SB 827 dies in committee

Dear Albany residents,
 
As many of you may have read, SB 827 didn’t make it out of the April 18 hearing in the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee (T&H). I had a second-row seat, so I’ll give you my perspective below:
 
As I often have said around Albany City Hall, I’m at the stage in my life when I no longer get much satisfaction from saying, “See, I told you so.” But I have attached (here, as a pdf) my April 16 comments to the committee.
 
The day of the hearing, while I was wandering around, looking for the room, I stumbled upon Senator Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), and waited for a break in the conversation to thank him for all his good work last year on the vaccination legislation (with Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento). As it turns out, Allen was on T&H, and he made some of the best criticisms of SB 827.
 
After a few perfunctory bills that were heard while a quorum slowly assembled, Sen. Wiener stepped up the to the podium to present SB 827. The hearing room is designed with sloping floor, almost like a stadium, and an elevated, semi-circular dais, making it hard to see the faces of all the members when you are seated in front.
 
Wiener presented the bill, and it appeared to me he was the defensive from the start. When he described the strong points of the bill, he mentioned items that were not in the original bill, but were added as amendments in committee. That was probably a good thing. The original bill defined transit corridors so broadly that almost all of San Francisco, and much of urban coastal California, would have become zoning-free, like Houston.
 
The majority of the members of the committee (10-D, 3-R) damned the bill (and Wiener) with not faint, but fulsome praise. It was a little condescending. Everyone agreed that Wiener had identified a problem. But the reality is the original bill was sophomoric and the committee had to do a fair amount of Wiener’s homework for him.
 
Wiener, when he was on the SF city council, had a reputation for rapidly flinging stuff against the wall to see if anything stuck. His fellow committee members on T&H gently let him know that is not how things get done in Sacramento. In the future, they were looking forward to working with him in a more constructive manner.
 
And as for the tech-backed YIMBYs, I think the message to them was that the state legislature get requests from many powerful groups, and that they could take a number and get in line. As the nouveau riche kids on the block, they had an over-inflated opinion of themselves, perhaps due to some easier victories last session. But SB 827 was an overreach. They’ll learn.
 
The bill’s co-author, Berkeley’s Nancy Skinner, offered a rambling defense of the bill that, as a constituent, I thought was an embarrassment. In the end the bill got only four yes votes, two from the co-authors and two from Republican committee members. Six Democrats voted against against, and two Democrats and one Republican were NVR (no votes recorded). I’m not sure how the NVR strategy works, but it’s annoying. More here.
 
I’m left puzzled by two things. The first is the media’s infatuation with Wiener and this bill, which I thought was obviously a PR stunt from the start. The NY media were especially guilty of this–an echo chamber of cluelessness. I’m reminded of Sol Steinberg’s famous 1976 New Yorker cover (attached here). More than once Wiener’s bill was presented as “bold.” Yet I don’t think anyone in this debate thinks of Houston, which has no zoning, as a bold model for San Francisco.
 
The second thing I find puzzling is that the co-authors pitched SB 827 as an environmental bill that will reduce California’s carbon footprint. I’m not sure if they were being disingenuous or if they don’t understand that the evidence for that is quite weak. But this is a topic for another day. Just keep in mind that homeless people have very low carbon footprints, yet no one argues homelessness is good for the environment. Housing is an end to itself, not a means to an end.
 
There were enough audience members who wanted to speak that they were only allowed to say whether they were in favor or opposed. I was one of the later. I’d guess those who were opposed outnumbered those in favor by about two-to-one.
 
The vote was taken, SB 827 died in committee, and the audience streamed out to the elevators, mostly happy and excited. In the end, the committee made the right decision.
 

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Please oppose Senate Bill 827

Dear Albany residents,

With this blog post I’m asking you take a stand on an important issue in Albany. Here is the contact information for our State Senator Nancy Skinner. I’m asking you to read the following, and if you agree with me, contact Sen. Skinner to let her know that a bill she co-authored, SB 827, is unnecessary and should be abandoned.

The bill is a clumsy attempt to micro-manage local government zoning decisions in a way that will not (at least in Albany) address the problem of housing shortages. And probably not anywhere else. But it will cause many other problems.

I see SB 827 as part of a growing trend to scapegoat elected local government officials and brand them as obstructionists. I strongly suspect that with the success of right-wing, pro-business groups in Washington, DC, and with the takeover of many state governments by the same interests, the focus of these groups is now turning to demonizing local governments, which are becoming the last bastions of community-based democratic control.

I have spent too many weeks writing a draft about a bill from last session, SB 649, which was also supported by Sen. Skinner (but opposed by our Assembly Member Tony Thurmond). This bill was a giveaway to Verizon and AT&T and other cell phone providers. The bill would have stripped local governments of the ability to regulate to location of mini-cell phone transmitters in neighborhoods.

Bills like this are the brainchild of ALEC, a right-wing organization that provides model conservative legislation at the state level. Fortunately, Governor Brown, who learned something about the value of local governance while the mayor of Oakland, vetoed SB 649. I’ll reexamine SB 649, and its relationship with net neutrality, in a later post.

Now my concern turns to SB 827, which remains threat to local governance generally and to Albany specifically. As an introduction, here is the op/ed piece I wrote on SB 827 for the East Bay Times. It appeared in the Albany Journal on Friday, March 16 (the editorial text is in italics):

Opinion: Albany has lessons for bill that will encourage ugly, thoughtless growth

https://www.eastbaytimes.com/2018/03/11/my-word-albany-has-lessons-for-bill-that-will-encourage-ugly-thoughtless-growth/

The year 2017 was when California’s Legislature began to take the state’s housing crisis seriously. A package of 15 bills, written by a variety of state senators and Assembly members, was signed by the governor.

To implement these bills, new administrative codes will have to be written, money will have to be allocated to state agencies and new staff will have to be hired and trained. Meanwhile, legislators are already crafting new housing bills.

In the middle of this flurry of activity, Senate Bill 827 has landed with a thud. It is such a troublesome piece of legislation that it has local government officials (like me) scratching our heads. The bill was sponsored by San Francisco’s state Sen. Scott Weiner and Assembly member Phil Ting, along with East Bay state Sen. Nancy Skinner. It is unclear who actually wrote the bill, but it was clearly someone who lacks experience.

The bill is based on the notion that zoning restrictions should be removed along public transit corridors, allowing apartment buildings up to 85 feet tall to be built by developers, with almost no review by planning departments. This will apply statewide. If a developer wants to build a drab big-box apartment building that fills an entire lot, local planners will have no control over how it looks, except for making recommendations on paint and trim.

The authors of SB 827 made some rookie mistakes. For example, the bill ties maximum building heights on transit corridors to curb-to-curb widths, which can vary as sidewalks are replaced, triggering zoning changes. A deeper problem is that the definition of a transit corridor hinges on bus schedules. A change in bus schedules can also trigger changes in zoning, making the transit agency a city’s de facto zoning agency.

Even worse, the bill’s definitions of transit corridors are so broad that with minor exceptions, the whole city of San Francisco becomes a zoning-free transit corridor. If SB 827 passes as written, most of Albany will be defined as a transit corridor, and our current zoning maps will become irrelevant. Large parts of our city would be upzoned to allow for bulky buildings of up to 85 feet tall — even in neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes.

The bill is also notable for what it leaves out. The bill makes no effort to encourage affordable housing. If anything, it will discourage developers from creating affordable apartments. Nor does the bill do anything to reform the state’s absurdly bureaucratic and abused CEQA review process

SB 827 is a mess — and an unnecessary one. Like other cities and counties in the state, Berkeley and San Francisco already have the authority to change their zoning laws. If the bill’s sponsors can’t create local political coalitions, elect their allies to city councils and have them vote to change zoning, why should the state get involved? Our senators’ effort to allow Sacramento to override local zoning authority is a sign of the weakness of their ideas, not their strength.

Our little city of Albany has some lessons to share about this controversy. Back in the 1970s, Albany’s city council allowed the development of small, boxy, unattractive apartment buildings with inadequate parking. The neighbors began to complain about both how these structures looked and how street parking was being affected. In 1978, a group of Albany residents took matters into their own hands and passed a local voter initiative, Measure D. The measure required two off-street parking places for new residential development, and prevented zoning changes in residential neighborhoods.

Today, Albany’s residents are concerned about high rents and housing shortages, and the city is trying to do its part to help. Over the years, Measure D has turned out to be a big headache. In 2016 the Albany City Council proposed an amendment to Measure D that removed the parking restrictions. Its success gave a green light to our homeowners to develop “in-law” accessory dwelling units.

Albany’s city council and our residents both favor thoughtful growth that makes our city more lively, attractive and walkable. But there is another kind of growth. For lack of better term, let’s call it thoughtless growth. Albany experimented with thoughtless growth in the 1970s. The result was resentment, lack of trust and backlash. Decades later, we are still living with the political consequences. (The unattractive apartment buildings are still here, too.)

