Oct 25 2012

OPINION: Observations On Measure Y

City Hasn’t Made Progress on Reforms-

I received our property tax bill this week. Included is $471 for the Municipal Services Tax. In the big scheme, it’s not a lot of money. Oh, I know that the entire $6 million raised over the last several years with the current parcel tax was wasted on an undergrounding project and an aborted sports field project, and was misspent on excessive employee compensation, especially fringe benefits. But that’s water under the bridge. Institutions, including City Councils, make mistakes. As long as they learn from their mistakes, progress, albeit costly, has been made. But wait – What project management practices have been put in place so these mistakes are avoided in the future?

And wait – What about the $40 million unfunded liability for future employee benefit costs that I’ve been reading about? That’s not water under the bridge; it is a torrent of water rushing at and possibly devastating the bridge. Who’s going to pay for that? That’s $10,000 per household. What happens when that bill comes due?

The City Council says we’re making good progress. A two-tier pension system for newly hired employees that will not have a material effect for 10–20 years and will have no effect whatsoever on the $40 million unfunded liability for current retirees or the 94 current employees. Doesn’t appear to be much progress to me. The City Council notes employees are paying $100 per month towards their retiree health benefit.

Let’s see:
That’s $112,000 per annum applied against a taxpayer funded benefit package of $5.7 million. Not much progress there. Employee contracts expire soon; for miscellaneous, non-safety employees in December 2012 and for fire and police in June 2013. Let’s see what progress can be made by our City Council in labor negotiations to rein in benefits costs funded by taxpayers.

If the City Council moves to lessen the burden on taxpayers for employee benefits and develops a plan for fiscal responsibility, the Municipal Services Tax can be put up to a vote in early 2014. This coincides with the next City Council election and provides an opportunity to vote on candidates and the tax at the same time.

So, for now, I’ll vote NO on Measure Y.

It is not “business as usual”.  It is time to demand fiscal responsibility from our elected officials. Visit www.NoOnMeasureY.com.

Eric Lindquist
Member, 2011 Municipal Tax Review Committee

Editors’ Note:  The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Piedmont Civic Association.  The Piedmont Civic Association does not support or oppose candidates or ballot measures.

9 Responses to “OPINION: Observations On Measure Y”

  1. What is wrong with this position is that members of an advisory committee, such as the MTRC, are given the task of coming up with suggestions and ideas. They are not policy makers. The governing body for which they are to provide these suggestions is under no obligation to immediately enact every single idea presented, and I would assume that the advisory committee members would understand this going in. If you read Council member Fujioka’s letter you’ll see that the council is working hard to address the financial issues that all cities face now. Did the members of the MTRC really think that every idea they put forth would immediately be put into effect? I doubt it, so to now try to hold the City Council hostage by saying we’ll oppose Measure Y because they didn’t immediately accept all of our ideas seems disingenuous at best, and vindictive at worst.

  2. It seems that Karen is saying that Council appointed committees of financial professionals, (eg. The MTRC) or planning/real estate/legal professionals (eg. the Planning Commission) can be ignored at will if they do not present the “party-line” opinion.

    It will be a sad day if the only purpose of city council appointed commissions and committees are nothing more than window dressing for a City Council that has no intention to follow the committee or commission’s recommendations.

  3. As Karen Barbieri notes, Piedmont’s governing body is the City Council. And of course we on MTRC did not expect the Council to adopt every recommendation right away. But the Council chartered us to apply our financial and budget expertise to a review of the city’s fiscal situation. We found multiple serious problems that put the city at great risk, and we made professional recommendations to fix those problems. There has so far been very little real action on any of the most substantive recommendations. If the Council doesn’t want to receive such analysis and advice, it shouldn’t ask for it in the first place.

    The reason we have a vote on the parcel tax is so that citizens – NOT THE COUNCIL – can decide if their tax dollars are being properly spent. If citizens reauthorize the tax, then they are approving the way the city has spent public money. But if citizens do not believe their money is being well spent, it is their right to vote NO on the tax, which is a way of telling the Council that spending problems must be fixed if the city is to continue receiving our tax dollars. If enough people vote NO and defeat the tax, then that is a direct message from the voters that they expect problems to be addressed properly before they will reauthorize the tax in the future. It’s called democracy and it’s the core of our political system.

    Whichever way the final vote goes – whether Measure Y is approved or not – voters are the ultimate decision-makers and their verdict should be respected by everyone in Piedmont. If the vote is to approve Measure Y, then it’s business as usual. If the vote is to disapprove, then it’s time to make some serious changes in city policies and practices.

