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Box Store Rebellion

In Cotati, B is for Big Box

By R. V. Scheide

When the Cotati City Council voted unanimously to place Measure B on the Nov. 4 special election ballot, it was resorting to what has become the default method for raising revenue in the post-Proposition 13 era: bring in a big-box retailer like Lowe's Home Improvement and rake the additional sales tax into city coffers.

But a vocal group of Cotati residents thinks it's time city officials started thinking outside the box.

"We think the council is going beyond where it should be going," said Neil Hancock, a founding member of Cotati Residents Against B. There are 14 active CRAB members, and Hancock said hundreds of locals have signed the group's petition. "The city council is trying to sell Cotati down the river."

If passed, Measure B will amend Cotati's general plan to exempt retail structures built on a 52-acre parcel west of Highway 101 and north of Gravenstein Highway from the 43,000-square-foot limit put in place by Measure F, a landmark initiative narrowly passed by voters in 1997. The average size of a Lowe's is approximately 100,000 square feet.

The members of CRAB charge that the city, rather than present both sides of the issue, has actively promoted bringing a big-box retailer to Cotati by using misleading language on the ballot. They've enlisted the aid of ACORN (the Association of Communities for Reform Now), a national organization that fights for issues such as the living wage and affordable housing, to defeat the measure in what has become a contentious campaign.

On Sept. 10, CRAB filed suit against the city, seeking to change the language on the ballot. It was too late to alter the ballots before the election, so now if Measure B passes, the suit seeks to invalidate the results.

Meanwhile, CRAB has come under attack for alleged campaign violations from Newman Development Group, the New York-based mall and supermarket developer that will build the Lowe's in Cotati if Measure B passes. It has contributed $75,000 to support the measure, while CRAB has spent $25,000 to oppose it. Calling ACORN a group of "hired guns," Newman political consultant Steven Glazer alleged that three CRAB mailers failing to list ACORN as a sponsor are illegal and questioned whether local opponents were "laundering money" through the national advocacy group.

"Our lawyers say we haven't done anything like that," said ACORN campaign coordinator Doug Bloch, who's been helping CRAB organize the fight against Measure B. "The truth of the matter is we got involved late in the fight with Measure B, and never thought we'd be in a campaign where both sides have spent a total of $100,000."

Cotati city clerk Sara Anna confirmed that CRAB has incurred a fine for missing the filing deadline for the first disclosure period ending Sept. 20. The money in question was reported in CRAB's filing received Oct. 24. She said she reported the error to the Fair Political Practices Commission in Sacramento and that the Measure B opponents would be fined $10 per day for missing the first reporting period deadline. She was aware of no other infractions pending against CRAB.

"If we filed late, then we'll pay the fine," Bloch said.

At press time, Glazer said a group of Cotati Measure B supporters would be filing charges in regard to the three fliers. "I assert that they will be determined to be illegal," he said.

Hancock, while admitting that the hastily organized campaign may have made some filing errors, characterized the attack as a smokescreen designed to obscure the real issue. A telecommunications software engineer, Hancock moved to Cotati six years ago for the small-town atmosphere. Measure F had just been passed, preventing the construction of a Lucky's supermarket that might have put locally owned Oliver's, a 43,000-square-foot grocery store, out of business. Since it passed, all the new big boxes have gone up in nearby Petaluma, Rohnert Park, and Santa Rosa--not Cotati.

That's irksome to Measure B proponents, who argue that without increased sales tax revenue, Cotati may be facing budget shortfalls in the near future, resulting in layoffs and cutbacks in public services.

"Four to five years out, it's apparent that if some things don't change, there are services that might have to be cut," said interim city manager Robert Christofferson. Currently, he said the $3.6 million city budget is balanced and there have been no program cuts or layoffs, although some road repairs have been deferred and one position with the police department remains unfilled. However, Christofferson said if governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger repeals the tripling of the car tax and the Legislature doesn't backfill the amount in the state budget, Cotati would have to scramble to come up with an additional $350,000 in revenue. The city estimates a Lowe's big box might generate up to $1 million in new sales tax revenue, which would give it economic leeway to deal with such a scenario.

But Hancock and CRAB question that estimate and also whether the city really needs the extra $1 million in the first place. The city's budget has remained stable at approximately $3.5 million through three years of recession, no one seems to be complaining about a lack of services, and now it looks like the economy is turning around.

"Why is it that we suddenly need all of this revenue?" Hancock said. "The city staff, they always want to sit on some gold mine. They're really trying to go out of their way to get extra money when we don't need it."

The battle over Measure B has unfolded against a burgeoning national backlash directed at big-box retailers such as WalMart, Home Depot, and Lowe's. ACORN and other critics of big boxes claim these stores cannibalize local small businesses, provide low-wage jobs with minimal benefits, add to traffic congestion, and generally fail to deliver the amount of tax revenue originally promised.

"It's been demonstrated over and over again that the costs are greater than the benefits," said Martin Bennett, a social science instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College and co-chair of the Living Wage Coalition of Sonoma County. "Some wages [at the box stores] are so low, people have to buy food stamps."

"That's not true of Lowe's," counters city manager Christofferson. "It's not fair to lump them in with those other companies."

However, Lowe's is currently facing a class-action lawsuit filed by the New York City law firm Dolin, Thomas, and Solomon for allegedly violating laws that regulate overtime pay. The suit claims that Lowe's has been engaging in an illegal practice known as "Chinese overtime," where employees are not paid the incentives they normally receive when they work overtime. So far, hundreds of Lowe's employees have joined the lawsuit.

"As far as we can tell, it's a nationwide practice," said Mike Lingle, an attorney for Dolin, Thomas, and Solomon. "We expect that it affects thousands of Lowe's employees."

Christofferson said he was unaware of the lawsuit. Lowe's did not return repeated phone calls from the Bohemian.

If any local store is in danger of being put out of business by the proposed Lowe's, it would be Cotati True Value Hardware, owned by Joe and Linda Cserna. But Linda Cserna said she and her husband have decided not to take sides on the issue and declined further comment.

"What we heard from local companies is that they were afraid to contribute to the campaign against Measure B because they were afraid of retribution from the city council," Bloch said, adding that nationally, ACORN has found that "a lot of small businesses don't want to go up against the city council or the chamber of commerce."

A Fortune 100 company with more than 900 stores and 130,000 employees nationwide, Lowe's has embarked on an ambitious expansion program, with 130 new stores scheduled to open in 2003--one store every three days. It has expressed interest in the Cotati site, which would be the first Lowe's in the area if the deal goes through.

"This is limited to one small corner of the city," Christofferson said. "If what you're trying to do is support the small-town character, it will provide money for new parks, better streets, and more police."

Hancock and CRAB aren't buying it. Since Measure F passed, there's been a lot of talk about making Cotati a livable, walking city. Now, they feel that talk has gone out the window. In their view, if Measure B passes, it will simply be a slippery slope for more big-box development.

"Next time around, they're just going to say it's an expansion of what already exists," Hancock said.

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From the October 30-November 5, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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