SB 827 will encourage ugly, thoughtless growth. State Sens. Wiener and Skinner would do themselves and their communities a favor by keeping in mind what happened right here in Albany in the 1970s. We don’t want to be forced to repeat the past.

Michael Barnes is a member of the Albany City Council. He is expressing his personal opinions and not speaking on behalf of the Albany City Council.

Here is another take on the original bill from the SF Examiner. Here is the take by the League of California Cities.

By the time my op-ed appeared in print, the original version of the bill had passed through its first committee hearing and had been amended. A good review of the changes can be found here as a big pdf. Scroll down to the second-to-last page for a one-page summary. Here is the League of California Cities’s letter to Sen. Wiener opposing the revised bill.

Basically, one of the rookie errors I mentioned, basing street width on curb-to-curb measurements, was changed to measurements based on property line boundaries. And in the revised bill some local planning elements will be allowed, including daylight planes and setbacks from the streets. In addition, the bill now specifies floor-area ratios. These changes will prevent buildings from becoming too bulky and occupying whole lots.

However, minimum building heights of up to 85 feet will are not changed. The bill still eliminates most of Albany’s current zoning. And the new version doesn’t allow for any subjective design review. As long as  buildings conform to some basic objective standards, they are allowed to be ugly. The suggestions of local planning and zoning commissions on how to make the building more attractive can be ignored.

Below is an image of how zoning in Albany would change under SB 827. You can click to enlarge the image. The blue circles show areas within a half-mile radius of  major transit stops, including both our local BART stations (North Berkeley and El Cerrito Plaza) and the intersection of two main bus routes where Solano and San Pablo Avenues meet. The green areas show the regions within a quarter mile of bus routes the run at 15-minute intervals or more often during peak times. Here and here are two sources of maps with the zoning overlays.

Most of Albany would be upzoned to allow buildings with a height of 85 feet in the green areas, and up to 55 feet in the blue areas. The two areas of Albany not affected would be the area NE of Memorial Park and the area near St. Mary’s High School.

To provide a sense of scale here is a photo of one of the taller apartment buildings in Albany, at about 40 feet tall. This is about half the height of new buildings that would be allowed in the green areas in the map above under SB 827.

SEVERAL OTHER PROBLEMS

There remain several other problems with the bill. First of all, it doesn’t make sense to base zoning on bus routes and bus stops. Buses move, buildings don’t. It makes more sense to take buses to the buildings than vice versa. Sen. Wiener has argued that bus routes in San Francisco should be considered fixed, but that is not what I heard from AC Transit planners at a recent meeting I attended in Richmond. They spoke at length about how bus routes often need to be adjusted. Under SB 827 when bus routes and bus stops are adjusted, zoning automatically follows, and that can create serious problems.

Alternatively, if we could just convince AC Transit not to run buses through Albany too often, that would instantly solve many of the problems that SB 827 would create. The bill’s transit-orientated zoning requirements apply only to bus routes that run at 15-minute intervals (or more often) during peak times. The bill unintentionally creates perverse incentives to slow down transit growth because of the zoning problems that would result.

Secondly, circles and squares don’t mix. Cities are laid out in grids. SB 827’s zoning rules around BART and bus stops are based on circles. That means curving zoning boundaries will cut city blocks into oddly shaped pieces. For buildings cut in half by these circular zoning boundaries, precise calculations with have to be used to determine which set of zoning rules apply. From a practical standpoint, this will be a big problem for planners—the zoning equivalent of trying to put square pegs in round holes.

Thirdly, this one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter zoning doesn’t work given the variety of cities throughout the state. Albany exists on a different scale than Los Angeles. Albany packs 18,500 people into about one square mile of developed space. Our city’s population density (and ethnic composition) is remarkably similar to San Francisco’s, which packs 871,000 people into 47 square miles of developed space. The City of Los Angeles alone, not including its metropolitan area, holds 3.976 million people in 469 square miles at a density of 8,480 people per square mile. That Albany and Los Angeles should be subjected to the same top-down zoning rules doesn’t make sense.

CONSTRAINTS

Apart from all the problems above, there is a fatal flaw in SB 827—when it comes to building more housing, zoning is seldom the main problem. The important thing to remember is that cities don’t build housing, developers do. Here is a short list of constraints that get in the way:

1) Lack of property for sale.

2) Lack of interest among trustworthy developers.

3) Lack of capital.

4) Lack of a skilled workforce.

5) Burdensome regulations (including state-mandated ones like CEQA).

6) Zoning.

Unless all of these constraints are removed, new housing doesn’t happen. In a built-out city like Albany, 1) is the main problem. Further north, even before the fires in the Santa Rosa area, 3) and 4) were the problems. In other parts of the state, it’s other combinations.

Under existing law, cities are already required to zone for densities at levels necessary to meet their entire state-mandated Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA). This does not mean cities have to build housing themselves, only that local zoning cannot be an impediment.

In other words, under current law, zoning is not allowed to be a binding constraint. If zoning isn’t a binding constraint, then what good does it to do to relax this constraint? Why is it rational to assume that relaxing zoning requirements statewide will lead to a building boom, if they are not the main problem in the first place?

The proponents of SB 827 fail to address this issue. The reality is that in different cities and in different regions, different sets of constraints are binding. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. That is why local control remains important.

Sen. Wiener might have to you believe that building new multi-family housing in San Francisco is bogged down in morass of zoning rules. But it’s not. Nor would gentrification be solved by turning San Francisco, one of our country’s most beautiful cities, into a zoning-free laughing stock like Houston, TX. Some portions of Houston are gentrifying quickly, while San Francisco is not.

There is a real problem with bills like SB 827 and the pie-in-the-sky talk coming from some gubernatorial candidates that propose simplistic solutions to complex problems—they create unrealistic expectations that will eventually fail to be met, leading to cynicism and backlash. A good rule of thumb is that solving problems in the public sector takes at least as long as it took to create the problems in the first place. California’s housing crisis has been gaining steam for years, and it may take a generation of hard work to turn it around.

We have our work cut out for us, and SB 827 isn’t the tool we need to get it done. I suspect Sen. Wiener is opportunistic and ambitious enough to realize this and not care, just as as long as he gets the media attention. Meanwhile, other thoughtful legislators, with more thoughtful approaches (here and here) get very little media attention.

That’s why I encourage you to write to Sen. Skinner to encourage her to drop this bill. Again, here is her contact information. And while you’re at it, please contact our Assembly Member Tony Thurmond here. Unlike Sen. Skinner, he voted the right way on SB 649 last session, so I’m hoping he can support our concerns once again.

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The Last Year in review

RETIREMENT IS HERE

Now that I am finally retired, it is time to get back to blogging. Since it’s been so long since I last posted, there are six items that I want to mention, more or less in chronological order (from old to new) and in order of brevity (from short to long):

1) Lions Club lawsuit

2) Rent review

3) New social services center

4) Campaign funding for 2016 council races

5) Our new property tax bills

6) Implementation of Albany’s Soda Tax

 

ALBANY LIONS CLUB LAWSUIT CONCERNING CROSS ON ALBANY HILL

The cross is an issue that the council has been dealing with for about three years now. Due to the lawsuit, the city staff and council members cannot comment on the issue, which is frustrating for both Albany residents and the council. I can tell you that the lawsuit is now in federal district court and there should be a resolution within months, not years. I can also share with you public information about the schedule. The latest information is that the initial case management conference is set for Dec. 14, 2017, before Judge William Alsup.

RENT REVIEW

The city issued a request for proposals (RFP) to help the city formulate a rent review ordinance, but the response was disappointing. City staff have been in contact with organizations that could meet the requirements of the RFP, and it will be issued again with more efforts to notify potential applicants. There is a good review of Bay Area rent review efforts on page 1 here, written by Barry Miller, who coincidentally was the planning consultant for our general plan update.

NEW SOCIAL SERVICES CENTER

The Albany Community Resource Center opened its doors for the first time this past Friday, September 8, and will now be open every Wednesday and Friday from 10am-1pm.There was an open house on Friday, September 29, part of Albany Local Week. I attended the opening and was impressed by how much work the staff have put into creating the center, and by the generosity of the Albany United Methodist Church for providing the space. Information on the Community Resource Center can be found on the city website here.

CAMPAIGN FUNDING FOR 2016 CITY COUNCIL RACES

In California the campaign spending of council candidates is public information, and it is available on the city’s website here. Candidates must file the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) form 460 to report contributions and expenditures if they form a campaign committee or if they plan to receive or spend $2,000 or more.