  4. Ryan could not be more wrong in his assessment of my comments, and I don’t understand his comment to Council member Fujioka’s letter that he thought he wasn’t running against her, but against Dean, what does that mean? As he said, there were three people running for two spots. And, there is no “party-line”, I’d be curious to know what he thinks that might be.
    The MTRC was put in place to offer suggestions and ideas. As I see it, the council took all of these suggestions under advisement, and decided, in the best interests of the city, how to prioritize the suggestions. Obviously not every idea could be immediately enacted, but there is no evidence that they were “ignored”. Perhaps not every idea should have been immediately enacted, how is the MTRC in a better position than the elected council to determine that? That’s the way it’s supposed to work. As I also understand, if Measure Y does not pass, all of the suggestions made by the MTRC would not be possible, so that puts the opponents in a bit of a bind.
    The fact remains that every member of the MTRC agreed that this tax was essential for our city to maintain the current level of services. Why did some of them change their minds and when did they change their minds? Or maybe I should ask if they did actually change their minds? What was their goal in telling the city that the tax was essential, but that they weren’t going to support it unless the city council immediately enacted every one of their ideas? How is that helpful to us all?
    I think the burden at this point is on the opponents to explain why a tax that they have admitted is essential, somehow isn’t.

  5. Karen understates the role of the MRTC. It was not put in place to “offer suggestions and ideas”. The MTRC, appointed by Council every 4 years for some 20 years now, does a thorough review of city operations to determine the level at which to set the parcel tax for the next 4 years. It goes through an intense period of meetings with city department heads and provides Council a parcel tax rate structure. At the same time, it makes recommendations about city operations and financial management. For example, the 2011 MTRC compared Piedmont’s operational costs to other cities, which can be found on page 22 of the report at http://www.ci.piedmont.ca.us/html/govern/staffreports/09-06-11/mtrc.pdf.

    As to the parcel tax, the 2011 MTRC made the following statement:

    “Although the committee in concept supports renewal of the parcel tax to be levied in its full amount and structure, the committee had much discussion concerning whether or not conditions should be placed on its recommendation. Fundamentally, the City’s projected revenues and current expense commitments don’t align and the committee recognizes that passing the current parcel tax without addressing expense commitments is not fiscally prudent. Further, the committee understands that certain expense reductions recommended above will take time and negotiations to implement – more time than is provided by the committee’s current schedule for submitting its report. The committee has grave concerns that without implementing the above steps, not only will the parcel tax not cover planned expenditures, but also that renewal itself is at risk if the public lacks confidence in the City’s fiscal management.”

    That is a very qualified endorsement of the parcel tax and I think it is inappropriate to accuse members of “changing their minds”. I, for one, appreciate the unprecedented advice of the Committee that we consider public confidence before putting the tax on the ballot. That is why I did not endorse the parcel tax and directed voters to read the MTRC and BAC reports. I think a goal of both reports was to alert the public to the $40M unfunded pension/benefits liability the city is facing. A majority of the MTRC does not think Council has taken sufficient action to address that problem and that renewing the tax at this time is imprudent.

  6. It seems that Karen and I just need to agree to disagree.

    Fact remains: the MTRC report and Budget advisory committee reports are gathering dust at City Hall.

    Let the voters decide on November 6.

  7. I think what has been understated in these comments is the role of the city council. The fact remains that the MTRC unanimously stated that the parcel tax was essential, but some wanted to attach “conditions” to endorsement. Four of the five elected city council members, after reviewing the various reports and other relevant information, voted to endorse the parcel tax, as did several members of the MTRC. Opposition to renewing this tax is a distinctly minority position, support for renewal is widespread and I firmly believe that supporters do understand what is at stake and have made informed decisions to renew the tax.
    I find it disappointing that Garrett, an elected official who has complete access to all the information regarding the necessity of renewing this tax, won’t or can’t take a position. If he didn’t believe the tax should be renewed, wouldn’t it have made more sense to simply vote not to put it on the ballot in the first place? I think what confuses people about Garrett’s position (or lack of position) is that putting a measure on the ballot actually is an implicit endorsement, if the measure wasn’t on the ballot, the tax would expire all by itself.

  8. I stated very clearly on 7/16/12 that I supported putting the tax on the ballot solely because that is how it is designed to be approved – by a vote of the residents every 4 years. Putting a measure on a ballot is not an endorsement (perhaps except to wishful-thinking supporters) but a procedural act to let the voters have their say. Why would I oppose that? Position is irrelevant – council members are duty bound to put the measure on the ballot if voters are to renew the tax. I think the misstatement on the ballot is the source of the confusion. And it has to be acknowledged that, unlike other years, the ballot has been preceded by unprecedented mismanagement at City Hall (myself included) and voters have every right to consider delivery of city services, essential as they may or may not be, in their support of or opposition to the measure.

  9. Voting for the tax is not an endorsement as that requires a separate agenda item. In that regard, the proponent ballot argument contains misinformation and repeated attempts to have the City correct or minimally inform voters have been met with serious push back. The city went to unprecedented steps to correct and append the minutes concerning an unusually lengthy Council Open Forum on the misstatement, but refused to include the essential timeline that the City was informed 4 days before the rebuttals were due and could have made a statement on their proponent rebuttal.

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