Two business careers and a stint as a Bay Area mayor are simply not enough for Peter Gilbert. Now the retiree wants to become a member of Lincoln, CA’s city council – a role that some would consider an impossible challenge.
Over the decade of 2000-2010, Lincoln was the nation’s fastest growing city with a 282 percent growth rate. But that expansion came to a screeching halt when the housing bubble burst, and has not recovered since. Lincoln’s budgetary momentum from the heady growth years cost the city dearly, and its council has been forced to scavenge for funds to pay for the infrastructure it created.
Gilbert understands the crisis, and though he’s not yet privy to the details that a council member would have, he holds some strong notions about how to solve the community’s dilemmas.
“The city has only two sources of revenue – property and sales taxes. Property taxes are going nowhere right now, so Lincoln needs to concentrate on smart business development,” Gilbert told me. “And that requires leadership.”
Gilbert defines a “smart business” as one that can generate money above and beyond retail-level sales tax receipts. In Foster City, where Gilbert served as mayor and council member, he accomplished that goal by helping an entrepreneur attract a business that sold office equipment to other businesses. The city took in $2 million in sales taxes annually from the new enterprise.
“You have to inculcate your staff with this kind of creative thinking,” he said.
It will take a lot of such thinking to resolve Lincoln’s problems. As the Sacramento Bee noted in a page 1 story on May 14:
“For the new budget that starts July 1, the city’s general fund, which pays mainly for public safety, is projected at $10 million, down 39 percent in five years. The Police Department’s onetime force of 43 sworn officers has dropped to 20. By summer’s end, Acting Chief Paul Shelgren figures, it could drop to 17.”
Gilbert grasps the critical nature of the problem and preaches priority setting for the city:
“Who cares about the hours at the library? Public safety is why city government was invented,” he told me. “But taking care of the blocking and tackling of running a city takes money with a capital M.”
Gilbert has been in tight straits before, and managed to come out with a winning hand. During his term as president of the Sun City Lincoln Hills Community Association (one of the largest homeowners associations in the state of California), he helped turn the association’s signature restaurant from a losing proposition into a profitable enterprise.
“Money saved is as good as money earned,” said Gilbert.
That action, among others, allowed the association to weather economic difficulties without raising homeowner fees. And Gilbert sees no reason to raise taxes on the city of Lincoln’s 43,000 residents.
“Strategic thinking is needed if we’re going to increase the general funds,” said Gilbert. “You have to be conservative in your spending.” You have to have the discipline to run by a set of rules and signal to everyone in the city that we’re not going to overextend ourselves.”
Gilbert’s background as a senior executive at Wells-Fargo bank is one of the reasons he understand what needs to be done in an economic crisis.
“In banking, we ask borrowers for an essential source of repayment. But we also look for a secondary source in case things don’t work out,” he said.
The city lacked that alternative source when property and sales taxes dried up. As a result, Gilbert said, “we were unable to dodge the bullet.”
A registered Independent voter, Gilbert “has never gone for partisan politics. At the local level, you see people in the community regularly. It’s personal. When you move into higher level politics you lose touch.”