In the November 2016 Albany city council race, three candidates filed form 460s. Here are the contribution and expenditure amounts for each (page 3, lines 5 and 11):

Nick Pilch: Contributions $19,958.00; Expenditures $16,076.48

Peter Maass: Contributions $7,185.47; Expenditures $7,185.47

Erik Giesen-Fields: Contributions $3,985.85; Expenditures $5,013.04

Note that some contributions came from the candidates themselves. For example, all but a few thousand dollars of Pilch’s expenditures were funded by him.

The remaining two candidates, Amber Whitson and me, filed FPPC form 470s because we didn’t anticipate receiving or spending $2,000 or more. We were not required to file documents detailing our contributions or expenses. I have no information about Whitson’s spending. However, I did keep close track of my own campaign finances, and here are the figures:

Michael Barnes: Contributions: $1,079.84; Expenditures $1,990.69

Basically, I recouped my costs for literature and postage. I did not recoup the cost of my official ballot statement, which for all candidates is $978. I find it annoying that the state charges candidates so much, since the expense discourages democratic participation. For my campaign, my strategy was simple–spend as little money as possible and still come in third in the vote count, which is what I accomplished.

In the fall of 2018, two council members, Peggy McQuaid and Rochelle Nason, will be up for re-election. In 2020, Pilch, Maass and I all well be termed out, so three new board members will be elected then. I am hoping Giesen-Fields runs again. He was a good candidate and I think he would be a good council member.

NEW PROPERTY TAX BILLS

Homeowners in Albany have just received their new property tax bills. I have written a previous post (you have to scroll down a bit) about how to read your property tax bill. I’ll put up my new bill and compare it last year’s (see below). You can click on the images to enlarge them, and click the back arrow to return to the text. Note that 2016-17 is tinted blue, while 2017-18 (the bill we just got in the mail) is tinted pink:

On the left hand side of your bill are the ad valorum taxes, which are based on a percentage of your assessed value (less $7K if you occupy the property as your home). My new bill is based on my adjusted assessed value of $591,506. Your bill will have different amounts, but the percentages will be the same. I’ll express these percentages as the taxable amount per $100K of assessed valve, just to make comparisons easier.

The AV (ad valorum) percentages changed very little from last fiscal year (July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017)  with one exception. The tax rate for the Albany Unified School District rose, as expected, from $200 to $250 per $100K of AV (highlighted). So this year you will pay $50 per $100K AV more than last fiscal year to AUSD. Overall, however, the increase in the tax for all AV items rose only $41.60 per $100K AV. This means that the other smaller AV items tended to fall slightly.

Keep in mind that the annual increase in your AV property tax is the combination of two factors. The first is the change in the percentages discussed above. The second is the annual increase in your assessed value, which is capped at two percent under proposition 13. This year my assessed value rose the full two percent, and yours probably did, too. That means the AV proportion of my property tax bill rose 5.2 percent, for a total of $402, which is a combination of the  two-percent increase in AV (from the lower right section of your property tax bill), and the change in the AV percentages (from the left hand column of your bill). 

On the right hand side of your property tax bill are the “Fixed Charges and/or Special Assessments.” These are generally referred to as parcel taxes because they are same for each parcel and don’t vary with the assessed value (there are some minor exceptions). There are two new items here (highlighted). The first is the Albany sidewalk tax that was approved by Albany voters on the Nov. 2016 ballot. For me the tax amount is $38.64, but it will vary depending upon your lot size.

The second item is Measure AA, a measure that I consider regressive and regrettable. I blogged about it here. It’s basically a Robin-Hood-in-reverse scam that takes $12 annually from Bay Area property owners, rich and poor alike, many living miles from the Bay. It then funnels most of the money to Silicon Valley to beautify Bay views for some of the wealthiest high-tech corporations in America.

All the other items remain the same. Some are adjusted for inflation, some are not. Overall, the amount of parcel taxes that I pay rose by almost exactly $90, and that figure should be about the same for all Albany homeowners. As I predicted in my previous post, I now am paying more than $10K annually in property taxes for my 1,100 sq. ft. Albany bungalow. Other folks in town are paying far more than that.

ALBANY’S SODA TAX FIZZLES

Albany’s soda tax, passed by the voters in Nov. 2016, is now in place.The tax revenues are beginning to stream in. It’s still a little early to get a sense of how much money the tax will bring in annually over the next several years.

I was the only council member not to support the tax (here and here). I thought it was another one of those feel-good measures that lacked a solid policy foundation and was based on wishful thinking. My recent casual survey of soda prices in Albany confirms this. I encourage you to take your own surveys as you shop for food to see what you discover.

One goal of the soda tax was to raise prices of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) like sodas and canned teas. Excluded from the tax were juices (although they often “naturally” contain more sugar than soda) and sweetened dairy products like chocolate milk (our state’s powerful diary lobby made sure those items weren’t taxed). The idea is that the tax would be applied to SSBs at the wholesale level, and retailers would would then faithfully pass along the cost increase by raising only the price of SSBs.

But here in Albany, that’s not what happened. I checked prices at Safeway, Target, Bevmo, Sprouts, CVS and Seven-Eleven. Sugar-sweetened sodas and diet sodas have the same price. Then I cruised down the length of Solano Ave., stopping to check soda prices at restaurants that are popular with teenagers. Sugar-sweetened sodas and diet sodas have the same price.

One exception was the new Safeway Market at the top of Solano in Berkeley, where the old Andronicos was located. That Safeway store did have special stickers to distinguish between the two types of soda. For example, a 12-pack of regular Coke was $1.44 more expensive than a 12-pack of Diet Coke. (A 12-pack contains 144 oz. of soda, so with the SSB tax of one cent per ounce, the tax totals $1.44.) However, Safeway often has club-member or two-for-one discounts, and those sale prices are the same for regular and diet sodas.

The Albany City Council never had the authority to tell retailers what prices they could charge. And today, it’s difficult to know which other goods have been marked up to cover the wholesale cost of the soda tax. But I think it’s fair to say that the council has effectively imposed a tax on food, which was not the intent of the soda tax.

During the next several weeks, the council will be discussing how to spend the soda tax revenue. It should be an interesting discussion, since the amount of revenue raised, unlike in our much more populous neighbor to the south, won’t be enough to start any major new programs. Because the SSB initiative was written to require a simple majority vote, and not a two-thirds supermajority, the SSB tax revenue cannot be earmarked and must be put in the city’s general fund. Perhaps the council can use it to enhance some existing programs.

ENOUGH FOR NOW

There are a few more items I’d like to cover, but this is enough for now. I’ll to blog again soon.

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Catching up after the election

Before I start, I just want to preface my comments with a few observations about the new Safeway on Solano Ave. Safeway purchased the old Andronico’s stores and converted them to Safeway Markets, upscale versions of their stores. I stopped by this weekend to take a look, and the store was packed. I’ve never seen the parking lot so full.

After years of squabbles over redesigning the Safeway in Albany, we did get a new upscale Safeway store after all–up the street in Berkeley. And that means Berkeley gets the enhanced tax revenue, not Albany. But Albany still gets the traffic. Another development opportunity has been lost for our city.

LOTS OF PROGRESS ON MANY ISSUES

I’m sorry to be behind on posting, I’m having trouble breaking free enough time get caught up. Quite a lot has been going on in our little city. In what follows, I do want to dive into one subject and spend a fair of time on it, but first let me provide some updates on a whole bunch of other issues that have come before the council. These items are listed in a rough chronological order from those that have already taken effect to those that are months away from being implemented:

1) The council passed a new anti-tobacco ordinance that tightens up rules for smoking in multi-unit housing (apartments and condos). The ordinance restricts smoking on balconies and other areas to prevent health problems from second-hand smoke. It encourages the transition to non-smoking housing units. Enforcement will be tricky–our police officers obviously don’t have the time to routinely patrol the halls of Albany’s apartments and condos, sniffing out violations. But the ordinance does empower apartment and condo managers (and residents) to insist on the right to smoke-free living, and to work with the police as necessary to enforce the new rules.

2)  The city will soon have part-time social services center, open two afternoons each week. The center will be located in the Methodist church at the corner of Marin and Stannage. The center will provide a range of social services, including services for the homeless. This is a pilot program. If successful, I’m hoping we can find the space to open a bigger center with longer hours.

3) The city continues to explore its legal options regarding the cross on Albany Hill, a public park.

4) In the next several weeks construction will begin on Phase I of Pierce Street Park.

5) The possibility of designating Albany an immigrant sanctuary city will be on the council agenda in the next several weeks.

6) The staff with present a rent-review ordinance for council’s discussion in the next few months.

7) The city’s soda tax will go into effect this summer, and we should have some sense of how much revenue it will generate by the end of the year. As a council member who opposed the soda tax, I have low expectations.

8) The Alameda County community choice aggregation plan (CCA), which allows the county to take over electricity billing from PG&E, will not be implemented for several more months.

