If you’re an Alameda property owner, you got in the mail a day or so ago a four-page document from the City of Alameda entitled, “Notice of Public Hearing/2019 Water Quality and Flood Protection Fee.”
And you may well have asked, what the hell is this?
Well, the Merry-Go-Round is about to tell you.
The bottom line is that the City is proposing to assess a new fee that will add $78 annually to the property-tax bill for a “typical” residential parcel (defined as 0.08-0.14 acre). This fee would be in addition to the $56 “urban runoff” fee currently levied on such a parcel, bringing the total storm water charges paid by the typical single-family home owner to $134 per year. (The new fee also will be assessed on non-residential property on a per-acre basis.)
The new “water quality and flood protection” fee is estimated to generate $2.89 million per year. Together with revenue from the urban runoff fee, the additional revenue will cover the annual costs of street sweeping and storm drain maintenance. It will also fund $1.205 million worth of capital improvements annually.
We’ll explain in a minute the reasons for the new fee. But what’s more interesting to us is the process staff convinced Council to use to seek voter approval for it. It is one that has never been tried before in Alameda.
The process has a couple of steps. The first is mailing the notice to property owners. It tells them that, if they oppose the new fee, they should submit a written objection to the City Clerk within 45 days. A public hearing then is scheduled for October 1. If the Clerk has not received objections from a majority of property owners by that date, Council can set the final amount of the fee and submit the issue to a public vote – by mail-in ballot sent only to property owners, not to all registered voters. If a majority of property owners vote yes, the new fee will go into effect.
Proposition 218, passed in 1996, specifically authorized this method of obtaining voter approval for a new or increased property-related fee or charge, and the state Constitution was amended accordingly. That didn’t stop one of our local politicians from throwing a hyperbolic fit when the idea was floated at the April 16 Council meeting.
We’re referring, of course, to Councilman Jim Oddie.
The Prop 218 method, Mr. Oddie claimed, would “disenfranchise” renters. The “right to vote,” he lectured,
does not come cheap, does not come free to people, does not come easy, people have died, people have bled, we fought a civil war, we fought a revolutionary war, we fought fascism, and I don’t think it’s something we should take away because it’s easier and cheaper, disenfranchising half of our, over half of our voters are renters, and to me it’s just a slap in the face to us, as the only renter on this Council, that we’re not going to have a say in this.
And the exaggerations didn’t stop there. The proposal to use the Prop 218 method, Mr. Oddie contended, created
a basic civil rights issue that we’re going to exclude our renter population, which is predominantly less wealthy than property owners, which is predominantly more people of color, and is predominantly probably more senior. To me, it comes down to basic civil rights. I’m not one to throw away someone’s civil rights because it’s easier, it’s cheaper.
All of this was nonsense. You can’t “disenfranchise” someone who never had the franchise in the first place, and the procedure for approving a new property-related fee based on a vote of property owners alone is enshrined in the state Constitution. And while it’s true that the Prop 218 method “excludes” a category of residents – i.e., renters – it’s ludicrous to suggest that it discriminates against any group because of their wealth, race, or age.
Those who have followed Mr. Oddie’s career won’t be surprised to learn that, when the matter came back to Council on July 16, he flip-flopped. Missing was any overblown rhetoric about voting rights and civil rights. Instead, he joined a unanimous vote to use the Prop 218 procedures – despite their “disenfranchisement” and “exclusion” of renters – to obtain voter approval of the new storm water fee. (This time, the only Council member who took care to cater to her base was Malia Vella, who reminded her colleagues that renters are people, too.)
Staff may not have recommended the Prop 218 method out of bias against renters, but its recommendation wasn’t an accident, either. It may well have realized that Council wasn’t willing to appropriate any money from the General Fund to rehabilitate the storm water system, and it already had tried – and failed – to get Council to authorize a bond issue whose proceeds would be used for that purpose (among others). Prop 218 with its mail-in ballots by property owners might have looked like the only viable alternative.
As described in the July 16 staff report, the storm water system consists of 11 pump stations, 26 pumps, 126 miles of storm drains, two lagoon systems, 278 outfalls, 2,879 catch basins, and 1,967 manholes; it also includes 200+ miles of curbs and gutters. Some of the pump stations and pipes date back to the 1940s and earlier. This is troubling enough, but, according to the staff report, “the City’s risk in maintaining an out-of-date storm water system is only compounded by climate change’s rising seas and more frequent, intense storms.”
The only funds dedicated to paying the costs of operating and maintaining the storm water system are the revenues from the urban runoff fee now charged to property owners. The amount of that fee – $56 – hasn’t changed since 2005. Moreover, since fiscal year 2013-14, the annual revenue hasn’t been enough to cover the system’s costs.
Public Works Director Liam Garland gave us the details: The balance in the urban runoff fund declined from $5,903,392 at the beginning of FY 2014-15 to $1,100,310 at the beginning of FY 2017-18. And when the books are closed on FY 2018-19, the money in the fund will be gone: projected operating and maintenance expenses amount to $3.17 million and the urban runoff fee generated only $2.2 million. As Mr. Garland told Council in April, “We’re running on empty.”
The urban runoff fund is supposed to provide money for capital improvements as well as to pay expenses. But if all of the fee revenue goes to cover operating and maintenance costs, there’s nothing left for any capital projects. When we asked about the last major storm water project the City did, Mr. Garland cited the South Shore lagoon dredging work completed in 2015. Since then, Council has authorized spending $14 million to construct a new emergency operations center/fire station – but it has appropriated nothing from the General Fund to upgrade the storm water system.
