City finances, development and transportation are top issues for those seeking the three open seats on the Burlingame City Council.
There are nine seeking three seats open on the council. Vice Mayor Michael Brownrigg and Mayor Ann Keighran are joined by Nirmala Bandrapalli, former councilman Russ Cohen, Steve Duncan, Alexander England Kent, Ricardo Ortiz, Andrew Peceimer and Robert Schinagl. Incumbent Cathy Baylock opted not to run again. Schinagl could not be reached.
Interviews were held to help the Daily Journal determine endorsements. To allow each candidate a forum to express their opinions on the issues discussed, candidates were given the same questions and asked to answer each in around 50 words. Answers are arranged alphabetically by the candidate’s last name.
What is your impression of the city’s current financial situation and how would you like to see it change?
Nirmala Bandrapalli: The city’s finances are prudently managed, but we need to continue setting aside, and increase when possible, monies to meet unfunded pension/benefits liabilities. We also need to prioritize capital projects (including a new community center and parking structure), with input from residents — and develop a systematic/integrated plan to finance them.
Michael Brownrigg: Burlingame is in good shape, provided we stick to the “fiscal diet” our council has adopted over the last four years. Longer term, we have serious pension/health liabilities created by historic labor contracts. We negotiated changes with our unions for new hires to cap long-term health costs, but there’s more to do.
Russ Cohen: The city’s finances are in better shape than comparable cities due to good fiscal planning by councils beginning with the admission in 2005 that deferred maintenance of infrastructure needed to be funded. That 2008 funding took pressure off the general fund. Parking meter rate increases have also helped the parking enterprise funds and an increase in TOT has helped as well. I favor this attempt to “expect the unexpected” and have healthy reserves.
Stephen Duncan: I am glad that the city is addressing unfunded pension liabilities and hope the city continues to maintain healthy reserves in the general fund.
Ann Keighran: Burlingame is in a relatively good financial position. We have 35 percent of our operating budget in reserve. The council has put aside $6.6 million into a trust to help lower our unfunded liability and will add another $2 million-$2.2 million per year starting the next fiscal year. Our business-friendly approach has brought revenue diversity to ensure fiscal strength.
Alexander Kent: Burlingame’s shaky financial position ($76M in unfunded health care liabilities as of 1/2011) is the direct result of Burlingame’s past city councils allowing “sweetheart deals” to city workers, such as free health care for life for you and your spouse after only five years of service, if you retire any time after 50. This was obviously unsustainable.
Ricardo Ortiz: Burlingame’s revenues are growing at a healthy pace. Hotel tax is projected to come in above $18 million. My fear is that as revenues grow, we will loosen purse strings and allow expenses to keep pace. We have talked about the unfunded liabilities connected to our employees and lack of reserves for large capital projects. Fiscal discipline is needed to ensure any surplus is directed at rectifying the unfunded obligations and infrastructure.
Andrew Peceimer: The current finances are not sustainable. Burlingame has approximately $40 million on hand, but long-term debt with future health care and unfunded pensions has increased millions to approximately $200 million. The current council has not publicly spoken about this huge increasing debt except cutting new employee benefits.
Name a decision the council made in the last four years you would have liked to have seen made differently?
Nirmala Bandrapalli: Execution of the Burlingame Avenue streetscape plan has caused great confusion. Council should have ensured better signage and better engaged/informed residents to reduce pushback. We could have incentivized local-shop employees to park in outlying city lots, and developed a smartphone app to inform drivers of city parking lot locations.
Michael Brownrigg: Early on, I proposed we create voluntary incentives for commercial property owners to either improve or sell their properties in the industrial areas. It would have been good for business and for our property tax base. Council declined because it would take staff time and they worried the incentives would not work.
Russ Cohen: The council signed an exclusive agreement with one developer with plans for a high-density affordable housing complex on the site of the U.S. Post Office and Parking Lot E. The project’s scope has changed dramatically since the original RFP was issued. More developers might be interested in participating. With a project that may change the very fabric of our downtown, it is important to explore every angle rather than rush to a conclusion that may not be best for the city.
Stephen Duncan: The leaf blower ordinance. I understand residents concerns but feel that the city over-regulated the issue by telling residents when and what days they could use leaf blowers, depending on what part of the city they lived.