9) Following the passage of California’s Proposition 64, which legalized recreational use of marijuana, the city will have to review its ordinances to make sure they conform to state policies. The city will be working with the League of California Cities in Sacramento on this topic in coming months.

THE ALBANY BULB TRANSITION TO THE PARK DISTRICT

I want to get back to an issue that the council considered in October, during election season. This is the issue of handing the Albany Bulb over to the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD). I’m not sure that it’s a great idea. I’m not sure it’s a terrible idea, either. As a council member I didn’t see and hear enough information to be able to come a reasonable conclusion.

I have very little personal interest in the Bulb. I don’t have a dog, and I prefer the ocean (Bolinas, Marin Headlands, Ocean Beach, Pacifica) to the Bay. But as a council member, I have an obligation to see that an important piece of public property is being dealt with in a manner that is consistent with the interests of Albany residents.

So like a surgical patient seeking a second opinion, or a car owner shopping around for a new mechanic, I thought some hard questions needed to be asked before the council approved the memorandum of understanding (MOU) with EBPRD.

First, some background details. The future of Bulb development (or lack of it) is governed by the Albany Bulb Transition Plan. This plan was the result of a thorough and democratic process, and it’s a good one. Some of the transition plan’s features–installing park benches and picnic tables–are inexpensive and could be done by the city.

More distant and more expensive parts of the plan, like laying down tons of rock to stabilize the Bulb Shoreline (much like has been done near Albany Beach) will require millions of dollars and a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review, which by itself will require hundreds of thousands of dollars. I doubt the grant funding for the revetment (rock buttressing) will ever be found, but the CEQA review is more likely.

But my question is, why bother? Why not just keep doing what we doing now? The ownership of the Bulb will not be transferred to the park district because park doesn’t want the liability for any toxic leaks from the old commercial landfill. Nor will the park district pick up the tab for the patrolling of the Bulb by the Albany Police Department. Albany citizens will continue to pay for that. Under the MOU the park district will help the city pursue grants to fulfill the transition plan, and will help with the garbage collection.

As with most things in life, there are trade offs. The Albany residents that I talk with are generally happy with what has become of the Bulb, are glad that they can walk their dogs there, and that kids can ride their bikes there.

I don’t know any Albany residents who want the bulb to become an off-limits conservation area, as I think the local Audubon Society would prefer. Albany’s Memorial Park might be a better model, a place where dogs are allowed and people can roam around.

So why not keep the bulb as a city park, especially since Albany will continue to pay for policing and will continue to have the liability? That’s a big question that leads me to several other questions that are yet unanswered, at least at the council meeting:

1) If handing waterfront land over to the park district is such a good idea, why didn’t Berkeley do it? Cesar Chavez Park is a Berkeley city park.

2) What percentage of Bulb users are Albany residents?

3) What percentage of Albany residents are regular Bulb users?

4) What is the financial health of EBRPD, and will it ever be in the position to help pay for patrolling services provided by the Albany Police Department?

I am still perplexed that the council voted to approve the MOU without having answers to the questions above, and at the meeting, some knowledgeable Albany residents seconded my concerns.

As I’ve often joked, when it comes to the Bulb, I feel a bit like a traditional Indian father who is considering given up his daughter to an arranged marriage. In addition to his daughter basically becoming property of another family, he must provide a large dowry. On the other hand, he could allow his daughter to make her own choices.

I like to think if I was that father, I’d cancel the arranged marriage. And I’m having doubts about the wisdom of handing over control of the Bulb to the park district. The MOU requires the city to complete the CEQA review and do other expensive cleanup before the park district will “accept” the handover. Again, why bother?

Although I like the Bulb transition plan, someday the city might like to change its mind. There is lots of interest in artwork on the bulb, for example, and programming art activities there would be easier if it was a city park.

The MOU runs for five years. We’ll have to see how the transition evolves. I won’t be on the council by then, but I’m hoping the city will keep an open mind about maintaining the Bulb as a city park.

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I got re-elected, thanks!

First of all I want to say thank you to all of my supporters out there. Along with fellow incumbents Pete Maass and Nick Pilch, I was sworn in on Monday, Dec. 5 for another four-year term. Now back to work.

NEXT UP — PROPERTY TAXES

There are lots of policy issues to discuss, but first I want to talk about property taxes. The deadline for making the first installment payment was Dec. 10, and I’ve gotten questions about why property taxes for 2016-17 have risen about seven percent from last year. So here goes.

Our property tax information is public record, at least for addresses. To find out the property taxes for any address in Alameda County, go here. I used the county data available at that link, plus some of my own records, to reconstruct my property taxes for the last 10 years, and to estimate what they will be next year. I’m showing you my information because a real-world example helps explain what is going on. Most the information below will also apply to your taxes. When necessary, I’ll scale my taxes to amounts per $100K of assessed value to make comparisons easier. See the chart below (click to enlarge):

My property tax from FY2007-08 to FY2017-18. Final year is estimated.

I bought my house in 2000 for $461K. Since then its assessed value (not its market value) has risen to $587K, an average annual increase of of 1.52 percent. Under Prop. 13 the annual increase in assessed value is capped at two percent. During the past 16 years, my assessed value has risen by two percent in many years, but especially during the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the annual increase was smaller than two percent, and in one year my assessed value actually declined.

We have just made our first property tax payment for fiscal year 2016-17, which for California’s government agencies runs from July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017. I estimate that next year, FY2017-18, for the first time, I will be pay more than $10K annually in property taxes for my little Albany bungalow. In other words, our property taxes rose about seven percent this year, and will probably rise almost that much next year.

Below is a copy of my property tax statement, which shows my taxes divided into two categories, ad valorem taxes on the left, and fixed (parcel) taxes on the right (click to enlarge).

Prop_tax_img036Ad valorem is defined as “in proportion to value.” My assessed value is listed as $586,774 but I get homeowner exemption because I live in my own house, which knocks down my taxable assessed value to $579,774. That figure is the base for the ad valorem percentages on the left in my tax bill.

The largest item is the one-percent rate that the county charges, which is capped at that level under Prop. 13. That’s $1,000 per $100K of assessed value. Next comes the City of Albany ($93 per $100K), the Albany Unified School District ($200 per $100K, but rising to $250 next fiscal year), community colleges ($25.60 per $100K), BART ($8.00 per $100K), East Bay Regional Park District ($3.20 per $100K) and East Bay Municipal Utility District ($2.80 per $100K). Those percentages sum to 1.3326 percent. For my taxable assessed value, that’s $7,726.06 ($1,332.60 per $100K).

To the right on my property tax bill are the fixed or parcel taxes. These do not change based on your assessed value. They are a lump sum, although I’ve noticed that people living in the Pierce St. condos pay slightly less to the city. I don’t want to spend too much time on these fixed assessments because they are relatively small (they are the gray bars in the graph above), and they grew very little this year, less than $20.

There are only four parcel tax line items that are more than $100. Two are AUSD parcel taxes, and two are city sewer and storm drain taxes. Together they sum to $1,457.98, which is 68 percent of the total parcel tax amount of $2,144.34. So as a percentage of the total, the two AUSD parcel taxes comprise 41 percent ($876), while the two big sewer and storm drain taxes comprise 27 percent ($581.98).

In the chart below, I show how the ad valorem tax rates have changed during the last 10 years (click to enlarge).

Albany_ad_valorumThese quantities are ad valorem taxes per $100K of assessed value. Note that to keep the chart horizontal, I’ve truncated the county’s portion. The bars start at $900, not zero. The county’s portion is always $1,000 per $100K of assessed value. The AUSD portion is orange is this chart. It remains fairly constant for several years, drops to $144 per $100K on FY2015-16, climbs to $200 per $100K this fiscal year, and will climb again to $250 per $100K next fiscal year.

The City of Albany bars are gray. The city’s portion remained stable for many years, dropped very low in FY15 and FY16, and this year jumped back up, but not to the historical levels. This pattern is due to a CalPERS (California Public Employee’s Retirement System) pension payment holiday that lasted only for two years.

The school district is fond of pointing out that even with the dramatic increases in AUSD ad valorem tax rates, the total rate is still below the historical peak of 2010. That is true only for two reasons–first the Measures B and E tax rates don’t fully kick in until next year, FY18, when they will raise the total to $250 per $100K assessed value. Next fiscal year the combined AUSD and City of Albany taxes rates will be at a historical high, but because the BART rate (yellow) has declined, the total tax rate for FY18 will be slightly lower than the historical peak in 2010.

But this is misleading in another way. Between 2010 and today, our assessed values have risen. When the tax rates above are applied to today’s assessed values, it turns out our ad valorem taxes will be at a historical high next year. See the chart below for more (click to enlarge).

