Eric Hall and the Fabulous Fib

“. . . . . look, look, you just tell them and they believe it. That’s it, you just tell them and they believe it. They just do.”           —   Donald Trump

Eric Hall, candidate for St. Helena city council, and his supporters would have you believe that St. Helena is in a “financial free fall” that only he can prevent. His entire platform seems to rest on this one false premise. (Unless he’s trying to make the voters believe he is an environmentalist . . . . .one who happens to drive a Porsche.)

This myth about the city’s finances has been debunked over and over again. And yet it keeps popping up every time some pro-development type wants to fool the voters into thinking they have all the answers and the answer is to sell our community to the highest bidder. (Look where that got us with  Peter White and the Alcobas fiasco.)

At the October 28 meeting of the St. Helena City Council, Finance Director April Mitts was able to show that with the careful planning and foresight our current city council showed at the beginning of the Covid crisis, and by reducing staff salaries and maintaining a prudent posture, the city is actually in much better financial shape than they had anticipated (and budgeted for.)

“(It is) absolutely not in “financial freefall,” says Councilmember David Knudsen.  “The city has a well-diversified tax base—property, sales, and TOT. . . . .Yes, TOT is underperforming.  But property tax is up and sales tax is stable—we’re doing far better than we thought back when Covid first hit.”

Never-the-less, and in spite of three scenarios for long range forecasts presented by the city’s finance director, Eric Hall chose to focus on the one (and distort the findings in the overall report) that fits his narrative and totally ignore the ones that don’t, specifically Scenario 2.

“Based on our current forecast the City is projecting a deficit for the baseline scenario, Scenario 1,” says Mitts.  “This scenario accounts for COVID-19 revenue and expense assumptions in FY 20 and FY 21. . . . .The deficit starting in FY 24 is related to several factors including: the return to pre-COVID spending levels in FY 24 and FY 25, the resumption of transfers to civic infrastructure projects in FY 22, and contributions stating in FY 23 for the necessary storm drain repairs.”

“Scenario 2 (page 8 and 9) adds a hotel in FY 25 and modeled Farmstead revenues as presented in the Infrastructure Financing Taskforce final report,” says Mitts.

In this scenario, Mitts included the recently approved Farmstead hotel in the model, which, based on information provided by the City’s Infrastructure Financing Taskforce adds additional property, sales tax, and Transient Occupancy (TOT) tax starting in FY 25.

“Under this scenario there is still a deficit in FY 20 and FY 21 due to COVID, and a deficit in FY 24 (since the hotel was not modeled coming online until the following year); however,  Scenario 2 modeling did not show a continuing deficit.”

Given Eric Hall’s convenient but inaccurate portrayal of St. Helena’s financial health (often referred to as “lies by omission”) designed to scare the populace into voting for him, is this someone you really think you can trust with the future of our town? After all, they will need to be able to read a financial report accurately.

 

Those who have been paying attention to the onslaught of professionally produced, glossy, political campaign fliers showing up in our mailboxes may have noticed the trajectory of Eric Hall’s campaign over the weeks. It started with the premise that “the city’s all screwed up and what we need is ‘smart growth’ to save downtown.” And, because we are such rubes here in St. Helena, we need the input from a newly-arrived Marin real-estate developer to save us from ourselves!

Next Eric Hall tried to paint himself as “an environmentalist” and a “person with deep roots in Napa Valley.” Hall’s roots in St. Helena go no deeper than a few years ago, when he married into the Pestoni family, owners of the Clover Flat Landfill.  What’s worth noting is that Hall’s purported “deep roots” go hand-in-hand with claims of being an “environmentalist,” especially since the Pestoni’s Clover Flat Landfill has recently had a number of environmental issues and violations related to it:

    • “In March 2019, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board issued the landfill a notice of violation for releasing leachate into a creek. Leachate is water that has extracted solids from other materials; from a landfill, it can contain chemicals and heavy metals. The Napa County Public Health Officer advised the public not to use the water from the creek, or even to touch it . . . . .
    • “In April 2019, the local government agency that oversees the landfill declared it to be a breach of contract. . . . . .
    • “In May 2019, a chemical reaction between improperly disposed materials caused an explosion that sent a worker to the hospital. . . . .” (Wine-Searcher.com, “Landfill Woes Napa’s Latest Concern,” 27-Oct-2020)

Hall’s wife, Christy Pestoni, Chief Operating Officer for the Clover Flat Landfill, which sits at the headwaters of the Napa River Watershed, did not want to talk about the violations or safety issues at the landfill for that article. And Eric Hall, hasn’t mentioned it either even though it is a clear and looming threat to our water supply. (He must be hoping the voters will simply take him at his word and not actually check into his background.)

. . . . .where are the endorsements from the people who actually live here, have lived here, raised their children here, and have invested their lives in this community?

And now Hall seems to be back to his “the sky is falling” trope and is attempting to posture himself as an establishment candidate with his endorsements from professional politicians such as State Senator Bill Dodd (District 3), a former Republican who conveniently switched to being a Democrat for the sole purpose of getting elected to the State Assembly (District 4) in 2014. Is that someone you think you can trust?