Ann Keighran: I think that the council should have been a part of the amicus participation in the Town of Atherton v. California High-Speed Rail Authority. We may not win the case, but I do feel it is important that we make clear that HSR or Caltrain should not have the authority to bypass CEQA.
Alexander Kent: The Burlingame City Council regularly lets the state disregard our local decision-making authority. Burlingame needs to require a covenant on the potential sale of the ECC building to San Mateo Union High School District so that they don’t sneak in an alternative high school right next to our life-blood hotels ($18 million or 35 percent of the general fund is from hotel occupancy taxes).
Ricardo Ortiz: Two years ago, council adopted a resolution limiting gas-powered leaf blowers to one day a week. This decision came after multiple studies, staff time and almost one year to make it. This was an easily reversible decision that should have been implemented as a trial without the long delay. I found the process inefficient and wasteful of staff time.
Andrew Peceimer: The redevelopment of Burlingame Avenue ignored the voices of Burlingame citizens. An overwhelming majority of residents did not want to spend $17 million and have less downtown parking, plus paying an additional 50 percent for parking. The current City Council has stated plans for a new parking structure, but they have not set aside funds.
What types of development would you support downtown and near the transit corridor?
Nirmala Bandrapalli: I support design-appropriate, multi-family and mixed-use housing near the transit corridor, increased downtown parking with a structure that blends in with our city’s small-town architecture, electrification of Caltrain to improve service/reduce pollution and more amenities for people instead of cars (public square, inviting walkways, etc.).
Michael Brownrigg: Our community labored over two years to produce a thoughtful, 126-page vision for our renovated downtown and I support it 100 percent. It reflects hundreds of hours of input from residents, land owners and civic leaders. The plan envisions vibrant streets, mixed uses, a parking garage, a public square, adaptive reuse of historic assets, etc.
Russ Cohen: Development downtown must be carefully planned and must respect the character and fabric of what has made our downtown successful for so many years. Before we agree to any one scheme, we must think through every option and every unintended consequence.
Stephen Duncan: I support a mixed use of retail and housing with adequate parking on the post office property, while preserving the historic landmark status of the post office.
Ann Keighran: In developing our downtown specific area plan with community input; it became quite apparent that a town square would be a significant addition in improving pedestrian vibrancy. In addition, attainable housing, boutique hotel, entertainment options and retail would add to expanding our pedestrian friendly streets.
Alexander Kent: The Democratic Party, Sierra Club and Burlingame City Council all support “Transit Oriented Development” near the Caltrain, because TOD reduces traffic and helps the environment. State law requires Burlingame to deliver 865 new housing units by 2022, so I support some new apartments in our downtown. Or, perhaps this state law is yet another abuse of Burlingame local authority?
Ricardo Ortiz: I support high-density development as outlined in our downtown specific plan. I have some serious concerns about the use of city parking lots to develop similar projects. In my conversations with voters, I have met few who are crazy about adding more density to the middle of our downtown and even fewer that want city property used for that purpose.
Andrew Peceimer: I would support some limited residential and commercial growth provided the majority of Burlingame residents approve. Any new projects would need to have a traffic plan, increased parking spaces and benefit our community.
Do you feel the city’s building and planning fees are too high, too low or just right?
Nirmala Bandrapalli: We don’t hear people complaining about them, so I believe our city’s building and planning fees are just right. We raise them a little each year to reflect the actual cost of the services so that people aren’t shocked by sudden increases.
Michael Brownrigg: Goldilocks — they’re just right! Seriously, I think the highest priority in the building/planning process is not fees but the speed with which we clear projects or advise of deficiencies and help owners address them constructively. Especially in this economy, we need to make it easy for people to improve their properties within the rules.
Russ Cohen: The fees are commensurate with surrounding cities; however, political will is needed to ask for public benefits for major commercial developments along with impact fees and perhaps 1 percent for art fees similar to other cities on the Peninsula.
Stephen Duncan: I have heard that the city’s building and planning fees are too high compared to neighboring cities.
Ann Keighran: Burlingame is on the lower side in planning fees and at par with building fees in comparison to other Peninsula cities. The city of Burlingame is only allowed to charge for the true cost for their service; not to make a profit. Fees have been incrementally increased annually based upon CPI.
Alexander Kent: It’s not enough to directly benchmark Burlingame’s quoted fees versus other cities, because the City Council and planning staff can reapply them and delay projects — at their will. Think Safeway’s 20-year delay. Balance is everything and the abuse of private property rights by Burlingame’s past administration has given Burlingame a bad reputation among job creating corporate real estate decision-makers. Now, we want to lease 767,000 square feet of Class A Office at Burlingame Point?