Albany_MB_AVIn the chart above, AUSD taxes are in blue, city taxes in orange. The chart above leaves out two taxes, the county ad valorem tax and the parcel taxes. Changes in parcel taxes added less than $20 between 2016 and 2017, while changes in the county ad valorem taxes added about $15 per $100K of assessed value. My total property tax bill rose $646.05 dollars between FY2015-16 and this year, FY2016-17. The table below breaks out the details for my tax bill and for $100K of assessed value in FY2015-16.

AV_table_2Of my property tax increase of $646.05, all but $17.06 was due to ad valorem tax increases. Of the ad valorem increases, 100 percent of it breaks down like this: 54 percent was due to AUSD, 52 percent was due to the county and city combined, and the remainder taken together declined about six percent.

We can expect similar increases next year. The AUSD ad valorem tax rate will rise another $50 per $100K assessed value. We will probably see more CalPERS-related increases from the city. The passage of the county’s Measure A-1 will add a little, as will BART’s Measure RR and the city’s new parcel tax for sidewalk repair. That’s why I’m expecting my property tax bill to be above $10K next fiscal year. 

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Why yes, I am running for re-election

I am running for re-election. Being on the council isn’t exactly fun, but it is important work, and I think I have something to contribute, so here goes:

For my older endorsements and my ballot statement, go here. For background about me, how to donate and get a yard sign, go here. For my latest endorsements, go here.

The League of Women Voter’s website is an amazing resource for general information about the Nov. elections, including information about me and many other candidates. The direct link to me is here, and the main link to the website is here. The league’s candidate forum for both Albany’s city council and school board is here.

Here are my voting recommendations for the city’s six ballot measures:

MEASURE N1 Modifying parking requirements. Vote YES.

MEASURE O1 Sugar-Sweetened Beverage General Tax. Vote NO.

MEASURE P1 Sidewalk Repair Special Parcel Tax. Vote YES.

MEASURE Q1 Various modernizing charter amendments. Vote YES.

MEASURE R1 Dissolve the city’s Civil Service Board. Vote YES

MEASURE S1 Remove term limits for the AUSD School Board. Vote NO.

I explain my objections to Measure S1 in my previous post here. I also am opposed to the soda tax (Measure O1), which I think is not a good fit for Albany. I have written about soda tax previously here. It’s right after the minimum wage and rent control discussion, so you have to scroll down.

The Solano Avenue Association circulated (without endorsing) a pro-soda tax poster (here) that I thought was so filled with errors that I asked, and was allowed to write, a rebuttal (without endorsement) here. I haven’t seen any No on O1 literature, but I’m sure it has its share of errors, too.

Now on the positive side of things, I strongly urge voters to support measures N1 and P1. These are both well-crafted measures designed specifically to deal with problems in Albany.

YES ON MEASURE N1

Measure N1 repeals Albany’s unrealistic parking standards that were put in place way back in 1978 by that year’s Measure D. Measure D was basically a poison-pill strategy that required developers of multi-family housing to build two off-street parking places for every housing unit built. Developers were reluctant (and still are) to swallow the poison pill of creating buildings with too many parking spaces and too few living units.

In an era of climate change and housing shortages, it is critical to build more places for people to live, not places for cars to park, especially along existing public transit corridors. Hence the effort to pass Measure N1, which will allow the Planning and Zoning Commission and the City Council to develop more reasonable parking standards. The Yes on Measure N1 Committee’s website is here.

I cannot give you a better argument in favor of N1 than that of long-time Albany resident and architect Howard McNenny, who was a strong supporter of Measure D back in 1978. Over the years, he has changed his mind. When I asked him why in an email, here is what Howard had to say:

Regarding Measure D, I do recall being a proponent (that was a long time ago, by the way).  As best I can recall, the argument had a lot to do with what was going on at the time:  Developers would buy property zoned as single-family, then somehow manage to get them re-zoned for multi-unit (spot zoning, it was called).  Then, they would develop the parcel such that the entire frontage would be open parking stalls — one space per unit.  Units would be arranged behind, and on a second level.   The result was not very attractive, to say the least.  Adding insult to injury, any additional spaces due to extra cars per unit, or guest parking, would be in front of neighboring property, depriving them of their own on-street parking.   Something needed to be done, and Measure D was the result.

At this point, I do not support the strict application of the Measure D rules for parking, which effectively increases the price of housing.  We now have very effective zoning, and the kind of thing that was going on in the 70’s and 80’s is not happening now.  Development along transit corridors should not be held to the same standards.  Same for senior housing.  I know we already have exceptions for development where “adequate” on-street parking exists, though these cases are probably rare in Albany.  Other neighboring cities have more relaxed standards, where the number of parking spaces is tied to the number of bedrooms.  We could consider something similar.

Many thanks to Howard for his extensive quote. And please remember to vote YES on Measure N1.

YES ON MEASURE P1

At first I was very skeptical of a parcel tax to repair sideways. Very few cities anywhere in the United States have taken this approach and we lacked the city policies to clarify some of the underlying legal issues.

However, due to coming together of the city staff, the council and members of the Albany Strollers and Rollers advocacy group, we collected the necessary information about costs (thanks to city staff), made sure we had reasonable policies on the books (thanks to council member Rochelle Nason for taking the lead) and worked out a fee structure that is reasonable and fair (thanks to Strollers and Rollers).

The result is Measure P1, a 10-year parcel tax that will help speed up sidewalk repairs in Albany. The city could probably repair the sidewalks without this measure, but it would take much longer.

The annual cost will run $15 for condo owners and $39 for typical single-family house, depending on lot size. The tax sunsets after a decade and includes a low-income exemption. Details of this measure and the other ballot measures can be found here.

If you would like to know what happens when a city neglects its sidewalks for too long, consider the case of Los Angeles, which may be facing a bill for as much as $1.5 billion to repair its sidewalks (here and here).

We need a two-thirds super-majority to pass this measure, and I know some Albany voters are already feeling taxed enough after seeing their new property tax bills, but there is no point in building new schools or developing walkable commercial districts if we can’t get there on foot due to dangerous sidewalks. 

Unlike Measure O1, the soda tax, which came to us from Berkeley and which I believe is a poor fit for Albany, our sidewalk tax is a well-crafted policy designed by Albany voters to fit the specific needs of our town. I encourage you to vote YES on Measure P1.

MY RECOMMENDATIONS FOR  COUNCIL AND SCHOOL BOARD

Finally, I am endorsing Albany’s current mayor, Pete Maass, and two candidates for school board, Jon Destin and Clementina Duron. Since Pete needs no introduction, please let me discuss my picks for school board.

Jon has one child at Marin Elementary, while Clementina has two grand children there. Both candidates are competent, thoughtful and independent. I think that’s exactly what our school board needs now. You can read about them and the other school board candidates on the LVW Voter’s Edge website here. More on Jon’s take on the issues here and here, and Clementina’s here.

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Election Season is Here

Election season is upon us. City council members, including me, had been busy writing ballot arguments for some of our six ballot measures. The final deadline for those arguments was Friday, August 19. Since then candidates have shifted the focus to their own campaigns.

The basic information about city initiatives, council and school board candidates is posted on the city website, so there is no reason to repeat that information here. The basic numbers are five candidates for three spots on the council, and four candidates for two spots on the school board. Here are the links for the ballot measures and arguments, and the candidate statements.

The November ballot will be huge, with federal, state and local candidates to choose from, and 17 state, three county/regional and six City of Albany initiatives. Please study the ballot materials before the election, and please don’t suffer from terminal ballot fatigue before you get to our local initiatives.

Of the six Albany ballot measures, two are housekeeping items, two are new taxes, and two are important measures that do not have immediate financial implications. I suggest you vote in favor of the two housekeeping measures, which eliminate our redundant civil service board and modernize some language in the city charter.

Of the two tax proposals, I support the parcel tax for sidewalk repair, but I do not support the soda tax. On the final two measures, I support modifying parking requirements, but I do not support eliminating term limits for school board members:

MEASURE N1 Modifying parking requirements. Vote YES.

MEASURE O1 Sugar-Sweetened Beverage General Tax. Vote NO.

MEASURE P1 Sidewalk Repair Special Parcel Tax. Vote YES.

MEASURE Q1 Various modernizing charter amendments. Vote YES.

MEASURE R1 Dissolve the city’s Civil Service Board. Vote YES

MEASURE S1 Remove term limits for the AUSD School Board. Vote NO.

As you’ll note from the ballot argument signatures, keeping term limits (NO on S1) is favored by many former school board and city council members, including two former AUSD board members, two former mayors, and two people who have served on both the council and school board (Allan Maris and myself).

As readers of this blog know, I have been disappointed with the lack of thoughtfulness of the current ASUD board in regards to the financial consequences of measures B and E. This lack is probably the best evidence I could muster in favor of term limits. So I find it ironic that this board is trying to eliminate them.

