What the East Bay Times doesn’t understand about Albany

The East Bay Times wrote a poorly reasoned op-ed about Albany, disguised as an endorsement piece about the city council race. Fortunately it didn’t find its way into the Friday, Nov. 2, issue of the Albany Journal. I’ve printed the full text of the op-ed below, indented and in italics, annotated with my responses. For the sake of brevity, I’ll refer to the authors of this piece as EBT. Published version is here.

Albany needs to get a grip on its taxes and its financial planning.

Well, no. Actually, we already have a grip. Let me just start by saying that as a former state budget analyst (back in the 1980s), and a recently retired UC Berkeley science editor, I have high standards for writing. In my opinion, the authors of this op-ed substitute ideological arrogance for thoughtfulness and rigor. I’ll explain below as we go:

 On taxes, voters should elect research geologist Preston Jordan. He was a driving force behind the city’s sidewalk tax, approved by voters in 2016. But he also is firm that such add-on taxes should sunset, giving voters a periodic opportunity to decide whether they merit renewal.

No. This sounds like EBT just read Preston Jordan’s campaign literature are took it at face value. Jordan was not the driving force. The driving force was just about everyone in Albany who was sick of tripping over cracked sidewalks. Jordan was helpful in the end with technical details of how the tax should be applied to parcels of various sizes. And the group he help found, Strollers and Rollers, did fund and distribute campaign literature. While the council was grateful for the efforts of Jordan—and many other residents—some sort of solution for cracked sidewalks was to be passed one way or the other.

EBT also misunderstands the sunset issue. Repairing sidewalks is the homeowner’s responsibility under state law. The Albany sidewalk tax was conceived of from the start as a one-time project that would run for several years to allow the city to repair all of its cracked sidewalks. Homeowners currently remain legally responsible for the sidewalks in front of their houses, and will continue to be responsible once the program ends. More here and here.

For financial planning, voters should re-elect Rochelle Nason, who is a strong advocate for implementation of long-range city budgeting. Three people are seeking two seats on the council in the Nov. 6 election. The choice is not easy. All three, including incumbent Peggy McQuaid, are smart, thoughtful candidates.

I agree about the smart, thoughtful candidates. However, one candidate stands out, and she is Peggy McQuaid, the only candidate EBT failed to endorse. I have been involved in public life in Albany since 2002, when I first served on Albany’s school board. EBT’s failure to endorse McQuaid is more a reflection of the newspaper’s poor judgement and lack of knowledge of the city than it is of McQuaid’s outstanding service and reputation in Albany. Her endorsements are stellar, from virtually all of Albany’s living former mayors to most of the current East Bay mayors. I wonder if EBT even bothered to read those endorsements. For my endorsements, go here.

The city is also asking voters to make the city sales tax permanent. As we’ve said previously, voters should reject Measure L. When combined with the state and county portions of the sales tax, Albany has one of the highest rates in the state. And the city is seeking approval for a $69 parcel tax for park and open space maintenance. Measure M would replace a temporary tax with one that is permanent, which is why voters should reject it.

This is misleading, and deliberately so. The urbanized coastal counties of California are vastly different than the rural and wilderness counties. The coastal counties generally have higher county tax rates. Albany has a high combined tax rate because Alameda County has a high tax rate. If Albany was in Plumas County, it would have a low tax rate. Comparing rural and urban counties is comparing apples to oranges.

 I’ve included the recent sales tax rates for California (source here). I’ve put the information into two spreadsheets. You can have the data sorted either by county or by tax rate, take your pick. The highest sales tax rates in California are actually in Los Angeles County—many cities have rates over 10 percent. If Measure L passes, Albany will continue to have a 9.75 percent sales tax rate, which is the same as our neighbor to the north, El Cerrito, and the same rate as four other Alameda Counties cities—Hayward, Newark, Union City and San Leandro. Albany’s tax rates are comparable with many of our neighboring cities.

Measure L is a good deal for Albany voters. For every $1,000 a resident pays in taxable purchases (not including food, which isn’t taxed), Measure L will cost only five dollars. Measure L can be revoked in the future if the either the city council or a citizen’s initiative place it on the ballot. We could have added a sunset provision to Measure L, but the city’s polling of Albany voters indicated that a sunset provision wasn’t important to them. Elections are expensive for cities, and unnecessary elections are a waste of time and money.

