President’s Report - August 2017

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, thank goodness for some bureaucracies, namely the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB).  GASB now requires government agencies that grant pensions to their employees to disclose unfunded pension obligations in their annual financial reports.

Using public records requests, our CoCoTax Pensions Project Team has gathered a large amount of pension data on Contra Costa County's cities.  (We will address the county and special districts later this year.)  The Team’s mission is to:

      Quantify the problem;

      Discover those positive practices some cities are taking to deal with the problem;

      Establish some benchmark recommendations for further action at the local level, and

      Develop proposals for action required at the state level in partnership with other taxpayer advocates.

While the information we’ve developed is sobering, the good news is that there are policies that are helping manage the challenge in some jurisdictions, which we can share with other elected leaders and staff.  The bad news is that projected trends will cripple city governments’ ability to provide essential services without major action at the state level.  Further, it is now clear that taxpayers are not the only ones at risk.  Public employees and retirees are also in jeopardy.  In fact, some California cities and special districts are already experiencing dramatic cuts in retiree pension payments, with more sure to follow.

To make matters worse, GASB now requires that unfunded health care obligations must also be reported, and the scope of those shortfalls will only compound the challenge.  (We will take that issue up next year.)

We plan to present our findings and recommendations at a special workshop this fall, and I expect sell-out attendance similar to when pension reform advocate Chuck Reed and East Bay Times editorial writer Dan Borenstein spoke at our Back Forty Texas BBQ “Pension Tsunami” luncheon in 2015.

My sincere thanks to our team - Jim Pezzaglia, Sue Pricco, Dan Walden and Hal Bray.  They are working hard to carry out our CoCoTax mission, to promote "good government at affordable cost.”

Jack Weir, President




President’s Report - July, 2017 - “The Rockets’ Red Glare”

As we approach Independence Day, it’s appropriate - essential, actually, to ponder the meaning of the holiday, and to ask ourselves: has the Spirit of America been taught around our dinner tables, and in our schools?  Is the 4th of July really about fours days off work, car sales promotions, patriotic parades and awe-inspiring fireworks displays? 

Our nation is severely divided.   Our new president is struggling to find ways to meet his bold campaign promises to restore economic vitality, strengthen national security, rebuild our decrepit public infrastructure, and “drain the swamp” of government bureaucracy.  The forces of the left, reeling from the national election results, are fighting to retain the power they have accumulated over past decades.  Here in California, Sacramento lawmakers, ignoring the recently passed citizen initiative requiring that all bills be published at least 72 hours prior to passage, approved a last-minute flood of new measures without the public having any opportunity to review and comment.  This demonstrates an utter lack of respect for transparency and for public engagement.  Is this action ethical?

Our governor, who in his prior stint as governor promoted the very public employee benefit programs that now strangle taxpayers, robs his own “rainy-day” fund to forestall the collapse of unsustainable pension plans.  Meanwhile, apparently mindful of his father’s role in our history, he is determined to build fiscally ruinous legacy transportation and water projects that will never fulfill their stated goals.   Is this consistent with his Jesuit moral training?

The Founders, mindful of the evils of oppressive government, crafted the most bold and enlightened form of limited government ever seen on this planet, dedicated to protecting our individual rights to live in liberty.  What is this “liberty” that motivated the Founders and compelled so many of our forefathers to take up arms to defend it?  As I read the Declaration and the Constitution, I understand liberty to be the state of living in freedom, and freedom to be the ability to live one’s life without undue control or interference by others, most particularly by government.  To support our revolution for liberty and freedom, they pledged their all, on their sacred honor Wait; their sacred what?  

This concept of virtue - honesty, personal integrity and civic accountability, underlies the very foundations of our nation.  Yet, we find many of our leaders acting with abject disregard for that concept.  In our own county, the chief law enforcement officer, who swore an oath to uphold the law, admitted he violated a raft of campaign rules, and lied on official financial disclosure documents.  In a craven back-room deal, he received a meaningless slap on the wrist. 

Are these the life lessons we want set before our children and our grandchildren?

While CoCoTax is probably most well-known for opposing bad tax measures, we must never forget that bad taxes are the result of bad government, and that good government is based on the principles laid out by the Founders.  But, underlying those principles of government are the rules for virtuous behavior and civilized society set forth in Commandments carried down from the mountain thousands of years ago.

May God bless America, and all those who stand to support and defend her.

Jack Weir


President’s Report - June, 2017

Overview

As we approach our 80th anniversary, CoCoTax continues to vigorously advocate for taxpayers throughout our county and beyond, advancing our mission to promote good government at affordable cost Working with the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and other advocacy groups, we find ourselves in a “target rich environment” these days.  Examples follow:

West County

Member Ben Steinberg and I presented a formal demand letter to the West Contra Costa (WCCUSD) school board, which was co-signed by a dozen elected officials and other concerned citizens.  Following up on our monitoring of the school bond forensic audit, which affirmed whistleblower allegations of rampant waste and fraud, we want the board to seek recovery of some of the $100 million paid to SGI, the bond construction management firm.  We also want the board to complete the audit, which was inhibited by SGIs refusal to provide access to project documents, a clear breach of contract.  The board has 30 days to respond.

