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Despite changes, labor and neighborhood groups remain opposed to big-box ordinance

If city staff were hoping that they could win over critics of the proposed superstore ordinance by changing it so that it no longer applies to the two of the city’s wealthier neighborhoods, those hopes were unfounded. 

Neighborhood groups in East Sacramento and Midtown remain opposed to a city ordinance to remove a requirement that any proposed superstores be subject to an economic impact analysis report, despite the fact the latest draft of the ordinance exempts those two areas.

The heads of the Marshall School/New Era Park Neighborhood Association in Midtown and the East Sacramento Preservation Society both believe that the requirement to conduct an EIA, which currently applies to stores over 90,000 square feet with more than 10 percent of the space for groceries, should be city wide.

"I really think that it’s great that they made a compromise and that Midtown, downtown and East Sac aren’t going to get the box stores, but it really concerns me that the rest of the neighborhoods might be open to that kind of development," said Ellen Cochrane of East Sacramento Preservation.

Julie Murphy, the co-chair of the Marshall Park Neighborhood Association, agreed.

"I am glad that the city is beginning to see that residents do value the information that one could get from the economic impact analysis but we do still think that this needs to be city wide instead of just limited to the central city and East Sacramento," she said.

EIA reports can cost between $50,000 to 100,000 and can take two to three months to prepare, according to city staff. In practice, Walmart and other superstore chains avoid areas that require them.

The city’s Planning and Design Commission passed a proposal to remove the EIA requirement for superstores seeking to locate in Sacramento on May 29. Scott Mende, the city’s New Growth Manager, said last week that the city had changed the ordinance to exclude the central city following an outcry from business and residents. Stores seeking to locate in those areas would still be obligated to conduct an EIA.

The city did remove one previous required section of the EIA: a comparison between the wages and benefits being offered by the proposed superstore and those of nearby retail businesses.

Mende said that the wage and benefit section of the report was the most onerous for corporations, since it is not required by other cities in the region and could force the companies to divulge "sensitive information." The result, he said, is that companies locate their stores elsewhere, causing the city to lose potential tax revenue.

Murphy took a different view. She said that she thinks businesses seeking to locate in the city should be willing to disclose how they compensate their employees.

"I would be concerned with doing business with a corporation that isn’t willing to offer a level of transparency as to how it’s going to impact the community," she said.

Labor unions have been vocal critics of superstores like Walmart all across the country, accusing the company of, among other things, paying unfair wages. Bill Camp, executive secretary of the Sacramento Central Labor Council, said he believes the move to end the EIA requirement, and the wage and benefit comparison, is being driven by political contributions.

"We are going to get rid of [the wage and benefit comparison] so we can hide how many people Walmart is putting on the public dole and letting the tax payers pay for their health care?," he said. "This is being driven by the money that Walmart is handing out left and right."

The revised superstore ordinance is coming before the city council just as greater scrutiny is being placed on “behests,” or donations made by companies to nonprofits affiliated with politicians. Walmart and the foundation started by the company’s founders have made over $770,000 of such donations to nonprofits associated with city council members since 2005, according to The Sacramento Bee. The pace of the donations has picked up over the last 18 months, the Bee reported. 

While the latest changes to the ordinance may not have mollified its critics, it continues to have strong support from influential business groups like the Metro Chamber and Regional Builders.

The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board also backed the ordinance, arguing in an unsigned May 29 editorial that the 2006 ordinance, which originally established the EIA requirement, had been a "bust".

The key passage from the op-ed:

"While the ordinance applies to any retail store exceeding 90,000 square feet with more than 10 percent of the space for groceries, it exempts membership stores that are similar, such as Costco. Companies can get around the rules by opening grocery stores in the same shopping center as their general store.

The rule hasn’t stopped city residents from shopping at superstores, but has cost the city sales tax revenue. While no such stores have opened in Sacramento since the ordinance took effect, at least three have set up shop just outside the city limits."

The new superstore ordinance is scheduled to be presented to City Council on the consent calendar on Aug. 8, with the full hearing and vote following the next week on Aug. 20 at 6 p.m.

How do you think your City Council member should vote and what would you tell them? Sound off below.  

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