the right choice for the area in Bandrapalli’s mind.
“A place where the community can come together,” Bandrapalli said. “Small town character is what Burlingame is all about.”
Duncan would also like the area to fit with the downtown plan and would like to see mixed retail and housing if there’s enough parking to support them both.
Ortiz would also want parking added before going through with any project, but doesn’t see adding high density as a good plan.
“What makes economic sense will drive what’s there,” Ortiz said. “At the end of the day, housing is the biggest bang for the buck.”
Peceimer agreed with Duncan and Ortiz on the issue of parking and would like to see a combination of commercial and residential use.
“I don’t want a site built without more adequate parking,” Peceimer said. “The developer should have deep pockets and be committed to going forward with the project.”
Further, Cohen said he’s told the council to take a deep breath before going forward with any plans.
“What problem are we trying to solve by adding high density housing into the downtown core,” he said. “Downtowns need significant open space — a breath of fresh air in the midst of an urban environment. It could be offices.”
Electrifying Caltrain to allow for the Broadway Station to reopen is something Keighran stands by, but she would like to see high-speed rail go back to the voters. Ortiz agreed.
The council has done a good job at making a very powerful statement, but it could have made a stronger statement recently by support Menlo Park’s amicus brief in support of a lawsuit against the certified Environmental Impact Report for the high-speed rail project, Cohen said.
Keighran agreed with Cohen and wishes the council had gone with the amicus brief. Although she respects the council’s decision, she said she still doesn’t completely understand why the rest of the council decided not to support the brief.
It’s challenging for small cities like Burlingame to stand up for its local decision-making authority against state bullying, Kent wrote.
“I’d like to see the state invest the residents’ $65 billion plus in a more productive manner, as [high-speed rail] is neither the best way to create jobs, nor to commute, nor to help the environment,” Kent wrote.
Bandrapalli would support a below-ground rail system if it had to grow through, while she supports the electrification of Caltrain. Brownrigg would also like to see the high-speed rail at ground or underground if it has to come to Burlingame.
Peceimer was in agreement with the other candidates and said he was flat out against high-speed rail unless it only ran from San Jose to Burbank.
“If the costs made sense to me, I might consider it,” he said.
Ordinances, taxes or fees to repeal
Candidates were asked what fee, ordinance or tax they’d like to see repealed.
Ortiz and Duncan would like to see the leaf blower ordinance changed, which states commercial blowers may be used on only one day per week, per area, with an extra day for R3 and R4 buildings. It also states residents may use their own blowers on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., as well as on their assigned weekday.
Duncan also wants to see the business licensing fee modified so that it’s not as high.
Home remodeling fees are too high, Peceimer said.
“Many people are probably discouraged from doing remodels,” he said. “There also need to me more action taken for helping more businesses expand.”
While Proposition 13 is a statewide tax structure that limits the increase in property tax to 2 percent year, and 1 percent of the total property value, this tax has the biggest impact on making sure that public schools and other essential services are properly funded and it must be reworked, Kent wrote.
Brownrigg would like to see garbage rates held low and to review the zoning of the Rollins Road area.
“There’s benefits to a mixed economy,” he said.
On the other hand, Bandrapalli would like to see garbage rates go down, but agreed with Brownrigg about changing the zoning of some of Rollins Road.
Getting rid of ordinances that are not enforceable should be repealed, Cohen said.
“Gray laws are difficult to enforce,” Cohen said. “Like the no smoking in public parks ordinance and off-leash hours in Washington Park.”
Keighran agreed that the off-leash ordinance during certain hours is difficult to enforce.
“Dogs need to just be on leash at all hours because of the enforceability issue,” she said. “The ordinances have good intentions, but there’s only so many police to go around.”
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