We continue to monitor the shaky financial practices of the city of Richmond.  I plan to ask for volunteers at tonight’s West County chapter meeting to form a task force.  Richmond is once again on the brink of insolvency, and city leaders are not taking the steps necessary to control spending.  We will be working with the apartment owners’ association and other groups in this effort.  Many thanks to Sue Pricco for her leadership of the West County chapter.

East County

Our involvement in the fiscal issues wth the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District continues.  Members Hal Bray and Bryan Scott, co-founders of East County Citizens for Equal Protection (ECV) are working with Senator Glazer and Assemblyman Frazier on legislative remedies for the gross misallocation of property taxes, which is the root of the district’s financial problems.

Hal will be organizing a new East County chapter in the coming months.  In addition to the fire district’s issues, there are many other local matters that require attention. I commend Hal for his work there.

Citizen Bond Oversight

CoCoTax members now serve on a number of Prop 39 oversight committees throughout the county, with hundreds of millions of bond money in play.  This is one of our most critical functions, as taxpayers are on the hook for repaying the principal and long-term interest associated with the bonds.  I have once again joined the board of directors of the California League of Bond Oversight Committees, and we will coordinate CoCoTax and CaLBOC strategy and work projects.  CoCoTax member Anton Jungherr, co-founder of CaLBOC, continues to serve along with member Denise Gianni on the WCCUSD CBOC, and has offered to provide comprehensive training to our CBOC representatives and all CBOC members.

Currently, we need CoCoTax members to serve on a number of CBOC’s in central, east and west county areas.  Please contact me if you have interest.  CBOC duty is rewarding and vitally important to our schools and communities.

Pensions

It is now clear that the state and almost every public agency is challenged by grossly under-funded pension plans.  CalPensions estimates that the state-wide total probably exceeds $1 trillion.  That equates to about $100,000 for every California household.  CoCoTax has formed a Pensions Task Force, which has developed templates for evaluating agencies’ current status and has prepared a list of possible solutions that we will be presenting to local jurisdictions.  We are already meeting with Walnut Creek officials, and will focus on the cities of Brentwood and Hercules as well.  It’s time to stop talking about the pension problem and take corrective action.

Virtually every new tax proposal appearing on ballots state-wide is at least partially motivated by the pension gap.  A number of cities have declared municipal bankruptcy, and their ability to provide essential services, their long-term solvency and the security of public retirees is at serious risk.

Membership

We are resource-limited in dealing with the flood of taxpayers’ issues with which we’re confronted.  Please reach out to your friends and associates and encourage them to attend one of our monthly board meetings and join CoCoTax.

CoCoTax makes a difference.

Jack Weir, President and Executive Director

(925) 899-4298 cell 



President’s Report – May 8, 2017

As we approach our 80th anniversary (we were incorporated in 1937!) as the most active taxpayer advocacy group in Contra Costa, it's appropriate to do a heads-up.  

We exist in a "target-rich environment."  Virtually every day I am asked to help taxpayers in our county, and see other situations which require our attention.  Even though the demand clearly exceeds our current resources, our impact on our communities and the various government agencies who take - and frequently misuse - our tax dollars is significant.  

As we discussed at year-end, we need to focus our energies on those issues which most affect our taxpayers, and for which we have the best chance of success.  Since the massively over-promised and under-funded pension obligations in our county (and the state) drive so many of the tax measures we see, we have selected the public employee pension issue as our top priority challenge: "Public Pensions; Death by a Thousand Cuts."

To that end, the executive team formed a task force of Jim Pezzaglia, Sue Pricco, Hal Bray,  Dan Walden and myself to:

  • Identify and quantify the problem;
  • Identify potential solutions that can be applied locally, and
  • Develop an outreach program to educate the public and elected officials.

We have selected four jurisdictions as local targets:

  • The city of Hercules (West County);
  • The city of Brentwood (East County);
  • The city of Walnut Creek (Central County), and
  • Contra Costa County, including those organizations that are covered by the county's pension plan (CCERA). 

Next month you can expect to see the first draft of our plan, and I hope you will be motivated to pitch in.  There's ample opportunity for every single CoCoTax member to participate and contribute.  

Jack Weir

(925) 899-4298 cell

 


President’s Report - February 2017

As our organization celebrates its 80th anniversary, the need for proactive taxpayer advocacy is dire, and CoCoTax members are meeting the challenge.  Our mission to promote good government at affordable cost finds opportunities all around us here in Contra Costa and throughout the state - a “target rich environment.”  Known for over a century as the “Golden State,” California is now awash in the red ink of massive public debt, and elected officials at all levels scramble to find new revenues to avoid governmental insolvency.  Meanwhile, our public infrastructure crumbles, and overburdened families and businesses flee to Texas and elsewhere to pursue the American dream.

