Opponents of the Indian casino being built next to Rohnert Park have sued the city over its recent agreement with the tribe to widen Wilfred Avenue. The suit filed Tuesday in Sonoma County Superior Court challenges the city’s conclusion that the project is exempt from state laws requiring environmental studies. Wilfred Avenue is the northern border of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria reservation and provides the main access to the casino resort.
The Rohnert Park City Council acted quickly Tuesday to approve an agreement under which the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria will pay the full cost of widening Wilfred Avenue. ‘We will be moving to expedite this project, it’s in the community’s best interest,’ Mayor Jake Mackenzie said following the 4-0 vote. Vice-Mayor Pam Stafford was absent.
The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria will pay the full $10 million cost of widening Wilfred Avenue, the access road to the Rohnert Park casino resort they are now building, under a tentative agreement with the city and county. That would be a shift from an earlier contract between the city and the tribe that required the tribe to fund half the project, a condition of the federal government’s approval of the casino.
Foes of an Indian casino on which work has started next to Rohnert Park have challenged the legality of a 2003 revenue-sharing agreement between the city and the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria.
An actuary on Tuesday painted an improving picture of Rohnert Park’s financial ability to continue providing medical benefits for retired employees. The city’s unfunded liability has been cut from $53.2 million in February 2011 to $40.7 million now. The unfunded liability is the difference between what the city owes for future medical benefits for retired and existing employees and what it has paid into a trust fund run by the state public employees’ retirement system, CalPERS.
Rohnert Park councilmembers Tuesday unanimously approved a $22 million budget. The 2012-2013 budget projects a $2.5 million deficit but City Manager Gabe Gonzalez said the city has the cash to cover the shortage.
The head of the Indian tribe that plans to build a Las Vegas-style casino outside Rohnert Park said Tuesday its agreement with the state allowing the project to start will be good in a ‘new and novel way’ for all involved, including the larger North Bay community. ‘We created something that will indeed benefit Indian and non-Indian alike,’ said Greg Sarris, chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, during a three-hour state Senate committee meeting.
Rohnert Park officials are gingerly exploring the idea of asking voters to extend a temporary sales tax that has been critical to restoring the city’s finances. Rohnert Park residents approved Measure E — a five-year, half-cent tax — in 2010. It took full effect this year and is projected to bring in $2.4 million. It has helped draw down the city’s deficit to $330,000 from $2 million last year.
Rohnert Park will finish the second half of the fiscal year in far better fiscal condition than it started, the city’s mid-year budget shows. A projected $2 million deficit has been cut to $333,000 since July, a change due almost entirely to new sales tax revenue and employee wage and benefit concessions.
The abrupt retirement this week of Rohnert Park’s longtime finance director marks the latest development in a messy City Hall conflict that broke wide open this summer. Sandy Lipitz on Thursday confirmed she told City Manager Gabe Gonzalez on Tuesday that she was retiring immediately. She declined further comment.