Hot-button issues and our capital improvement plan

These are my notes on the October 19 city council meeting. We also had a meeting on Oct. 6, but I want to save that meeting for a later message, since it dealt with a specific topic, the Albany Bulb.

As for the Oct. 19 meeting, I want to mention two items–our Social and Economic Justice Commission (SEJC) and the city’s capital improvement plan.

SEJC has been a problem for years. I have been on the council since the fall of 2012, and since then, sunsetting SEJC has been on the agenda twice. Both times the commission has barely survived. SEJC was formed several years ago, and given a mandate that was far too broad to allow it become effective.

In recent months it was suffered from resignations, lack of quorums and cancelled meetings. The city does have effective commissions—Planning and Zoning, Parks and Rec., Traffic and Safety and others—that have a narrow focus, develop expertise, and provide real service to the council and the city. But SEJC hasn’t become one of them, at least not yet.

SEJC needs to become more like the commissions above, or it needs to be sunsetted. After mulling this over, and listening to the thoughts of some knowledgeable people in town, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a critical problem that could become the focus of a social services-oriented commission. That problem is our aging population, and how the city can best serve their needs. (That will include me in the next 20 years).

There are all sorts of issues related to aging—housing, health care, access to federal programs like Social Security and Medicare, and aging in place vs. assisted living, just to name a few. I don’t think the city is prepared for the huge demographic shift that is now starting as the baby boomers retire, but I’m hoping SEJC could evolve into a focused commission to help sort through the issues of our aging population. The hot-button issues that SEJC has taken on could be handled by ad hoc advisory bodies with specific missions and lifetimes.

There are three hot-button issues that SEJC had on its work plan to consider: minimum wage, rent control, and a Berkeley-style soda tax. Let me say first that Albany is not Berkeley, and if I wanted Albany to be like Berkeley, I’d just move. In particular, Berkeley is much bigger than Albany, has a much larger tax base, and can spread the cost of programs much more effectively than Albany can. I don’t think Albany should necessarily emulate Berkeley.

If we really wanted Albany to be more similar to Berkeley, the solution would be to merge with our bigger neighbor. Then we would get things like rent control, the soda tax and other Berkeley programs automatically. Oddly enough, I’ve never talked to anyone in Albany who wanted to merge with Berkeley. I guess I’ll have to ponder that one for a while. That being said, here goes:


I think our country needs to raise the federal minimum wage, but that’s not going to happen given the current state of Congress. I’m generally supportive of state and local efforts to raise minimum wages. I’m in agreement with the two economists, Alan Krueger of Princeton and David Card of UC Berkeley, who have found no adverse impacts from raising minimum wages in the U.S. In a New York Times op-ed, Kreuger argues in favor of at $12 minimum hourly wage nationally, with up to $15 hourly in high-wage/high-cost areas. I think Albany should be part of a regional or statewide effort to raise the minimum wage, but it’s better if big cities make the first move and smaller cities follow. And let’s not forgot another effective policy tool, the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which also has benefits for low-income working families.


With the rising cost of housing in the Bay Area, including Albany, some residents are growing interested in a Berkeley-style rent control plan in Albany. When my son was at UC Berkeley and renting an apartment with friends south of campus, I visited Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Board and was impressed by it.

However, after talking with various residents and city staffers, I don’t think rent control would fly in Albany. To create a rent control system here, the city would have to ask for a ton of money from the tax payers—enough to cover at least two new full time positions, all the associated costs, and enough extra to cover the costs of the lawsuits and other litigation that would follow (as they have in Berkeley). It would take years to get rent control funded, the lawsuits resolved and the programs up running. Rent control is not a short-term solution.

The real problem is not lack of rent control, but lack of housing, and that problem is one of our own making. Good article here. Years of anti-development policies in the Bay Area created the housing shortage. Albany is no exception.

Albany residents voted in favor of two thinly-veiled anti-growth measures, Measure D in 1978, which requires two off-street parking places per dwelling (except for existing dwellings which were grandfathered, cynically enough), and Measure C in 1990, which makes housing and other commercial development at the waterfront racetrack much more difficult. The city is considering a ballot measure to amend Measure D, and the city is working with interested citizens to develop affordable housing in Albany. I support both of those efforts.


I’m not a big fan of Berkeley’s soda tax. First of all, reducing the amount of sugary soda kids drink, at least in Albany, is not a new idea. It’s been about 10 years, ever since the Albany school board got rid of sugary beverages in school vending machines. And in general, sales of soda have been declining, while sales of bottled water have been going up.