The current list of storm water capital projects is a long – and expensive – one. An appendix to the fee study commissioned by staff and presented to Council on July 16 showed $170.3 million worth of projects, of which 19 costing a total of $30,022,000 were deemed to be “high priority.” These projects included not only replacing antiquated pump stations and pipes but also complying with state mandates for trash capture, pollution control, and “green infrastructure.”
One might have expected that, when the City found itself with a projected $14.5 million in “excess” reserves in the General Fund back in 2015, Council would have chosen to spend some of that money on the storm water system. But no storm water project made the politicians’ list. (Council did appropriate $457,000 as a “contingency” for the EOC/fire station; as it happened, that much, and more, was needed to complete the Grand Street palazzo.)
So staff began looking for other sources of funds. In February 2018, it proposed that Council consider authorizing the issuance of $95 million in general obligation bonds. The proceeds would be earmarked for infrastructure needs, of which “Clean Bay, Pollution/ Flood Protection, and Sea Level Rise” were given top billing. According to the staff report, a survey conducted for the City showed that 78% of respondents considered “upgrading storm drains to keep pollution from the Bay” to be “extremely” or “very” important.
The February meeting degenerated into dysfunction without a vote being taken on staff’s suggestion, but at the mid-cycle budget workshop in May, a majority of Council wanted to pursue the idea of putting an infrastructure bond measure – as well as a measure for a half-cent increase in the sales tax – on the November ballot. In June, staff presented draft language for both measures. It also proposed that, of the first $35.5 million draw down of the infrastructure bond proceeds, $12.5 million should be spent on “priority projects” for the storm water system: “flooding and adaptation measures,” renovating pump stations, and repairing storm drains.
At the June Council meeting, Council member (and now Mayor) Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and Councilman Frank Matarrese supported placing the infrastructure bond measure on the ballot. Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella opposed it. Mayor Trish Spencer then cast the decisive no vote. Ms. Spencer also voted against the sales tax measure, but Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella changed sides, and the motion carried by a 4-1 vote. (Unlike the proceeds from the infrastructure bond, the revenue from the sales tax increase could be spent for any purpose, including public-safety union salaries, pensions and health benefits.)
The latest proposal followed the demise of the infrastructure bond idea. The April staff report didn’t specifically recommend the Prop 218 approach, but it provided a timeline based on it. Staff also asked Council to appropriate $94,009 to pay a consultant for preparing a fee study, conducting a community survey, and managing the mail-in balloting.
At the April meeting, after Mr. Oddie disparaged the constitutionally authorized Prop 218 procedures as unfair to renters, Mr. Garland explained that there was another option that would put the issue before all registered voters, including renters: a parcel tax. But he warned that this approach would be more expensive than the Prop 218 method. He also pointed out that, if the fee were structured as a parcel tax, a two-thirds majority would be required to approve it, as compared to a simple majority if the Prop 218 process were used.
Ultimately, Council agreed to pay for the community survey – but it instructed staff to make sure renters as well as property owners were polled. (Protecting their pro-tenant credentials, Ms. Vella and Vice Mayor John Knox White joined Mr. Oddie in so insisting.) It also accepted the suggestion by new City Manager Eric Levitt that the report on the survey contain a comparison of the Prop 218 and parcel tax options.
The staff report for the July 16 meeting confirmed what Mr. Garland had told Mr. Oddie three months earlier: following the Prop 218 procedures for approving the fee by mail-in ballots would cost $38,000; putting a parcel tax on a general or special election ballot would cost $200,000 to $600,000. In addition, the survey showed that the choice of methods would make a difference: If the Prop 218 process was used, a new $78 fee was likely to pass, since 56% of property owners in the survey supported it. But if the proposed fee were submitted to the electorate as a parcel tax measure, a $78 fee was likely to fail, since it would not get the required two-thirds majority of registered voters.
And what about the separate survey of renters demanded by Mr. Oddie, Ms. Vella, and Mr. Knox White? Of the 2,998 surveys sent to renters who were registered voters, only 229 were returned. (Maybe the conventional wisdom about low turnout by renters is true after all.) But of those respondents, 72% – an even higher percentage than property owners – supported a new $78 fee. (Of course, the tenants who favored the fee might have assumed that their landlords would put aside their greed and absorb the additional cost without raising the rent.)
Now that Council has approved using the Prop 218 procedures, the process will go quickly. Assuming that a majority of property owners don’t submit written objections, Council will set the final amount of the “water quality and flood protection” fee on
October 1 and direct that ballots be sent out to property owners. The ballots will be mailed on October 10, and balloting will close on November 25. If a majority of property owners approve the proposal, Council will authorize the new fee on December 17.
If all goes as planned, the Prop 218 procedures will have passed their first test in Alameda. Those procedures can’t be used for every kind of new or increased fee – only “property-related” fees. But if they work for the storm water fee, we expect our creative City staff might find other areas in which to try them. If so, the City actually may be able to start raising funds to address the infrastructure needs the politicians decry but do nothing about. True, this would mean that property owners alone will be shouldering the cost of performing necessary work that benefits all Alameda residents. But so what? Isn’t that a result “progressives” should cheer?