Dec 5 2011

Opinion: Rolling the Dice on Blair Park

The following is a letter sent to the Piedmont City Council by a Piedmont resident –

Moving forward with Blair Park amounts to rolling the dice.  What is gained by the gamble is clear.  The organized soccer teams will get a large, artificial turf playing field that will allow them more practice time.  Whether the teams or the children need that added time remains debatable.  As repeated testimony before the Council has established, 25% or more of the soccer players reside outside Piedmont.  Another large fraction has not reached age 6.  Much research suggests that few children under 6 benefit from participation in organized sports – indeed some may be harmed.

It would not be appropriate for you to discourage parents from sending their young children to play organized soccer.  Nor, I suggest, is it appropriate for you to use my taxes to encourage parents to do so.

Unlike the benefits of rolling the Blair Park dice, the costs remain dangerously vague.  We know some of the environmental costs because the environmental impact report describes many that cannot, even with mitigation, be reduced to insignificance.   Whether we know most of the environmental effects can be debated because you, in deference to the sports clubs, have allowed PRFO to prepare a biased assessment of the effects of changes made in the project since completion the EIR.

What is beyond debate is that you have no staff or independent assessment of the fiscal costs that Piedmont homeowners will pay as a result of approving Blair Park.  Those costs will be of four types.  First, Piedmont taxpayers will have to pay construction costs that exceed PRFO’s capacity or willingness to pay.  The only protection that Piedmonters have against incurring such costs will be funds presumably deposited in a account by PRFO before construction begins.  The amount deposited has been set not by you, city staff, or an independent assessment of costs of the project.  The amount, rather, was set by PRFO.  This circumstance conflicts completely with the Municipal Tax Review Committee’s recommendation of an independent cost accounting.  You appointed that Committee.

Second, Piedmont taxpayers will pay an unknown sum to replace artificial turf at Blair Park and other facilities in the city.  The City Administrator has acknowledged that his proposed user-fee scheme, even if adopted, will not cover the full cost of replacement and therefore requires contributions from the general fund. That scheme, moreover, assumes the School District will make a substantial contribution.  The District, however, cannot, under state law, make such contributions without major philanthropic gifts made for such purposes.  Those gifts would have to come from the same households regularly implored by the District to give voluntarily to support educational programming.  Those households, moreover, will soon be asked to approve a sewer surtax equivalent to 50% of the current sewer tax as well as to renew the municipal services surtax and the school parcel tax.  These three tax exactions are above and beyond the regular and ordinary taxes due the city and district under California law without a vote of the people.

Third, Piedmont taxpayers will have to pay some currently unknown fraction of the maintenance costs of Blair Park and other athletic facilities in the city.  The city and school district now have no mechanism to charge these costs to users.  Any such fees adopted in the future will, moreover, be in addition to the fees, surtaxes, taxes, and philanthropy alluded to above.

Fourth, taxpayers will have to pay any costs the city incurs from legal actions against the Blair Park project.  These actions could result from property damage during construction and later. Adjacent homeowners and the Planning Commission have made clear that they see risks to property near the proposed park.  Many citizens, and the City of Oakland, have also warned that the safety hazards inherent in the Park’s unorthodox  and poorly studied traffic mitigations will put the City of Piedmont at risk of liability claims.

In sum, a decision Monday to go forward with Blair Park will be a gamble from which the sports clubs enjoy all the benefit but few of the risks.  The City of Piedmont and its general fund will assume those risks – yet you have neither sought nor received any independent assessment of them.

I know of only one circumstance in which you have rolled dice similar to those for Blair Park. The Piedmont Hill Undergrounding District provided fixed financing for undertaking a project with poorly understood risks.  We all know how that gamble ended.  Indeed, the ending, the costs of which are still not known, was so bad for Piedmont taxpayers that you have since adopted a moratorium on similar projects.  Can you explain to me and your other constituents why that moratorium should not apply to rolling the dice on Blair Park?

Ralph Catalano

(This article expresses the personal opinions of the author.  All statements made are the opinion of the writer and not necessarily those of the Piedmont Civic Association.)

One Response to “Opinion: Rolling the Dice on Blair Park”

  1. I agree with Mr. Catalano’s financial analysis.
    Even if our city leaders had earned the credibility of being effective managers of expensive construction projects, the financial basis of this project would be extremely risky. Recent history has proven, regretabbly, that our city leaders are not responsible fiscal managers of capital projects.

    It’s time for this City Council, and the one soon to be elected, to put a STOP to the rolling snowball of exuberant enthusiasm based on wishes and dreams rather than facts and history.

Leave a Comment