Here is some background on the soda tax. At first it appeared wholesalers were not passing along the tax, as I mentioned in council, but lately it appears that sugared soda prices are rising with respect to other beverages.

Drinking water instead of soda is the best way to go, but if you have to drink soda, diet sodas are better. I like UC Berkeley’s campaign to make drinking tap water cool. Sometimes a positive message is more effective than a negative one. Better to let people know what they could do, instead of telling them what they shouldn’t do.

Is Berkeley facing some sort of public health crisis? Probably not. It’s an interesting fact that the monthly amount taken in by the Berkeley soda tax, about $116,000, is roughly equivalent to Berkeley’s population, with is also about 116,000 people. So the tax amounts to about one dollar per month per person in Berkeley. Each ounce of sugary soda is taxed one cent, so during a month, the average Berkeley citizen consumes 100 oz. of sugary soda, our about two 12 oz. cans per week.

If we assume average caloric intake of 2,000 calories per day, or 14,000 calories per week, and if we assume a 12 oz. can of soda has 140 calories, than the average Berkeley citizen get two percent of their calories from sugary sodas.

Let’s say this is a gross underestimate, and it’s really 50 percent higher, or three cans per week. That’s three percent of calories. Of course, averages can be deceiving. Many people in Berkeley drink no soda, many drink far more soda than average.

Still, I’m not convinced that Berkeley has a big public health problem in soda, or that the soda tax will accomplish much. As an alternative, this is a common-sense approach from the head of the editorial board of the Berkeley Wellness newsletter from UC Berkeley’s Public Health Dept.


The Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) is a lot like my weekend chores list. I make a list, and if I am lucky, by Sunday night I’ve gotten halfway through it. Sigh. That’s been going on for about 20 years now.

As is typical in the public sector, there are at least twice as many meritorious projects as there is funding for them, so it’s important to prioritize and get as far down the list as possible. This CIP runs through June 30, 2020, so let’s hope for more funding down the road.

The staff report is six pages, worth scanning at least. I’m not going to improve on this summary by repeating it, so I suggest you take a look for yourself. The main report itself is 124 pages, and it takes a while to download. A better option is the spreadsheet time line.

Maintaining streets and sewers is not optional—these are our first priority. Among the other items, I give high priority to moving forward with Pierce St. Park and the new public works center, which have gotten bogged down in bureaucratic delays outside the city’s control. My other priorities are traffic controls on the streets just south of El Cerrito Plaza and sidewalk repairs.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the concerns raised at the meeting about how dark some the intersection are along Albany’s section of Solano, particularly the Curtis St. intersection, between Sunnyside Café and Fonda’s. That intersection is especially dark due to the fact that Curtis St. to the north slopes downward steeply, so porch and interior lighting on houses does little to illuminate the intersection.

There is a lack of street lights along that portion of Curtis St. as well. Finally, the relative brightness of the Safeway across Solano Ave. makes that intersection seen that much darker. The city is exploring cost-effective solutions that could be implemented quickly. As always, please exercise caution when driving, biking and walking at night along busy streets, especially dark ones.


Catching up after summer

My apologies for taking such a long break since my last post in April. My main task last summer was getting my 23-year old son back on his feet after he was hit by a car while commuting to work on his motorcycle.

He broke his left femur in the crash in May and is now walking with a slight limp and a long titanium rod running the length of his femur. He gets stronger every week and he is already (you guessed it) back on his motorcycle. Grrrrr. I wanted him to inherit my love of two-wheeled vehicles, but this is not what I had in mind.

The council had the month of August off, so nothing dramatic occurred on August—but then, hardly anything dramatic has ever occurred in August, except the start of WWI. It’s a slow news month. In July the appeal of the Occupy the Farm CEQA lawsuit was emphatically denied by the appeals court, and construction will start this fall on assisted living center and retail complex. That’s great news.

The other good news is that the remodeling of the Safeway on Solano has begun. The store will remain open during the project, much of which will be completed at night. The exterior footprint of the building will stay the same, with the addition of some fresh paint and parking lot repairs. We won’t be getting a fancy new Safeway like so many cities around us, due in part (only in part) to neighborhood criticisms during the planning. This is an example of how in Albany, when to comes to development, the perfect is often the enemy of the good.

There was incremental progress on several issues over the summer, but most of them have come before the council this fall in our first two meetings, or will be on the agenda soon, so I’ll discuss them in that context.

