Russo Marks Third Year
After three years at Alameda’s helm City Manager John Russo said that things are going well. When he arrived here the city was still reeling from the May 30, 2011, Raymond Zack drowning. The fire department’s failure to rescue Zack polarized the community.
The city hired Ruben D. Grijalva to study what happened. The retired fire marshal faulted the city for not having a water rescue program in place. That has changed under Russo’s watch.
Russo points to a second event that helped bring the community back together. On May 9, 2011, three weeks before the Zack drowning, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory announced that Alameda Point was on its short list of choices for a second campus.
On July 13, 2011, Alameda Point came alive with a barbecue. A cross-section of the community celebrated the possibility that the lab’s new campus might grace the Point. Despite all the petty differences inherent in small-town politics, Russo said that the community came together behind the idea of bringing the lab to Alameda. “They packed the theater at Alameda Point and told representatives from the lab how wonderful Alameda is. Everybody was in place and everyone was on the same team.”
Russo said that after that gathering people became more civil. This new civility allowed all parties a safe place to negotiate. He said that he noticed, and still enjoys, “a newer, fresher tone at City Council meetings, where better debate is leading to better legislation.”
He said the city under his administration has done its part to blunt any lack of civility from city staff. “You don’t hear too much about conspiracy theories and stonewalling the public is gone,” he said. “Even the city’s sharpest critics have to admit that information is available promptly.”
Russo also pointed out issues he faced in his first three years that his administration has handled “without creating a ruckus,” the threat of a city bankruptcy and the turnover in executive management positions with some of the former managers suing the city among them. “These issues are off the table,” he said. “The evolution of city politics is now happening in a positive way.”
He recalled the threat of Ron Cowan putting homes on the Mif Albright Golf Course and the idea that some floated that the city brought Russo in to hand Alameda Point over to SunCal. SunCal is gone and, not only is “the Mif” open for golf, the course got a makeover in the bargain.
Russo said that the city no longer faces going broke, an issue that was front and center when he came to town. Alameda has more money in the General Fund reserve than before: 33 percent as opposed to an earlier 24 percent, where the requirement is 20 percent. “Our bond rating is AA+, better than most cities,” he said. Russo pointed out that this rating allowed the city to refinance a bond and use the savings to build the emergency operations center without tapping into city funds.
Russo pointed to several ways his administration has tightened the city’s belt. “We are providing the same services with fewer employees,” he said. “And we have money in the bank because we are maintaining expenditures below budget.” He explained that city staff looks at everything to make sure there is no overspending.
He also said that city employees are paying more to help cover the cost of their retirement and health- care benefits.
Saving and belt tightening are important. “We are going to need that money,” Russo said. “Earlier decisions are coming home to roost.” For example, the state of California is increasing the premiums it charges cities to cover pensions.
Earlier this year the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) increased the rate local government agencies must pay into the system to fund future pension payments of their employees.
“We need more money to cover that increase, and everyone has to pitch in.” The city may have to increase the amount that its employees contribute to their pensions and health plans. In addition, the city might have to ask more from taxpayers in the form of an increase in sales tax and higher fees for services.
As far as the future is concerned, Russo said that he has no crystal ball, but that he is “guardedly optimistic.” He points to Alameda’s ability to have that important civilized dialog — a discourse born that July day on Alameda Point when everyone came together to let Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory representatives know what a wonderful place we live in. Russo hopes to keep that dialog alive and keep making the Island City a better place.