By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Rohnert Park officials are scrambling to prepare for a great unknown that has been years in arriving — what will happen when a 24-hour, 3,000-slot-machine casino opens on the west edge of the city?
“We have no idea what the impacts will be,” Vice Mayor Joe Callinan said Tuesday as the council reviewed the report of a city task force that is trying to answer that question.
After a decade of controversy, environmental studies, lawsuits and bureaucracy, the $800 million Graton Resort & Casino is expected to open Nov.1, Assistant City Manager Darrin Jenkins told the council. Traffic congestion, the rate of certain crimes including traffic violations and “vice,” and requests for emergency aid are expected to rise in tandem.
The task force’s plan, Jenkins said — which is essentially to create a new city department — is intended to address changes that will occur immediately after the casino opens, a long-anticipated event that, in many quarters, has been long-dreaded, too.
“This is not the plan for next year and the year after; this is just for this first coming year,” Jenkins, who heads the task force of city officials, said prior to the Tuesday meeting. “We’re working on a plan for the future.”
Under a $251 million, 20-year revenue-sharing deal with the casino’s owner, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, money started flowing into city coffers last week with a $2.6 million payment. The first of four payments totaling $500,000 is due in July, for public safety purposes.
That is to last until July 2014. After that, the city is to get roughly $11 million a year. The tribe has a separate deal with Sonoma County under which the county is to get at least $9million per year.
Council members, who are confronting a $2.3 million general fund deficit next fiscal year, on Tuesday sought to tamp any expectations that the money could help shore up the city’s finances.
“If the public’s listening, this is not extra money,” Mayor Pam Stafford said. “This is money for mitigation.”
The city task force proposed opening a “special revenue fund” to account for all payments from the tribe, which will be issued through the state, and their expenditure.
The task force also said a staff person should be hired to oversee the fund, monitor the casino’s impacts, and ensure the state properly directs to the city the money it is promised.
“There are millions of dollars at stake; we want to have someone at the table with the state because we believe other parties will have someone at the table,” Jenkins said. “We need someone who this is their primary function.”
Both proposals won the council’s strong support.
“I think it would be very, very important for the city of Rohnert Park to keep close tabs on and to be open to the public about the money and how we spend it,” said Callinan, who accounted for most of the council input Tuesday.
The council also supported hiring a traffic sergeant and a traffic officer, acknowledging concerns about fierce traffic congestion. The report anticipated an “opening crush” of 20,000 visitors a day to the Wilfred Avenue casino.
“We can’t get through what we’re going to be dealing with without some new people dedicated to traffic,” Stafford said.
Jenkins acknowledged that a degree of guesswork went into the task force’s report. “We’ve never mitigated the impacts of a casino,” he said.
But the report projects that those impacts will include a hit to the city budget of $511,000 in lost sales tax, as the casino’s restaurants and food court take customers from other eateries, and as traffic congestion deters shoppers from the city’s westside stores during holiday season.
That loss could increase with the years, as has been the case in other urban areas where casinos operate, the report said. “We’re concerned,” Jenkins said.
It would be up to the council to decide whether to use some of the money from the tribe “to backfill some of the revenue that is lost,” he said.
The city should tread carefully there, said Callinan, who worried that that approach might deplete funds available for other mitigation measures.
Sales taxes may at times drop independently of the casino, he said, “and I don’t want to borrow from Peter to pay Paul. I want to be very conscious of that sales tax stuff.”
Before the meeting, Jenkins conceded that the mitigation payments from the tribe may ultimately fall short of fully addressing the casino’s impacts.
“That is possible that it’s not sufficient to fully mitigate all the impacts,” he said.
A proposal to adopt a temporary moratorium on certain businesses also won support, after Jenkins said “some people are concerned about inappropriate businesses.”
Those might include pawn and check-cashing shops, massage parlors, adult businesses and cyber cafes, the report said, and some may need “more oversight” while others may “not be consistent with community values.”
“Do we want to lose that image just because the casino is coming,” Callinan said, “of Rohnert Park, the friendly city?”
The task force has set up a telephone hotline for the public to register its concerns and input, 588-2264, and an email address, email@example.com.
You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or firstname.lastname@example.org.