My last post in April concerned SB-277, the bill in Sacramento sponsored by state senator Richard Pan. It passed easily. This bill eliminates the personal and religious exemptions to vaccines for children attending schools in California. Another measure, SB-792, also passed. This legislation requires vaccinations for child care workers and volunteers. A good recent article on the topic is here.

In another recent piece of good news, the anti-vaccine referendum that was started after the passage of SB-277 has failed to gather enough signatures.

Our first meeting after the August break was on Sept. 8. It was interesting. It started well. The police chief reported he had produced a biennial report, available here.

The main item for me the night of Sept. 8 was the issue of whether or not to align the medical benefits of council members with those of the city employees. Many city councils give their members the right to participate in the medical plan for the staff, but a former Albany City Council had gone beyond that. Good Damin Esper coverage in the CC Times here.

The agenda is here (it includes video link, so it may load slowly)

A former city council had decided that their voter-approved reimbursement of $300/month was insufficient, and also decided, without consulting voters, to increase medical benefits above the level of the city employees, and to give themselves an in lieu payment of about $700/month if they chose not to be on the city’s plan (the in lieu benefit was not paid in cash, but was deposited into a 403-b retirement plan). In effect, those council members who took the in lieu benefit more than tripled their salary without voter approval.

Like many Albany residents, I thought that stunt was unethical, and I wrote about it previously on my blog here.

An excellent report by our then interim financial manager Paul Rankin revealed just how out of line Albany’s council benefits were with respect to a comparison group of nearby cities of similar size.

Of the 26 cities, 20 (77%) include provisions for city council members to receive health benefits. Of the 20 cities offering health, five (25%) cover all costs, fourteen (70%) covered a portion, and one (5%) provided zero dollars. Of the 20 cities that offered health benefits, only the City of Albany offered higher medical benefits to council members than to other employees.

Ten cities that provided health insurance to council members offered an in lieu benefit upon proof of coverage. The average in lieu benefit payment was $500 for the agencies that offered one. Albany was the only city that offered an in lieu benefit of more than $700.

Based on that report, in February 2014 the previous council decided to eliminate the in lieu benefit, a change that I advocated for and voted in favor of. For our Sept. 8 meeting less than a month ago, the city attorney provided a report that showed that the Albany City Council was on questionable legal ground by having a benefit level above that of its employees, and faced a risk of litigation.

Based on the city attorney’s opinion, the council voted to eliminate its overly generous benefits and to align its benefits to those of the city employees. This was a long-awaited victory, and I was glad it was finally over.

But during the process, council member Nick Pilch seemed to have his doubts, and was the only council member to vote against reducing the level of benefits. The discussion that night was videotaped. The item is introduced at 1:14:40, and councilmember Pilch’s comments begin at 1:23:20.

Pilch indicated that if the council doesn’t get medical benefits higher than those of the staff, he wanted to revisit the in lieu benefits issue, which was a legal (although in my opinion, underhanded) way of having the council pay itself more money.

To use an old-fashioned word, I was flabbergasted. I was disappointed again when Mayor Peter Maass stated that he felt not enough people were interested in running for the council and that perhaps council members should get paid more.

I found this logic a little strange, since when Maass and I ran for council in 2012, there were seven candidates for three open positions. It is true, however, that in 2014, only three people ran for three open seats on the council, and as a cost-savings measure, the council cancelled the election.

Secondly, the Maass/Pilch argument was out of touch with the reality of public service in Albany. I can appreciate why city staff members get in lieu benefits—they work very long hours and are often in attendance at meetings late into the evening. On the other hand, the city council is a part-time job at most. Given the hours we work, I don’t think we deserve in lieu benefits.

Albany school board members get paid only about $200 a month. I’m pretty sure that is what I got when I served on the school board in 2002-06. School board members can participate in the district’s medical plan, but there has never been an attempt by school board members to get either higher benefits than teachers or in lieu benefits.

Our Planning and Zoning Commissioners works as hard as council members, and have done a tremendous job on the city’s new general plan. What do they get for their efforts? Nothing. No cash payments, no medical benefits, nothing.

In my case, as someone who typically works more than 40 hours/wk, the constraint is not money, it’s time. It’s hard to find the time to hold a public office, especially if you still have kids at home (which I no longer do, except after motorcycle accidents). A salary of $300/month ($200 after taxes) doesn’t compensate for the lost time. Increasing council pay wouldn’t change that reality.

My feeling is that if council members deserve more money (and I don’t think they do) then they should find a way to take the issue to the voters, and structure the extra income so that current members of the council are not eligible for the raises.