Why Fireworks Are Important In Foster City

Foster City's annual July 4 show is worth the price of admission -- even during a budget crisis.

With Foster City’s annual budget shortfall reportedly approaching $5 million, city leaders and residents are understandably concerned, enough to consider a wide range of potential solutions. This week, amidst cries of “taxation without representation” from one resistant city official, the council met and agreed to place on the June election ballot a proposal to increase the occupancy tax on Foster City’s two hotels by 2%. If passed the proposal could generate $300,000 a year in new tax revenue, which is nice… and accounts for a massive 6% of the total gap.

This leaves Foster City 94% short, thanks to a series of dominoes whose toppling can be traced to the real estate crisis of the past two years – most obviously personified by the stuttering progress of ambitious local redevelopment projects, whose projected property tax revenue could go a long way toward pulling Foster City out of its budget ditch.

The good news is that the “Mirabella site” is back in play. The 15-acre parcel located between City Hall and the Peninsula JCC is where Pacific Retirement Services had planned to build 420 units of senior housing, BMR units, retail space and a public plaza called “Mirabella San Francisco Bay” before pulling the plug on the project last April. On January 29, Foster City Community Development Director Rick Marks told the Bay Area News Group that the city “is prepared to send out a request for for qualifications to roughly 25 development firms that have expressed interest in the property over the past several months.” 

Successful development of this land could bring up to $2 million, annually, into city coffers – leaving it “only” a couple of million dollars short. What’s next?

It hasn’t gotten to the point where Foster City, like neighbor San Carlos, is considering jettisoning its fire and police departments, but everything else is on the table, including the annual July 4 fireworks show, the last of its kind in San Mateo County.

Why would it be a huge error to shut down the fireworks show? It’s not a vital city service and does not generate revenue. Even though Mayor Linda Koelling was quoted in December as saying, “I’m absolutely in favor of the fireworks,” Vice Mayor Art Kiesel and Councilman Charlie Bronitsky (who, along with Rick Wykoff, voted against adding the hotel tax to the November ballot) demurred, pointing out that, with the city planning to lay off seven full-time employees by the end of 2013, spending money on a fireworks show is a bit frivolous.

And then, on Monday, the council voted to continue the fireworks show. Somewhere between the city’s Arts and Wine Festival and Summer Concert Series, the Lion’s Club and private partnerships, Foster City will scrape up the money for fireworks; and they’re absolutely correct in doing so.

Because it was planned during the suburban utopia of the 1960s, Foster City needs community-wide events more than other, more traditional Peninsula cities. Its mostly residential layout was designed isolation and solitude, not interaction. The city does its best to bring residents together through activities, classes and small-scale events but the it lacks a pedestrian-friendly center, a place where locals can shop, dine and simply hang out, a place where interaction is effortless because it’s designed into the landscape. The July 4 party is an unquantifiable benefit; though it costs the city money – and thus will be one of the first items on the agenda when it comes to lopping off a few superfluous budget items – its value to Foster City’s quality of life is immeasurable.

Need proof? Watch how people step up to help save the event, like Gold Medal Martial Arts owner Herb Perez, who has agreed to foot the $17,000 bill for the fireworks themselves. This is how communities protect their property values, an intangible not guaranteed by open floorplans and canalfront decks.

Open House of the Week: Whoever next buys 962 Diaz Lane, a “sun-filled” townhouse located in Winston Square, might want to buy Herb Perez a dozen roses. The three-bedroom, two-point-five-bath home, built in 1975, has a view of the July 4 fireworks from its backyard patio. For the other 364 days of the year, they’ll be content to enjoy the unit’s open floorplan and living room fireplace. It’s open this Sunday, pre-Super Bowl hours (1 – 3:30 PM) and is listed by Ronald Kahn of Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate, J. F. Finnegan Realtors.

Steve Toler February 04, 2011 at 08:34 PM
Larry, I'm thankful for you calling attention to the issues Foster City is dealing with to maintain the character and the financial strength of this community. I just wanted to take a quick moment and clarify a couple of things in your article. Firstly, the projected deficit for the year ended June 30, 2011 is $5 million. Our long-term structural deficit is projected to be $3.5 million per year if it were not otherwise corrected through expenditure reductions or revenue increases. That is the deficit that the City Council is attempting to solve in a financial plan by the 2013-2014 fiscal year. Regarding the transient occupancy tax, the City Council will not make a final decision on that until July 2011. After they take the necessary action to place it on the ballot, that ballot measure would be on the November 2011 ballot. The June ballot to which you refer is a special ballot related to the Governor's proposal of certain items in the State Budget. (cont'd....)
Steve Toler February 04, 2011 at 08:35 PM
(cont'd from above) Regarding the "redevelopment" projects in your 2nd paragraph, I believe you are referring to the Mirabella project on the 15-acre site, which you go on to discuss afterwards. Foster City is actually seeing development projects that are moving forward ahead of schedule. The Pilgrim-Triton project is expected to receive their first building permit this Summer, about 6 months ahead of schedule. Gilead sciences is moving forward with their campus expansion and redevelopment project on or ahead of schedule. And we are receiving inquiries from the owner of the Chess-Hatch commercial properties north of 92 to move forward with redevelopment of their project well ahead of their expected timeline. So other than the 15-acre site, redevelopment projects are actually ahead of their original schedules - a very positive sign for Foster City's long-term financial health. Thanks for letting me clarify those issues. Anyone interested in our quarterly financial reports can go to the Ctty's Financial Services Department website by going to http://bit.ly/FCFinance . Steve Toler Finance Director City of Foster City stoler@fostercity.org
Charlie Bronitsky February 07, 2011 at 11:09 PM
My opposition to the increase in the Hotel Tax derived only in small part from the fact that the tax will be imposed upon those who have no vote. My principal objection to the tax was that I do not believe that we have fully identified all areas in which expenditure reductions can be made and I continue to be committed to reducing expenditures first and taxing only as a last resort. As to the 4th of July fireworks, I do not believe them to be as essential to the City as Police, Firefighters, Public Works projects to maintain our infrastructure, or Park maintenance. If you would look at the projected budgets you would see that meeting our goals and not ending up in the dire straights in which other cities find themselves requires planning and the ability to make difficult decisions such as cutting popular but expensive programs. If we fail to do that not only will we have no fireworks, we will be looking at the types of issues that other cities are already looking at - a problem we should plan to avoid at all costs. Fortunately, the Foster City Lions stepped up and have provided a vehicle to fund the event from outside sources thereby saving the program and preventing the economic loss that would otherwise be suffered by the City. Foster City is a lot more than a 4th of July fireworks event and we need to work hard to keep it that way. That is what I have been doing in my time on the Council. Charlie Bronitsky


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