This post will focus on new information I’ve discovered on the bond measures campaign, and why it reveals that ending school board term limits are a bad idea. Please keep in mind as you read this that I am referred to the school board as a whole. I have always had good relations and warm regards for board members as individuals, but sometimes the whole is less than the sum of the parts.

Measures B and E are like the Middle East. Just when you think things can’t get any worse, they get worse. Many Albany residents first realized there was a problem when this story broke in the local newspaper.

With the campaign is over, the Yes on B and E committee was required to file final State of California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) forms. These are the final accounting of campaign revenues and expenses. I requested a copy of the documents from the city clerk, since it is public record.

Setting aside the $100 used to open the bank account by the campaign treasurer, campaign revenues were $47,200 — all of from outside architects, law firms and other contractors. Not a single dollar was raised inside Albany. By comparison, a typical city council election four years ago cost between $4,000 and $5,000, with most of the money coming from Albany residents.  The YES on Measures B and E campaign spent 10 times that much. (For the record, here are my FPPC forms from my 2002 school board race.)

 I’ve included a list below of the B and E donors. You can find the addresses from the FPPC forms:

 

Total Funding for Measure B&E
4/26/2016 WLC Architects 5,000
4/26/2016 Dervi Castellanos Architects 5,000
5/5/2016 Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost 3,000
5/12/2016 Marina Mechanical 5,000
5/20/2016 Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo 2,000
5/20/2016 Hibser Yamauchi Architects 5,000
5/20/2016 Ojo Technology 500
5/26/2016 Apodaca Mechanical & Consulting 1,000
6/2/2016 Gould Evans 5,000
6/2/2016 Urban Futures 5,000
6/3/2016 SVA Architects 1,500
6/6/2016 Ninyo and Moore 100
6/6/2016 Jeff Luchetti Contruction 1,500
6/9/2016 Acies Engineering 1,000
6/13/2016 Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe 2,500
6/21/2016 Dutra Cerro Graden 1,500
6/21/2016 Clark/Sullivan Construction 1,500
6/21/2016 Geosphere Consultants 100
6/30/2016 Derivi Castellanos Architects 1,000
47,200

 

The largest contribution, $6,000, came in two pieces from Derivi Castellanos Architects, which notes on its web page that one principal, Steve Castellanos, “served as State Architect, leading the Division of State Architect (DSA) from 2000-2005, where he developed many key relationships that continue to benefit our clients.”

 Kim Trutane was the leader of the Yes on Measure B & E campaign. She is a school board candidate and self-described homeowner/school volunteer and Marin PTA president. How did she have the clout to extract donations from these major players in school construction? Here’s where it gets interesting.

First, when it was considering its rebuilding projects, AUSD hired a consulting firm that specializes passing bond initiatives and parcel taxes for schools. Its name is TBWB. According to their website, “TBWB helps you package and pass a ballot measure to meet your needs.” TBWB is a for-profit firm, as are the big contractors who donated to the measures B and E campaign.

Once the school board decided to go for Measures B and E, a campaign committee was formed, which is technically a separate legal entity. The Yes on B and E campaign also hired TBWB. With the firm’s help, the campaign solicited $47,200 from big contractors. Of that money, $45,506 was paid back to TBWB. A quick review of the TBWB website reveals that one of the partners lives in Albany. I think it’s fair to say this partner is a friend of the school board.

The Measure B and E campaign was bought and paid for by the big contractors, with the help of TBWB. That would explain why the bond measures were so large, since the bigger the bonds, the more business there will be for the big contractors. Although the school board and the campaign are technically separate, every member of current board tacitly approved of this by endorsing Trutane’s candidacy for the school board.

To get a school construction bond passed in Albany, you don’t have act this way. I was active in passing the 2008 Measure E swimming pool bond. The campaign spent a little less than $2,000. The campaign literature was home spun and printed in Albany. The legwork was done by the AHS swim team and their parents (disclosure: My son was the co-captain of the swim team at the time). We needed a supermajority (two-thirds of the vote), and we got 72 percent.

So it appears that that the school district, the school board, The B and E campaign, TBWB and the big contractors have all been having a private soirée — one that Albany voters weren’t invited to. That’s too bad, because the voters will be picking up the tab, which will be, according to the state ballot pamphlet, $185.5 million.

Perhaps the current school board members (and the candidate they have endorsed) can tell the voters of Albany just what the heck has been going on here. Once again, I am disappointed. This behavior violates every commonly understood notion of conflict-of-interest. And the sad thing is that it’s not just Albany.

What Albany has experienced is a new school bond campaign model. This model features campaign consultants and big contractors (all for-profit firms) working together to find willing school boards to maximize the size of bond campaigns. It has become a big business in California. It has even spawned its own anti-tax protest movement in conservative Southern California (here and here).

Many of these same forces are at play in the statewide Proposition 51, an $9 billion school bond proposal. It is opposed by the governor, and by editorials in the San Jose Mercury News and the San Diego Tribune. It is supported by the San Francisco Chronicle and the League of Women Voters.

But why is this a problem, you ask. Doesn’t our school district really need our support? Can’t they use the money? There are two issues. First, the excessive funding for these projects has an opportunity cost. More money for capital projects means less money for something else.

The real issue is how the participation of self-serving, profit-driven consultants and contractors distorts the allocation of resources both within school districts, and between school districts and other public projects that also benefit our children — like parks and athletic programs.

It’s important to keep in mind that the school district doesn’t have a monopoly on caring for and educating children. This is especially true in the summer, when programs for children can cost several thousand dollars. A lower tax bill for families with children would allow them to spend more money on summer enrichment programs and other out-of-school activities for their kids.

Second, I doubt if our little school district has the expertise to handle either the cash flow or the project-management problems what will result from these bond measures. There are some bad actors out there in the construction world. Shoddy work, frivolous change orders and padded bills can be hard to detect.

Some big school projects have become very big disasters. School districts can get in over their heads quickly. A good example is the Los Angeles Community College District, which was the subject of an investigative report by the LA times.

The expose starts with this statement, “Classrooms were overcrowded. Athletic facilities were decrepit. Seismic protections were outdated. Leaders of the Los Angeles Community College District decided to remake the nine campuses for the 21st century. They promised rigorous oversight of costs and quality. But a Times investigation found that tens of millions have gone to waste.”

Some of that sounds familiar right here in Albany. Let’s hope ten years from now all of it doesn’t sound familiar.

In asking the voters to support Measure S1 and end term limits for the school board, some school board members have cited their expertise and the need for continuity. I’m unimpressed. When I look at measures B and E, I detect tunnel vision, a sense of entitlement and a failure to take conflicts-of-interest seriously.

I have no doubt that all of our school board members are well-intentioned. But, speaking from my own experience on the school board from 2002-06, I suspect some of our school board members are tired and need a break. I can think of no better reasons to vote NO on measure S1 to keep school board term limits in place. 

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Financial costs of Measures B&E for Albany homeowners

First of all, I want to apologize. During the run up to the recent election, I did not pay enough attention to the details of the Albany Unified School District (AUSD) measures B and E. As I stated previously on this blog, as a former school board member, and a current city council member, I didn’t think it was my place to initiate a conversation. That was my mistake.

In the last week, I have been pouring over the information and building my own spreadsheet models, something I learned to do many years ago when I was a state economic analyst. I have come to the conclusion, with some frustration, that the voters were not given clear information about how much measures B and E will cost them.

For example, take the number that was tossed around before the election–B and E together would cost no more than $180/$100K of assessed value. It turns out that figure is misleading. It’s better to think of the $180 figure is a floor, not a ceiling.

So have a seat, take a deep breath, and let me start by giving you a few numbers. According to school district estimates, over the next 30 years, our town will be responsible for paying off $223 million of school district debt, an average of $7.4 million per year for 30 years. A large part of this total, $148 million, is due to Measure B alone.

To be fair, the voter guide did mention this figure in the the analysis of Measure B. However, the implications for individual Albany homeowners were not made clear either in the vote guide or in the information that I have found on the school district’s website. In what follows, I do the best I can to provide that information.

For every $100,000 of assessed value in 2017, during the next 30 years, Albany property owners will pay from $7,500 to $9,000 on AUSD debt, or about $250 to $300 annually. In Albany, the median assessed property value for 2017 is about $400,000. For that median property, AUSD-related property taxes will be $1,000 to $1,200 annually for 30 years.

In this spreadsheet model, you can plug in your 2017 assessed value and the view the graph of how your AUSD property taxes evolve over time. The detailed explanation of how I created this model, with its upper- and lower-bound estimates, is on the “narrative” tab. Click on the “data and graph” tab to see the information there.

For example, if you are a new homeowner in Albany who just paid $1 million for a little house, your assessed value is the sale price. You will be paying AUSD-related property taxes of $2,500 to $3,000 annually for 30 years. During the next three decades, you will pay a total of $75,000 to $90,000 to retire AUSD debt.

