Our city’s website reads: “The Mayor and four City Council Members represent the residents of St. Helena, review public policy and adopt policies responsible to the community.”
With November’s Mayoral election upon us, let’s compare some past actions by Mayor Galbraith and Councilman Ellsworth to determine which candidate better represents St. Helena’s residents.
Adams Street Luxury Hotel Project
In 2016, a clear majority of St. Helena residents, attending a firehouse public forum, vocally objected to a luxury hotel being built on Adams Street. Upon hearing their concerns, our past city manager promised our city would not take any further action until further public input was obtained.
Months later, with no additional public input, Mayor Galbraith placed on the city council’s agenda an item to approve a “preferred contractor” for the Adams Street hotel.
On the night of the city council meeting, there was standing room only in city council chambers with residents outraged over the hotel being advanced without the promised public input. As a result, city council voted to postpone any further action on the Adams Street Hotel.
2016 Utility Rate Increases
Following a 70 percent utility increase in 2011, St. Helena’s 2016 city council voted to increase utility rates again by another 212 percent, through 2022.
On the night city council approved the new rate increases, Mayor Galbraith stated a future city council could review the increased rates and potentially lower the rates given reason. Three months later, a newly elected city council made a motion to review the increased utility rates. After the motion was discussed, Mayor Galbraith voted to disapprove the motion while Ellsworth voted in favor of the new rate review. The motion to review the rates was approved and both Vineyard Valley residents and many small businesses were spared from significant rate increases.
CIA Request for Variance to Expand Pratt Ave. Dormitories
After hours of receiving public input, our city council voted 3-2 to deny a CIA variance for a dormitory expansion project that would have negatively impacted St. Helena residents along Pratt Avenue and the Crinella neighborhoods.
Ellsworth voted to deny the variance and support the resident’s concerns. Galbraith voted to approve granting the variance.
Wine Tasting Room Near Schools and Youth Activities
In 2016, St. Helena’s Planning Commission voted to approve the continuation of a use permit for a new wine tasting room at 1234 Adams St. Subsequently, the planning commission’s approval was appealed by a St. Helena resident claiming the location threatened public safety.
The following month, after receiving input from several residents alarmed about the tasting room’s location threatening young children at nearby schools, city council voted 3-2 to deny the site as another tasting room. City council concluded the tasting room’s location was incompatible with nearby churches and youth activities based upon the State’s guidelines of alcohol-serving establishments operating within 600 feet of schools.
Ellsworth voted with the council majority to deny the tasting room’s location while Galbraith voted to approve the site.
I’ll let the reader decide. Who better represents St. Helena residents?
Editor’s Note: Mayor Alan Galbraith was asked to respond to the issues raised by Tom Belt. The following is his response:
Adams Street Luxury Hotel Project: The responders to the Council-approved Request for Proposal deserved an answer from the Council as to whether it would or would not move forward with any of their proposals. As the writer states, the Council decided not to move forward.
2016 Utility Increases: The Council voted to move forward with the 2016 utility rate increases. We were far out of compliance with our bond covenants, putting us in a position where we could not borrow to finance improvements required by regulators and outside legal pressures. We risked upfront financial funding, with harsh and immediate impact on ratepayers, if we could not access debt markets. The Council approval vote was unanimous.
Unfortunately, there were some unintended consequences from the new rate schedules, but city staff did a good job of working through them. My memory is that the “new” Council did not seek to rescind the first round of increases authorized by the 2016 rates. Instead, in recognition that there were some unintended consequences, we established a subsidy program to mitigate unintended effects.
The redo of the rates did result in modest reduction in the increases. The city pushed out some projects beyond the five years covered in the rate study and the Council also infused significant General Fund money into the Water Enterprise. The Council continues to assess revenue projections and revenue requirement projections. This is part of the charge of Black & Veatch in its current contract with the city.
CIA Dormitory Expansion Project: I supported this project, as did Vice Mayor Peter White. The project was well thought out. It brought together CIA students in one facility, as one might expect to be the desire of a well-run educational institution. The CIA employs an on-site manager. His duties include ensuring that the facility is in compliance with all conditions of approval, including those relating to parking.
The rejection of this dormitory expansion project was not in my opinion in the best interest of the city. Further, the project, if it had advanced, would have freed up the several homes in Saint Helena that the CIA currently rents for its students, freeing up much needed rental housing.
The Tasting Room Issue: As the writer states, Ladera Vineyards received Planning Commission approval to open a tasting room at 1234 Adams St. This was in the same location that Tamber Bey Vineyards had previously operated a tasting room. I am not aware of any complaint, by anybody, to its operation.
No church or school official raised any “proximity concern” to Ladera’s leasing of the premises. Yet, the City Council, with Vice Mayor White and myself in dissent, voted to overturn the Planning Commission and not allow Ladera to lease the premises. The space remains not leased.