Ricardo Ortiz: I have not heard any complaints while out campaigning. I would say they are just right.
Andrew Peceimer: The city building fees are expensive. I recently spoke with a homeowner who said he is paying more than $20,000 in city fees to build a second story on his home. We need to help Burlingame residents retain more money for their families.
What is the single most important issue facing the city in the next four years?
Nirmala Bandrapalli: Multidimensional transportation planning (locally and regionally) — not just reactions to crises: Caltrain electrification to reduce traffic congestion, a parking structure in Burlingame’s downtown, more bike lanes/pedestrian-friendly walkways, enhanced shuttle services, a privately funded “Senior Taxi Service” like the one ITN America offers (see www.itnamerica.org).
Michael Brownrigg: Always, it is the budget. Without a sustainable budget, we risk our great services and intangibles that make Burlingame so special. I never again want to argue about merging our whole police force with San Mateo or closing Easton Branch Library to save money.
Russ Cohen: The constant pressure to change the fabric of Burlingame without the foresight of how those changes might impact the quality of life in Burlingame.
Stephen Duncan: Paying off the unfunded pension liabilities and long-term bond debt.
Ann Keighran: Lack of downtown parking would be one of the most important issues that needs to be addressed. Parking studies have been performed and a project summary was presented to the community in February and March of 2013. We need to now figure out the location, capacity and cost of providing short- and long-term parking demands.
Alexander Kent: State law requires Burlingame to deliver 865 new housing units by 2022. We have nine years left. 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.
Ricardo Ortiz: Burlingame’s revenues are growing at a healthy pace and the temptation is to allow new projects to cause expenses to rise. We have unfunded liabilities connected to employee benefits and overdue capital projects to fund. We must keep fiscal discipline.
Andrew Peceimer: The council increased long-term debt/spending at an unsustainable pace. They spent more than $60 million in bond money, most without voter approval. Our council has conceded to high-speed rail in Burlingame. Our mayor publicly stated support for this in her campaign statement. I do not support high-speed rail.
Education: M.A. in biochemistry, University of San Francisco; PMP-certified project manager; certificate in computer information systems and certificate in project management, U.C. Berkeley Extension
Experience: Burlingame planning commissioner; member and IT operations manager for the Burlingame Community for Education; research, analyst and project manager, Genentech
Family: Married, three children
Residence: Nine years in Burlingame, seven years in San Bruno, eight years in San Francisco
Education: B.A.s in economics and German, Williams College
Experience: Vice mayor and first-term councilman, current venture capitalist for social entrepreneurs
Family: Married, four children
Residence: Burlingame since 1997
Education: B.A. in communication, California State University, Fullerton; B.F.A. in advertising, Art Center College of Design, Pasadena; graduate, San Mateo Area Chamber of Commerce leadership program
Experience: Past member, Burlingame City Council; eight-term president, Burlingame Historical Society, current vice president; founder/chief curator, Burlingame History Museum; executive director, Palo Alto Business and Professional Association
Residence: Just shy of 20 years in Burlingame
Education: B.A. English literature, San Francisco State University
Experience: Volunteer 2012 re-election campaign of Daly City Councilman David Canepa, Burlingame Lions Club board member, St. Catherine of Siena Men’s Club member
Residence: Nine years in Burlingame
Education: San Mateo County Chamber of Commerce Leadership Program graduate; M.S.N. and B.S.N. in nursing, University of San Francisco
Experience: Burlingame City Council since 2005
Family: Married, two daughters
Residence: Burlingame for 37 years
Education: B.S. in communications with concentrations in econ/psych, Northwestern University
MBA, Kellogg School of Management
Experience: Public and private school real estate strategy and complex contract negotiation; telecom corporate finance and complex contract negotiation
Family: Married, two children
Residence: Six and a half years in Burlingame
Education: B.A. in economics from Revelle College, U.C. San Diego
Experience: Burlingame High School Drama Boosters president, 2012-present; Peninsula Health Care District long term planning committee, 2008-present; AYSO Region 63 youth coach 2000-present
Family: Married, three children
Residence: Burlingame for 20 years
Education: U.C. Berkeley
Experience: Burlingame business owner
Children: Married, three children
Residence: Burlingame for 25 years