AUSD_taxThe graph above (click to enlarge) is from the model. It assumes $100,000 of assessed value in 2017. The red line is the upper bound estimate of annual property tax payments for AUSD’s combined total debt service (CTDS) for the three existing bonds and Measures B and E. The green line is the lower bound. The purple and blue lines show what AUSD’s debt would look without measures B and E. The three older bonds are paid off in 2030, and Measure E is paid off in 2038. Measure B is paid off in 2047.

Note that the AUSD property tax will double from about $150 to more than $300 per $100K of assessed value (in 2017) by 2021. It will remain that high until 2027. It will gradually decline after that, but even the lower-bound scenario it never dips below $180.

I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think this is what many Albany voters were expecting when they voted in favor of measures B and E. The supporters of the measures B and E had very little incentive to set the record straight.

As a city council member, I don’t have much incentive to set the record straight, either. Albany voters would be more inclined to support city tax measures in the fall elections if they didn’t know what’s coming.

But as an Albany homeowner with a $600K assessed value, and one who is planning on retiring in a year, I know I am feeling resentful. Not so much about the big dent that measures B and E and will put in my early retirement years, but because there has been so little information provided about their financial consequences.

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A quick election returns analysis

MEASURE AA–DO I GET TO SAY I TOLD YOU SO?

Measure AA lost (failed to achieve a 2/3 supermajority)  in Solano, Sonoma, Napa and Contra Costa counties, i.e. it lost in all the relatively rural, low-income northern counties (Marin is exception), and it lost in one NE county. It did achieve simple majorities in all counties. It won because the counties where it achieved a 2/3 supermajority (Marin, Alameda, SF, Santa Clara, San Mateo) tend to be more populous than the northern counties. Figures here.

Measure AA is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It was designed to suck money out of the North Bay (against the will of voters there) and the rural southern parts of Santa Clara County, and ship it to Silicon Valley. It worked pretty much as it was designed to. Regional government is a fine idea if county voters get to vote for it, but that never happened for the establishment of the SF Bay Restoration Authority, the little-known agency which put this measure on the ballot.

Half the proceeds with be distributed back to the nine counties weighted by their population, while the other half will be allocated by the governing board, which means the vast majority of the funding will go to the South Bay. Four of the seven members are from counties where AA won (three from the South Bay), one is the director of the East Bay Regional Park District, and only two are from counties where AA lost.

A $12 parcel tax doesn’t seem like much, but it sets a very bad precedent, and that was the point. There is a real need for a functional, representative regional government for the Bay Area. But we are not careful we’ll end up with a government that resembles our nation’s capital–dysfunctional, driven by lobbyists and pandering the wealthy and powerful.

MEASURES B and E–UH-OH

Here in Albany, Measures B and E both passed, although it seems they got by with a little help from their friends. This is just one step away from pay-to-play, and while it’s not illegal, it is certainly distasteful.

The three AUSD items I personally worked on–the Nov. 2004 bond, the Nov. 2005 parcel tax, and the Feb. 2008 pool bond–all won with yes vote counts between 4,000 and 6,000 (see table below). These efforts were more in the Albany tradition of organizing friends and neighbors to drop simple leaflets on porches, not on spending lots of money to mail glossy brochures.

I found the information in the table below on the Alameda Country voter registrar website. The voter turn-out for Measures B and E was very low, at about 40 percent of Albany’s 10,492 registered voters. Measure B got 3,014 yes votes, Measure E 2,916 yes votes. Thus each measure won with yes votes from slightly less than 30 percent of registered Albany voters.

While it’s very unusual in Albany’s voting history for any measure to pass with only about 3,000 votes, it also happened with AUSD parcel tax measures I and J in Nov.  2009. Voter turnout was similar in Nov. 2009 to this month’s election. Turnouts are typically lower when there is neither a presidential nor a congressional election at stake.

In 2009, the financial implications of Measures I and J were relatively small–Measure I was an annual $149, 5-year parcel tax that was renewed by Measure LL in 2014. Measure J consolidated existing parcel taxes and adjusted them all for inflation. There were exemptions for seniors and low income residents. In contrast, Measures B and E together will cost most Albany homeowners between $500 and $1,500 annually, except for those who bought their houses decades ago. No exemptions.

We don’t know much about the attitudes of the  approximately 60 percent of Albany voters who didn’t vote at all this month. Were they aware of and happy with either outcome, or will they be shocked when they see their property tax bill? I guess we’ll find out.

Note: As of Friday afternoon, June 10, the county Registrar of Voters (ROV) has updated the counts for measures B and E, finding roughly 10 percent more votes, but leaving the percentages virtually unchanged. Measure B vote tallies are now 3,365 yes and 1,540 no. Measure E vote tallies are now 3,266 yes and 1,227 no.

Tuesday morning, June 14,  I called the Alameda County Registrar of Voters. I was told that all vote-by-mail ballots had been counted, and that they were working on provisionals, but that those probably don’t affect Albany much. Vote-by-mail ballots have dramatically increased, which is why they have taken so long to count. New totals:
Measure B vote tallies are now 4,375 yes and 2,018 no. Measure E vote tallies are now 4,274 yes and 1,577 no. Updated count of registered voters (RV) is 10,984

For Measure E, 53.3 percent of RV voted, 38.9 percent of RV voted yes.
For Measure B, 58.2 percent of RV voted, 39.8 percent of RV voted yes.

AUSD bond and parcel tax measures
measure date threshold yes no % yes purpose
A Nov-04 55% 5,879 1,428 80.5% bldg bond
A Nov-05 2/3 4,140 1,901 68.5% parcel tax
E Feb-08 55% 4,667 1,600 74.5% pool bond
I Nov-09 2/3 2,975 923 76.3% parcel tax
J Nov-09 2/3 3,011 882 77.3% parcel tax
LL Nov-14 2/3 4,875 924 84.1% parcel tax
B Jun-16 2/3 3,014 1,378 68.6% bldg bond
E Jun-16 55% 2,916 1,112 72.4% bldg bond
Notes on recent measures:
I New 5-year, $149 parcel tax, inflation adjustment, senior/low-inc exemptions
J combined existing parcel taxes, $555, no sunset, inflation adjustment, senior/low-inc exemptions
LL continuation of measure I for 6 years, $278, inflation adjustment, adds SSI, SSDI exemptions
B rebuilds two K-6 schools, GO bonds, no exemptions, $120/$100K assessed value
E rebuilds site for middle school, GO bonds, no exemptions, $60/$100K assessed value
Source: acgov.org, 2016 vote counts are preliminary

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My thoughts on June Primary elections

I have no special knowledge to impart about much of the June 6 primary election, with the exception of measure AA and Albany school district’s measures B and E, so here goes:

MEASURE AA: PLEASE VOTE AGAINST

This measure will impose a $12 parcel tax for 20 years on every parcel in the nine-county Bay Area. The revenue will be used to fund shoreline projects to protect and restore San Francisco Bay. It requires a two-thirds vote. Here are four reasons to vote against Measure AA:

1) My primary objection is that, given the way the potential uses for the tax are described, this ballot measure will extract far more revenue from Albany than will ever be returned to us in the form of shoreline enhancement grants. Most of the money will be used to restore wetlands in the South Bay (see item six here). Note: If you are skeptical of this information because it comes from a politically conservative site, here is an objection from the center, and here is one from the left (you have to scroll down).

At the Albany City Council meeting on June 6, starting at 6:00 p.m., the council will review the latest plans for the Albany Bulb restoration. The 143-page document describing the options will be available soon on the city website. I think this is an excellent plan, and I wish we had more funding to implement all of the suggestions. But we don’t. That’s why I’m opposed to shipping Albany’s money to the South Bay when we have a shoreline enhancement project right here that could use the money.

If you like the idea of restoring wetlands many miles away from Albany, I’d encourage you to donate to environment organizations to support that goal. But as your city council member, it’s my job to protect the interests of Albany and its residents, and I don’t think Measure AA is in our interest.

2) Measure AA is a Robin-Hood-in-reverse scheme. It takes from the poor and gives to the rich. In particular, it takes from the predominately lower-income, rural periphery of the Bay Area and transfers the income to the high-income, urban core of Silicon Valley. A map of the nine-county Bay Area helps show this:

Bay AreaI’m relatively aware of the remote corners of the Bay Area because I spend a good part of my weekends cycling through northern Sonoma County, eastern Alameda County and other spots far from the Bay. Just a few weeks ago I was driving back from a ride near Hopland, in Lake County. As I crossed the county line back into Sonoma county north of Cloverdale, I was still almost 60 miles from the closest part of the Bay.

Yet under Measure AA, the owners of land there would be assessed a $12 annual parcel tax. That’s the same amount as in the wealthy South Bay residents of Atherton, Palo Alto, Los Altos Hills and Menlo Park. It’s the same amount as major Silicon Valley corporations with low-lying properties near the Bay. These businesses will gain from Measure AA for a trivial portion of their annual profits.