Albany also loves its parks and some of them could use a little TLC. With climate change bringing more extreme weather, taking care of our parks will require resources. Measure M, like other parcel taxes, will require a super-majority vote. I’m not sure we’ll clear that hurdle, but I’ll do my part by voting for Measure M, and I hope enough of my fellow citizens do, too. For more see this flyer.

 Albany property owners currently pay eight separate city parcel taxes totaling $449 for things such as libraries, sidewalks, road paving and street lighting. Plus, for every $100,000 of assessed value, homeowners pay $82 a year to help cover the cost of public employee pensions and city bond obligations. That’s $363 annually for the owner of an average single-family house.

May I please provide a dose of reality? The number of small parcel taxes on California property tax bills is due to Proposition 13’s stringent requirements for seeking additional tax revenues, which include super-majority votes and annual reports. This is not just the case in Albany, it’s true all over the state. I have written extensively in my city council blog about our property taxes, see here and here (once there, you will have to scroll down):

I just happened to get my new property tax bill in the mail today (although it was already available online). Here is a simple percentage breakdown of where my property tax dollars will go in FY2018-19:

58 percent: Alameda County

23 percent: Albany Unified School District

15 percent: City of Albany

4 percent: Other local agencies

It’s important to remember that not all of the city’s spending is discretionary. Like other East Bay cities, Albany is under consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency to repair its aging sewer lines. We are legally required to spend this money. With respect to other local government agencies, the City of Albany simply isn’t creating a property tax burden.

Also note that the Albany Unified School District gets a much larger share of property tax revenues than the city. This is due to the state’s abysmal under-funding of K-12 education. In Albany we care about our schools, and are willing to help fund them ourselves.

 And when property owners sell their homes, the city charges an exorbitant transfer tax of $1,150 for every $100,000 of value, again one of the highest in the state.

Again, this is deliberately misleading. Charter cities, as distinguished from general law cities, have written charters that allow them to set their own transfer tax rates when property is sold. According to the information EBT cites (here), there are eight charter cities in Alameda County. Of the eight, two charge lower transfer taxes than Albany, while five charge higher rates.

That “exorbitant” tax rate is actually only 1.15 percent. I think Albany homeowners get what they pay for in the sense that good schools, well maintained parks and pleasant shopping districts keep property values high. I’m pretty sure the value added to Albany homes compensates for higher taxes.

 Meanwhile, city general fund expenditures are forecast to rise 41 percent from fiscal year 2015 to fiscal year 2020. It’s unclear where this ends because the city lacks a long-range budget.

It’s time for city leaders to stop trying to permanently lock residents into more taxes and better plan Albany’s financial future. Jordan and Nason provide the best hope for doing that.

Is there a citation for those forecasts? It’s hard to comment when I don’t know where the numbers come from or how credible they are. As for the rest of the paragraph, it’s more the same sloppy rhetoric. Albany’s current ballot measures do not try to “lock residents into more taxes.” Measures L and M are not new taxes, they are continuations of existing taxes. We are asking the voters to renew existing taxes. Isn’t that precisely what this op-ed piece has been suggesting?

All the current council members and city staff are keeping close watch on the potential problems with public pension funding. There won’t be any real differences between the candidates that get elected in this regard, since they will all be working together on the issue.

Unfortunately, this op-ed has been an exercise in ideology over informed debate. In that regard, it’s absolutely presidential. I do think what we have here is a bit of a culture war. I often ride my bike across the hills in Lamorinda and points further east, the cultural home of the East Bay Times. I was out there the other day and saw a political sign for someone named John Cox. “John Cox,” I said to myself, “I wonder who that is?”

Life over the hills is a bit like those German cars so many people drive there—monochromatic. Albany prides itself for being a little more colorful, although not as colorful as Berkeley (thank God). Think of our little town as the Denmark of the East Bay. Higher taxes, good public amenities, civic pride and a high quality of life. We like it this way.