Town hall on arena sparks debate on parking, public funds
A town hall discussion of the new arena Thursday sparked debate between audience members and City Councilman Jay Schenirer about parking issues and the use of public funds to finance the arena project.
Schenirer and Assistant City Manager John Dangberg fielded questions from the nearly 30 people in attendance after presenting an outline of project details, including an overview of the term sheet and financing framework.
Schenirer said he held the town hall meeting for neighbors in his district because he wanted to make sure they had direct access to him to talk about whatever concerns they have about the arena project. Dangberg was included, Schenirer said, because he is one city staff member deeply involved in the project.
Comments from the audience largely reflected concerns about the City Council’s decision to partially fund the arena with revenue from leasing out the city parking inventory to a private operator.
Leasing the city’s parking to a private operator would create a $9 million gap in the general fund – money that city officials are planning to backfill from a variety of revenue sources including ticket surcharges and user fees, according to the presentation.
“This (deal) is just a real boondoggle for the Kings and for the city,” said one audience member. “It seems ridiculous to spend public money on an arena when we are cutting police and fire and closing pools and community centers.”
Schenirer said the revenue created from a parking lease would be used for the arena in order to create an economic engine.
“The money that comes out of parking has to make money,” Schenirer said. “If we put it into pools or potholes, there’s no return in that. Everything we do with the money has to bring revenue.”
Dangberg outlined the plan to backfill the general fund, spurring comments from audience members about the use of public funds without a public vote.
“Why are you making the decision for all of us without letting us have a vote?” asked an audience member. “You said people have the opportunity to vote in elections, but by the time we get that chance, this arena is done.”
Another audience member asked if an initiative to force a public vote that is being floated for the November ballot might cause a standstill for the arena project.
Schenirer said the council’s decision is a “complicated business decision” – one that he and the other City Council members have been elected to make.
“We’re taking it a step at a time, and if at the end of the day, you don’t like the decisions being made, you have the power to vote in an election for someone else,” he said.
Dangberg added that, according to the tentative timeline for the project leading up to construction, the “point of no return” would not occur until after March 2013.
“The council cannot financially commit themselves to this until there is a certified environmental review, and that won’t be completed until early next year,” he said.
After the more than two-hour-long meeting, some audience members said they weren’t satisfied with what they heard.
“This is a shell game,” said Sacramento resident David Arie after the meeting. “The numbers aren’t real. How are they going to get $250 million from the parking? No one is going to spend 20-30 bucks to park downtown.”
Schenirer said he appreciated the input from residents who attended the meeting.
“I think there is a lot of misinformation out there surrounding the arena, so my goal was to share information and answer questions,” he said.
“People are concerned about the risk – and I think that’s fair – and people are very concerned about the parking.” he added.
Dangberg said he takes the feedback he hears from residents constructively because it gives him something new to consider.
“We heard a real cross section of the community (tonight),” Dangberg said. “I think the questions and comments were well-intended and well-informed and typical of public dialogue on a very large project like this.”
Dangberg said he believes the city needs to continue providing outreach and solid information for people to base opinions and decisions on before the arena project is finalized.
Mayor Kevin Johnson said Tuesday that preparations for environmental review and site and building design for the project are under way. That portion of work is expected to be completed by March or April 2013.
Melissa Corker is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow her on Twitter @MelissaCorker.