Sales Tax Q&A
A: The Council claims (the ballot measure actually states) the new tax will generate (cost) $2.4 million a year for 20 years ($48 million total). However, this ignores inflation (apparently truth-in-advertising tax measures allows this). Assuming 2.5% inflation, the 20-year total is $61 million; which equates to $8,700 per household (7,000 households in Orinda).
Q: How will the tax be spent?
A: The Council claims that because they are “selling” the tax as a “general” tax (which only requires a simple 50% majority to pass), they cannot be specific on how they will spend the tax. It is true that the tax language cannot obligate the City to spend the money in any specific manner, however, it is questionable that the Council cannot make a non-binding pledge. When the current sales tax was put on the ballot (2012), the City claimed it was needed for road and storm drain repairs totaling $50 million. The tax was only supposed to generate $600,000 a year so it was obvious what it was going to be used for. In fact, that is all it has been used for and the CIOC has accounted for that use.
However, the City has made no such pledge for this new tax. It has published a “needs” document which includes $500-750,000 for fire prevention for the first 3-4 years which would then be “reduced” for the final 16-17 years. In total, “maybe” 10-15% of the tax be used for fire prevention but the majority would be used for road and storm drain maintenance on PUBLIC roads.
Q: How is the City advertising the tax?
A: The official statement in favor of the measure, which will be in the Voters Pamphlet, has been released. As usual, it contains exaggerations and omissions.
Q: The tax is titled the “Orinda Essential Services Measure”. What does this mean?
A: It is very clear that this is a public road and storm drain tax disguised as an “essential services” tax. It supposedly includes fire prevention as an essential service but underlying documents show that all that is allocated for this critical need is $500-750,000 for the first 3-4 years and after that the amount for fire prevention will be reduced. Neither the City, nor MOFD, has made any effort to determine what it would actually be required to make Orinda fire-safe. We do know that in one summer MOFD spent over $4 million just to create the North Orinda Fire Break. So to believe that all of Orinda can be “cleaned up” over 3-4 years for $1.5 to $3 million is “magical” thinking.
The majority of the tax will go for road and storm drain maintenance on public Residential streets. The City already has over $2 million in income to cover road maintenance on the Arterials and Collectors which everyone uses. The new tax dollars will be used to maintain the Residential streets. But only those 64 miles which the City has deemed "public".
Excluded from this "essential" service is the maintenance of the other 30 miles of Orinda's Residential streets, those called "private" because the City refuses to allow them into the public road system. In 2018 it created a policy (Resolution 59-18) which specifically excluded cul de sacs from becoming public roads. 90% of private streets are cul de sacs but so are 30 miles of public Residential streets.
So why does the City consider the maintenance of 64 miles of Orinda's Residential streets "essential" while denying any service at all to the remaining 30 miles Residential streets?
Is it because 4 of 5 City Council members live on the public Residential streets?
Q: What is Orinda currently doing to help prevent wildfires?
A: Virtually nothing. The Oakland Hills Firestorm which killed 25 people and destroyed 3,300 homes was 29 years ago. Since then Orinda has done virtually nothing including not demand that MOFD spend Orinda tax dollars in Orinda (for fire prevention) as the voters were promised it would when MOFD was created. Currently the City is collecting $100,000 a month from the existing sales tax. None of that is being used for fire prevention.
With this track record, it would be much wiser to pass a short term (3-5 years) parcel tax dedicated to fire prevention to see how the City handles this new job.
Q: Is this tax needed because of Covid’s impact on the City’s finances?
A: No. This tax has been planned by the City since 2012.
In the 2012, 2014 and 2016 Road and Drainage Repairs Plans, there was a planned “Phase 4” to the plan which was an extension of the existing half percent sales tax. In 2019, well before Covid hit, the City created a Revenue and Tax Measure Subcommittee to plan for this tax. By October of 2019, the survey which was taken in early February 2020, shows that the proposed tax would be a full one percent (twice the existing city sales tax) and that the City’s focus for the tax was still road and storm drain maintenance, not fire prevention. The focus on infrastructure, not fire prevention, was reiterated in a “needs” assessment presented to the City Council in July 2020 with only $500-750,000 identified for fire prevention but tens of millions needed for road and storm drain maintenance.
Q: Does the City have any other resources for roads and storm drains, or even fire prevention, if this tax does not pass?
A: Yes! Over $3 million a year. There is $800,000 in State gas tax; $400,000 in County sales tax; over $1 million in garbage impact fees (passed on to residents in their garbage bills); and for two more years, $1.2 million per year from the existing half percent sales tax. $3.4 million total.
Q: Are there other ways to fund fire prevention other than a tiny portion of a sales tax?
A: YES! Not relying on MOFD, Orinda can carve some out of the $3.5 million it has available for infrastructure. It could also put a special restricted-use parcel tax on the ballot in November or anytime thereafter. A $150 parcel tax would generate $1.2 million a year; over five times what the City is “willing” to carve out of the sales tax. This $150 is half of what a one percent sales tax would cost the average household and it could be limited to five years, not 20, at which point the City could assess where it was vis-a-vis fire prevention. The City claims a parcel tax, requiring a 2/3 majority, would not pass. However, in the recent city survey, 86% of respondents said fire prevention was either extremely or very important. Would 67% approve a tax costing 40 cents a day? The City has put four taxes on the ballot since 2012. All four passed with over a 2/3 majority.
Q: Is it possible for MOFD to fund fire prevention (fuel mitigation) in Orinda?
A: YES! Orinda property owners pay $18.2 million in property taxes to MOFD for service. For that they receive the services, 24/7, of nine firefighters stationed in Orinda. These firefighters cost MOFD, including overhead, $14.8 million.
Where does the other $3.4 million go? Moraga. Moraga “pays” $9.7 million for 8 firefighters stationed in Moraga. They cost MOFD $13.1 million to provide; $3.4 million more than Moraga pays.
Is it possible to get the extra $3.4 million back to Orinda for fire prevention? YES! We all pay, in addition to the basic property tax, a parcel tax to MOFD. The tax “rate” is set by the MOFD Board every year. The “rate” charged Moraga is 20% of what Moragans agreed to 25 years ago. If the full rate was charged, this would generate an additional $2 million in revenue. In addition, two of Moraga’s firefighters staff an ambulance; not a fire engine. They NEVER act as firefighters, “only” as paramedics (90% of emergencies are medical). If they were replaced by non-firefighter paramedics, who would be just as proficient, that would save MOFD $1 million a year; Moraga would then be paying for the service they were receiving; and Orinda’s $3.4 million could be used in Orinda for fire prevention. These are not new tax dollars but tax dollars we are already obligated to pay.