Earmark $$$ Railroads Taxpayers

MARCH 14, 2011

On the corner of 13th and R Streets in Sacramento sits a charming home built in the late 1800’s, surrounded by lovely garden trellises and arbors of historic old vine rose bushes. Nearby is a light rail line, which would bother many residents. But the owner of this house chose the historic R Street location deliberately– he’s a long time passenger-rail expert.

Before there were lofts dotting the urban downtown landscape, Rich Tolmach and his wife, Ann Dennis, were early pioneers of urban living, working and recreating from their downtown location.

But Tolmach and Dennis are battling the city of Sacramento over part of the historic R Street Corridor improvements, and it’s getting ugly.

In a letter addressed to Sacramento City Council, Tolmach and Dennis recently said, “We find ourselves victims of an insensitive plan which ignores our residential use of our home. R Street project bulldozers are poised to start digging up the landscaping adjacent to our home at 13th and R streets. City staff has still not made changes we requested in its overly aggressive paving plan. The present plan would irreparably harm the livability of our home and adversely affect both drainage and flood safety, interfering with our use and enjoyment of our property.”

The R Street Improvement Project has been moving forward for years. The section slated for paving next to the Tolmach/Dennis home is being funded with federal taxpayer money and an earmark nabbed by Sacramento Democratic Congresswoman Doris Matsui, and awarded to Teichert Construction, a large Sacramento contractor.

The $6.1 million “renovation” seems to have taken on a life of it’s own.

Tolmach and Dennis report that regardless of their pleas, the city is moving ahead with plans to put in a concrete “congregating place” next to their home.

On the other three corners of the intersection are office buildings.

“Disorderly behavior, public drinking, damage to our property, public urination, litter — these are major ongoing problems here just a block from the bars in the 15th and R area,” wrote Tolmach and Dennis in a letter to the city. Attached to the letter was a picture of their car, with the roof caved in by people who had been “congregating” at the corner one evening.

Tolmach said that the expansive paved area is supposed to encourage people to hang out in the area “and enjoy a latte,” but there are no food or coffee venues nearby where people could purchase a coffee or snack, and the nearby restaurants and bars cater to the nightlife scene.

Tolmach and Dennis said “the actual picture of ‘congregation’ in front of our house is an ugly one. People who congregate here are the people who have been turned away from the bars up the street because they’re too drunk, too rowdy or underage. The time ‘congregation’ takes place isn’t a sunny afternoon, but the middle of the night. And the impacts to us aren’t just the annoyances of noise, trash and human excreta, but include thousands of dollars of damage to our property, including two cars totaled.”

Tolmach and Dennis have asked why the City would, given three other corners at 13th and R St., choose the one in front of a private home as the place to install facilities for public congregation, and why the City Council would support that choice.

“Does the City have a policy of preferentially placing congregation areas in front of single family homes? Does an ongoing history of disorderly behavior, public drinking and public urination at this location have no bearing on City decisions? Are homeowner objections regularly ignored?” they asked in a letter to the City Council.

The R Street master plan was adopted in 1996, and one of the 13 goals listed is: “Enhance neighborhood livability through provision of open space and other neighborhood facilities.”

But the city seems to be rather callous to the livability of residents already located there.

I called the city’s project manager Zuhair Amawi to inquire about the congregation are project, but never got a call back. Tolmach said that Amawi has been openly arrogant about the plan, and dishonest as well.

The little bit of detail that the city has on the R Street streetscape project has nothing detectible in writing about the “congregating” on Tolmach’s corner. But when the massive concrete showed up in the plans, Tolmach reported that Amawi and City Councilman Rob Fong justified it by saying it was for “public congregation.” Prior to Tolmach questioning the purpose, it was not called a “congregating” area.

And, the R Street travel lanes used to be plain asphalt, not the blinding concrete that will be used all the way up the street.

Teichert Construction has been a consistent campaign donor to Matsui, and Teichert Construction company always seems to receive the nod on projects where federal public money is granted through Matsui.

Matsui is a former registered Washington D.C. lobbyist who used to lobby on behalf of Teichert Construction, before running for and winning election to her deceased husband’s 26-year Congressional seat.

She also was a Deputy Assistant to President Bill Clinton and a District of Columbia lobbyist. And Matsui has long been known for her generosity and political patronage with earmark money to local contributors, which could explain why Tolmach and Dennis feel as if they are being railroaded.

Matsui, never shy about earmarks, said at the groundbreaking ceremony in September, “That [earmarks] has had some bad connotations, but when it actually works, it leverages a lot of money.” And Mayor Kevin Johnson claimed that the project will create 170 jobs … but no one seems to know where that number came from.

“The federal government needs to be involved in urban planning, and it is,” said Matsui, in a Sacramento Press story.

Tolmach said that he talked to Matsui briefly at the groundbreaking, and later to councilman Fong, but still feels as though his concerns are going to be paved right over very soon — along with his roses.

“The primary difference in what they now propose is a two-foot setback instead of zero feet from our fence, which would still destroy all the plantings in the arbor area by digging foundations for the concrete paving, and still have an equal area of paving. We were asking for four-foot setback just like the other three corners at 13th & R,” Tolmach said.

Project manager Amawi visited the project area this week. Tolmach said that Amawi is now falsely claiming that Tolmach and Dennis’ fence is two feet onto city land.

“We are afraid now that the acting City Manager is rolling over to middle management in the city transportation department, and is not going to accommodate our needs at all,” said Tolmach.

I called the city’s project manager, the city public relations officer and the Sacramento acting City Manager, Gus Vina. Amawi never called back, and Vina’s assistant said she would have a project manager call me.

Someone from the city called, but said she was out on furlough and needed to talk to me further to even understand what I was asking.

Second-Class Citizens

Matsui’s office was evasive as well. The Sacramento office told me that I’d have to call the D.C. office to speak with the communications director, and when I did, was told I’d have to send her an email with my message. Three days later, I received an email back from Mara Lee, which said, “In regards to the federal funding portion, it was actually the late Congressman Robert [Bob] Matsui who helped secure $1.5 million in federal funding for this project through a Department of Transportation Surface Transportation Program appropriation in 2004.  That funding went towards the R Street Streetscape planning process.  From what I understand though, this project did not receive any stimulus funding, or other federal funding.”

Meanwhile, Tolmach and Dennis are left with no answers, and are being treated like second-class citizens by the city. So far, not one elected representative has stepped up to assist the R Street homeowners. “We are R street pioneers — the first to obtain live-in work status in the corridor. We have promoted R Street improvements for years,” said Tolmach.

This project appears to be just another of the thousands of unnecessary projects across the country providing a home for federal earmarks and taxpayer money. The city picked the wrong residents to railroad; these homeowners are cooperative and supportive of the historical R Street renovations.

But a little bit of power in the wrong hands, mixed in with some political influence and money, and logic, rationale and even human compassion, is left at the alter of government waste, and always at the expense of the taxpayers.

— Katy Grimes

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  1. John Seiler
    John Seiler 14 March, 2011, 12:08

    This shows how government is not “for” us — but of, by, and for the elites.

    And remember: All this money for “redevelopment” came from funds borrowed by the federal govt. So we’ll be paying down those loans forever.

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