Eric Hall  also brags about receiving an endorsement from Napa County Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza, which should raise a red flag for anyone who cares about the future of St. Helena, Napa Valley, and the Ag Preserve. It’s not difficult to draw a straight line between the people who donate to Pedroza’s campaign fund and major development projects that get passed by the County Board of Supervisors over the protests of the people’s whose lives will be forever impacted and with no regard to the water shortage, affordable housing issues, traffic woes, or the climate crisis.

It’s no wonder that Napa Valley is earning the moniker “DrunkDisneyland.” And if Pedroza and Hall have their way, St. Helena may very well be slated to be its “Main Street” attraction.

When looking at who is endorsing Eric Hall for St. Helena City Council, you might ask yourself, where are the endorsements from the people who actually live here, have lived here, raised their children here, and have invested their lives in this community? And what local businesses does he actually plan on supporting? Apparently not the local serving businesses that support the people who live here.

Of all the candidates running for St. Helena City Council, Eric Hall seems to be the one least interested in actually listening to the people in the community. And if Peter White should win the mayoral race, our town may well go the way of Yountville, and now Calistoga, with little hope of regaining the agrarian heritage and hometown charm that brought most of us here to begin with.

It would be great to have a city council we thought we could trust. One we could count on to have our best interests at heart. One we didn’t think we had to watch over at every single meeting to make sure they didn’t try to slip one by or make some decision that would have devastating effects on the people who people live here.

So, please don’t forget to vote and to vote for the future of St. Helena, our children, and their children. A vote for Mayor Geoff Ellsworth, David Knudsen, and Leslie Stanton will be just that.

Do Not Be Mislead – St. Helena is NOT “Broke.”

As we get closer to the election, and making a decision on Measure G, we’re going to start hearing more and more comments implying the “The City is Broke” by a number of local noisemakers.

This is not only not true, it is a deliberate scare tactic being put forth by some, and repeated by others, with the intention of making the voters believe that selling the Adams Street property to a resort developer is imperative to St. Helena’s financial health.

A Request for Proposals for a resort development on the Adams Street property was issued in 2016 and met with vigorous objections by the residents of St. Helena. Former Mayor Alan Galbraith, with the backing of Vice Mayor Peter White, then attempted an end-run by selecting one of the 3 proposals that had been submitted, without consent or consultation, by placing a last-minute item in the agenda to approve the one they favored, again without any input from the community. Again, the citizens voiced their objections and it was tabled, again. But only temporarily.

Mark Smithers, CPA and Chairman of the SHAPE Committee (St. Helena Assets Planning Engagement Committee) offers the following to clear up recent misstatements and information omissions that have been published in the local newspaper:

 

  1. Adams St is not going to be the funding source many are describing to fix our municipal funding needs.  I’ve been involved in property transactions for 40 years and no sane purchaser / developer is going to pay $25 million for this property until their project is approved.  The City may get $1 million earnest money, but the remainder comes upon project approval and that will be at least 7 years from when the property is sold.
  2. Adams St doesn’t need to be sold.  A more favored form of municipal financing for infrastructure (City Hall, Police Station, Library improvements) is General Obligation Bonds.  The City Manager and the City Finance Director both confirmed that your property taxes would go up less than 3% under a $25 million GO Bond.  I’ve asked them to publish this information to the public to eliminate the confusion.
  3. The City Council, in a September 2018 meeting, approved building City Hall at its current site.  Some folks are suggesting this never happened. As a consequence we went down some tangled path and as a result we still haven’t started building a much need City Hall.  SHAPE was asked to provide recommendations and the overwhelming favorite of the committee was to rebuild City Hall at its current site.  It’s all in the report.
  4. Regarding Water and Wastewater CIP (construction and major repair), the staff report and The Star editorial suggest the CIP is “mostly unfunded.”  That’s not really right.  The 2016 rate study only went out 10 years, not the 20 years the recent CIP Engineering Report provided.  The 2017 staff report on the new rates did go out 20 years and it provided for $22 million of water CIP and $15 million of wastewater CIP.  If you look at this issue more clearly and transparently, our current rates by and large are based on the project totals that are in the engineer’s report.  It is not right to say they are unfunded and suggest there is a financial disaster in the Water and Wastewater entities.  Financially they are in very good shape with incredibly high reserves and positive cash flow adding to those reserves.
  5. As to Storm Drain replacement, which is funded through the General Fund, not the water or wastewater entities, nearly $12 million is for drainage improvements.  This means $7 million is for repair and replacement over 20 Years; that’s $350,000 a year.  Yes, we have storm drains that need to be replaced, but it isn’t the financial catastrophe being suggested.  And yes, let’s make improvements, but these can be mapped out and staged as our General Fund allows.  We lived without storm drains on many of our more rural city roads (Dean York, South Crane, Sulphur Springs, Mills Lane, etc.); we don’t need to rush to add storm drains to all them now.

My points above are to provide correct information and information that wasn’t shared.  Some folks are using aspects of the information to scare us into thinking we need to sell the farm and that just isn’t so.

— Mark Smithers

For a complete copy of the SHAPE Report, click on the link.