Debunking some claims made by Measure R proponents
It is claimed that a Yes vote on Measure R renews Orinda’s expiring voter-approved sales tax and increases the rate by only ½¢ (50¢ on a $100 purchase).
The facts are:
* The existing sales tax does not expire until March 2023. It will provide $1.2 million a year for two more years.
* Measure R’s one percent tax may only increase the rate ½¢ for those two years but then the full one percent tax continues for another 18 years.
* It is true that ½¢ produces a 50¢ tax on a $100 purchase but the average Orinda family purchases a lot more than $100 of taxable goods in a year. The existing ½¢ tax is generating $1.2 million a year in income. That is ½% of $240 million of purchases; averaging $34,000 of purchases a year per household. These purchases include everything that is delivered to your home (major appliances and internet purchases) and cars registered in Orinda.
This tax is being sold as a fire prevention tax with proponents claiming that it will:
• Improve wildfire safety by controlling hazardous brush and vegetation throughout Orinda
• Protect neighborhoods, schools, fire stations, roads and bridges from wildfire by maintaining defensible space.
The truth is, the only projection of spending for fire prevention which the City has provided is an estimate of $500-750,000 per year for 3-4 years, then a “reduced” amount thereafter. That totals $1.5-3.0 million for the first four years then maybe half as much per year for the next 16. “Maybe” (no guarantees as this is a General tax which the City Council controls) $6 million over 20 years which is only 10% of the total tax paid. This is NOT a fire prevention tax. It is mainly a road maintenance tax.)
Other claims the proponents make include:
Measure R will provide a stable, locally-controlled funding source
Measure R creates a General Sales Tax. A General Tax is a tax that the City Council can use any way it desires. It may be stable and it may be locally controlled, but that does not mean it will be used in the future as the existing City Council, or the community, intended it to be used. In a few years some fire prevention projects may have been completed and then the next “urgent need” arises and fire prevention is pushed aside.
Measure R is needed to implement proven wildfire risk reduction strategies utilized in many communities.
What are these? Has the City studied them? Does the City have any idea what it should do with the money? The answer is no. There has been no study. To date, the City has spent, in the 29 years since the Oakland Hills Firestorm, virtually nothing on fire prevention. It is now asking the taxpayers to vote in a 20-year / $60 million tax and trust it to learn what it should do and then allocate the appropriate amount to do what the community has said is its top concern.
Measure R will help homeowners protect their properties from wildfire.
The only help that has been mentioned is a chipper service that MOFD administers. The City might help fund and expand this service but when MOFD suspended its service at the beginning of the summer, the City did not see fit (there were all kinds of excuses) to step up and continue funding it even though it was receiving $100,000 a month in existing sales tax revenues.
The proponents attempt to answer the question “Does the Moraga-Orinda Fire District (MOFD) provide fire protection services for Orinda and what is the City’s role?”
They claim that MOFD’s role is simply to respond to 911 calls. This is FALSE. MOFD has staff members focusing on fire prevention. They do plan checks of new construction to insure buildings meet fire codes. They inspect properties in the spring to make sure weeds are cut down. And they provide the chipper service (sometimes). The truth is that $18 million of Orinda property taxes go to MOFD but MOFD only spends $15 million to provide Orinda with emergency response and fire prevention services. There is a LOT OF MONEY going elsewhere which should be spent in Orinda for fire prevention.
And what is Orinda’s role? They claim that the City is responsible for controlling flammable vegetation along city roads and around public infrastructure. Then why hasn’t it been doing it? It has been receiving $1 million a year in sales tax revenue since 2013. This is a General Tax which the City has the full power to allocate. But it has allocated all of it to repair the 64 miles of publicly maintained residential streets. Even when MOFD suspended its chipper service the City did not reallocate any funds to reinstate it. But it says that if we double the sales tax it will start doing its job and allocate half of the additional sales tax revenue to fire prevention for a few years.
While most of the discussion about the sales tax revolves around fire prevention (but only about 10% of the tax is slated to be used for fire prevention), the proponents do address the major use of funds, storm drain repair and road maintenance.
Why is it important to improve Orinda’s aging storm drains?
The collapse of the storm drain under Miner Road two years ago makes the answer to this question obvious. Another question would be “why, after collecting $50 million in sales tax and road bond money over the past eight years which was supposed to be used for road AND storm drain repair has the City waited until this money was all spent to decide that storm drains are now a crucial need?”
We are not denying that some storm drains are crucial to the preservation of the roads. But what is missing from the City’s “plan” are all of the storm drains not being considered. These include the drains collecting water from city streets and then running across private property which the City says are the private-property owners’ problem; even when the City constructed the drains in the first place. They also include the storm drains on the 30 miles of streets serving the public which the City, to date, has refused to grant public status to. These are home to over 1,500 Orinda families and provide the same service, paved access to their homes, as the 64 miles of residential streets which are currently maintained with public tax dollars.
Bottom line, while funds are needed to improve storm drains, the City needs a plan to improve all of its storm drains before the taxpayers give it a 20-year / $60 million blank check and hope, 35 years after incorporation, it does the right thing.
Can Measure R funds be used to improve private roads?
The proponents claim “utilizing public tax dollars to improve private roads would constitute an illegal gift of public funds and is not allowed under the law.” This is FALSE.
* There is case law which opines that a private road can be publicly maintained if it provides a public benefit. Under this, the City actually maintains three private roads in Orinda under a 1992 agreement in which the City provides maintenance of the roads in exchange for the owners providing public access (and thus a public benefit). The City Attorney has recently confirmed that this longstanding agreement is legal.
* Most private streets do not want public funds for improvement; they want to become public streets at which point the question of whether public funds can be used to maintain them is moot.