You can compare the incomes of these wealthy South Bay cities to those of places like Cloverdale or Gilroy here. Many of the residents of the nine-county area live more than 30, 40 or even 50 miles from the Bay. Some of them live in coastal areas where sea-level rise will come not from the Bay, but from the Pacific Ocean.

It’s bad enough that here in Albany we have to rely on regressive parcel taxes to fund our local schools and other community services. But at least in our small city there is a reasonable degree of economic homogeneity, and a strong sense of shared community purpose for our schools and other services.

But that is not the case for the nine-county Bay Area region. If wealthy Silicon Valley communities and businesses want to enhance their shorelines and protect them from flooding, there are far more equitable options. One example is the assessment district, which can apportion the tax in a way that is consistent with the degree of benefit.

3) At at time when the mechanisms of a Bay Area regional government are still being contested, Measure AA is a preemptive strike that creates a precedent that regional government will be by and for Silicon Valley elites. I suspect that many people reading this have no idea that the government agency that put Measure AA on the ballot, something called the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority (SFBRA), even exists. The governing board of the organization was appointed, not elected. To be fair, some of the board members are elected officials. However, they are charged with representing citizens who were not able to vote for them (or vote them out of office).

For example, on the SFBRA board, a Napa County supervisor represent all of the four North Bay counties, although he is not an elected official for the citizens of Marin, Sonoma and Solano counties. Here in the East Bay, someone you may never had heard of, Contra Costa Supervisor John Gioia, represents Alameda County as well. No one in Alameda County has ever voted for John Gioia. To my knowledge, Gioia has never made an attempt to contact the City of Albany to explain his role on the board of SFBRA as our representative.

The Measure AA ballot language states, “An independent citizen’s oversight committee will oversee funds to ensure they are spent properly.” However, the fine print reveals that this oversight committee has no authority, will be appointed by the SFBRA board, and is charged with publishing an annual report for the board’s website.

And while we are looking at the fine print, Section 5.A. of the measure’s full text states, “The Governing Board of the Authority shall be empowered to amend this Measure by a majority vote of its members to further the purposes of this Measure…” Hmmmm.

4) From my perspective as a university science editor, Measure AA appears to be pretty dubious. Although some news outlets have characterized Measure AA as a tool to fight climate change, the words “sea-level rise” or “climate change” never appear in the ballot language.

The rebuttal to argument against Measure AA refers to the Bay Institute and the Nature Conservancy as “preeminent scientific organizations.” No, no, no. The National Academy of Sciences or the American Association for the Advancement of Science are examples preeminent scientific organizations. The Bay Institute and the Nature Conservancy are advocacy organizations, and good ones, but they are not preeminent scientific organizations.

The argument in favor of Measure AA states, “Fish in the Bay are contaminated with harmful chemicals like PCBs, mercury and pesticides.” Uh, there’s a problem with that statement. Did they mean to write “mercury compounds?” Mercury is not a chemical, it’s an element. It is a member of the periodic table of elements (it’s one of only two elements that are liquids at room temperature). The fact that these Measure AA advocates have little command of basic scientific information raises a red flag for me.

For background on the scientific and engineering complexities of Bay restoration, please see this statement by UB Berkeley professor emeritus of environmental and civil engineering James Hunt.

When I head out to the Albany Shoreline, I can see straight out to the Golden Gate. If I scan to the right and left, I don’t see any obvious wetlands (maybe I need binoculars). The emphasis on restoring wetlands in Measure AA won’t help Albany. Nor will it protect much of our critical infrastructure, like the ports of Oakland and San Francisco, our two airports and other urban spaces near the Bay.

A better and more thoughtful approach would be to start with the high sea-level forecasts for the year 2100 and realistically assess what we can do between now and then to practice effective triage. Some land and structures we can save. Some will slip under the rising water of the Bay. By 2100, wetland restoration may be a very small part of the problem.

To summarize, I don’t think Measure AA is in the interest of Albany, it uses the wrong taxing mechanism, it hands taxing authority to an undemocratic regional authority, and I think it’s on shaky ground scientifically.

MEASURES B AND E: YES ON E, THINK HARD ABOUT B

Measures B and E are the two general obligation bonds that, if passed, will fund renovations to Albany schools. Measure E is the smaller of the two, and will basically be used to rebuilt the old McGregor school site, across Brighton Street from the current middle school. According to the ballot language, it will impose an annual bond repayment of an estimated $60 per $100K of accessed value for 20-30 years, and will require and 55 percent majority to pass.

Measure B will basically rebuild Ocean View and Marin elementary schools. It will impose an annual repayment twice the size of Measure E, $120 per $100K of assessed value. Because of its size, it requires a two-thirds approval rate by the voters.

I have been aware of the size of these bonds for several months, but I didn’t feel it was my place, as a former school board member but a current city council member, to initiate a discussion about them. The information about these bonds for Albany voters has come very late, and I’m not impressed that the voters are getting an accurate perspective on them.

So, at this late stage, you are going to get my perspective, take it or leave it. Other pro/con comments here and here. My main grievance about the discussion on these two bonds is that they have been presented by both sides as a package deal, and they are not. Voters can vote for either, none or both. To keep track of them in your mind, think “easy E, big bad B.”

I’m encouraging you to vote in favor of Measure E. It is a different animal than B. Measure E will take a site that is not currently useful and build new classrooms there. It solves an immediate overcrowding problem. It will only require 55 percent voter approval, and for an Albany house with a $600K assessed value (like mine) it will add $360 annually to property tax bills. I can live with that.

Measure B is a different beast. It will tear down two existing, functional schools and (after several months), will replace them with two new schools that will be built to current Division of State Architect  (DSA) earthquake and other safety standards.

Many parents don’t realize that around 2004, back when I was on the school board, Marin and Ocean View were refurbished and brought up to DSA standards. These schools no longer meet current DSA standards, not because they have become less safe, but because earthquake safety standards have gone up since then. Earthquake safety standards typically evolve over time as information from recent earthquakes gets added to building codes.

It’s similar to the decision a family makes about buying a new car. The old one still runs fine, it’s got a few years left in it and it still passes its smog tests. A newer car would be expensive, but it would be more modern and would have better safety features like more advanced air bags. You have to weigh the pluses and minuses and make a choice.

Keep in mind that for earthquake safety, the most important room is your child’s life is not their school room, but their bedroom. That’s because your child typically spends at least one-third of their life sleeping in their bedroom (not to mention play and study time).

By comparison, one year is comprised of 365 days x 24 hours, or 8,760 hours per year. As an example, if your child attends school six hours per day, five days per week and 40 weeks per year, that is 6x5x40 or 1200 hours, or less than 14 percent of their lives. That’s why earthquake safety training stresses that the odds are an earthquake will occur when you are in bed.

Our school staff and board members would counter that while that may be true, the school district can’t go around upgrading earthquake safety standards for every home occupied by every one of their students. But they can make safer the places where several hundred students will be gathered in case of a big earthquake — their classrooms.

How many of you remember the color of the walls of your school when you were in first grade? The reason I ask is that I think improvements for schools are often done “for the sake of the kids,” when I think it’s grown-ups that care about how infrastructure looks. Kids care more about intangible, human interactions. Good friends, good teachers, freedom from bullies, etc. Will Measures B and E address those? Maybe not so much.

From my office on the UC Berkeley campus, it’s an easy walk to the new stadium complex, which was rebuilt in part because it sits on the Hayward fault. The new stadium is a stunning, expensive white elephant. It’s a great place to watch a football game and wine-and-dine wealthy donors, but the debt service on the stadium and other earthquake-related rebuilding is killing the campus. I don’t want to see our town make the same mistake.

Let’s assume Measure E passes. My property tax bill goes up by $360 annually. If Measure B passes as well, my property tax bill goes up by $1,080. Gulp! That’s real money, especially since I am planning on retiring in another year. For young families who have just moved to Albany, the assessed value of their house is the sale price. Almost any three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in good condition in Albany is going for $1 million. In that case passing both measures B and E will add $1,800 to the already high property tax bill of a new Albany family. And it will add several hundred dollars to the property tax bill of seniors and low-income families, since no exemptions are allowed on general obligation bonds.

Marin and Oceanview schools have some life left in them. But sooner or later, probably within a decade, the schools should be replaced. One option is to pass Measure E, let the school district get to work building out the McGregor site, and have Albany parents monitor the success of that project. That should give parents a basis for a more informed decision in another year or two.

On the other hand, construction costs typically keep rising (unless there is another economic crisis), so not passing Measure B now could mean higher constructions costs later. So if you trust the school district, vote in favor of Measure B now. Either way, you are rolling dice. It depends on what sort of bets you are willing to make.

I wish I could say something more definitive, but there are no easy answers here.

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