Schools

CoCoTax member Tom Panas now serves as trustee and members Denise Gianni and Anton Jungherr serve on the Citizens Bond Oversight Committee (CBOC) of the West Contra Costa Unified School District, after years of fierce fighting to force disclosure of abuse and corruption in a $1.6 billion school bond scandal.  The recently completed forensic bond audit, for which Ben Steinberg, Linda Lozito and other members pushed aggressively, confirmed whistleblower allegations of massive over-spending and lack of even basic financial controls.  New district leadership now considers legal action to recover hundreds of millions in misspent funds and to pursue possible criminal action, while struggling to find ways to improve the district’s schools, half of which were not addressed as the bond funds were exhausted.  Member Alicia Minyen fought successfully on the Mt. Diablo USD CBOC to save district taxpayers $100-150 million in bond debt.  Members Margaret Eychner and Dan Walden serve on other CBOC’s throughout the county; more $ billions are at stake.  Member Fatima Alleyne now serves as a trustee on the County Board of Education, and will push for more effective fiscal oversight of the county’s school districts, while member Carol Hehmeyer fights for better protection for children with special needs.

Public Safety

Fire and emergency response capability has declined to dangerous levels in west and east county areas.  911 calls in east county are being declined, and small fires are going unanswered; fire insurance rates are skyrocketing.  CoCoTax has partnered with East County Voters, co-founded by members Hal Bray and Bryan Scott, to push for property tax reallocation in the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District to reestablish fire stations, which have dropped from eight to four.  CoCoTax successfully opposed two misguided utility user tax measures on the November ballot, which would have unfairly taxed district property owners.  Hal will launch a new East County chapter in March.  Under the leadership of member Sue Pricco, our year-old West County chapter is working with the Rodeo-Hercules fire district to address that agency's funding challenges.

Public Employee Pensions and Health Care

Nationally mandated disclosure of unfunded public employee pension debt revealed as much as one trillion dollars state-wide.  That equates to a $25,000 obligation for every man, woman and child in the state.  CoCoTax continues to work with the state Treasurer’s department to push for legislation to address this crippling debt and to enact measures to end predatory practices in the school bond industry.  While Sacramento has implemented minor adjustments in pension rules, it continues to kick the pension debt can down the road, and municipal bankruptcies in Vallejo, Stockton and San Bernadino are harbingers of what it is to come.  Soon, similarly mandated disclosures of unfunded public employee health care obligations will further complicate the picture, and drive even more desperate measures to tax California’s citizens and businesses.

The View from 30,000 Feet

Although CoCoTax is focused primarily on Contra Costa issues, we cannot ignore the broader context.  Dan Walden is working to reactivate the now-defunct Alameda County Taxpayers Association.  It is vital that we have a sister TPA with which to collaborate on regional issues, such as the recent BART bond and the impact of Plan Bay Area, which has reduced local control over growth and planning.  Meanwhile, MTC, which controls our gas taxes and road maintenance funding, spent $250 million of bridge toll funds to purchase a SF office building, and yet is now considering raising bridge tolls to $8, and raising regional gas taxes as well.  MTC’s board - like those of other alphabet-soup acronym regional bodies - is not directly elected, and is basically unaccountable to taxpayers; taxation without representation - sound familiar?

Nationally, the new administration is warning it may dramatically reduce as much as $100 billion in various federal grants to California, in response to “sanctuary” policies and as part of “draining the swamp” and reducing national spending.  Sacramento is now engrossed in resisting Washington’s conservative moves.  CoCoTax is strictly non-partisan, and we will have to defend our taxpayers from the repercussions of all such actions.  We can expect new attempts to impose taxes and fees, and it is clear that Sacramento will wage a war on Prop 13, starting with a scheme to “split the rolls,” removing commercial real estate from Prop 13 protection.  We will continue to work with the state-wide Howard Jarvis TPA to oppose this effort.

Show Up; Stand Up; Speak Up

Thanks to our members who are expanding our influence and performing so may feats of civic advocacy across the county and beyond.  I am justly proud of our accomplishments, many of which go unheralded.  Please spread the word, and invite your friends, neighbors and local businesses to join the fight.  Bring them to a monthly board meeting, or ask them to visit www.cocotax.org.



President’s Report - January 22, 2016

Contra Costa Taxpayers Association hosted another capacity crowd at its monthly board meeting in Concord.  Membership continues to grow as CoCoTax addresses the myriad issues that impact taxpayers, their businesses and families throughout the county.

The speaker today was Steve Chamberlin, co-founder of the Chamberlin Family Foundation.  CFF is dedicated to improving educational opportunities for children in the west county area.  The model CFF employs is to build school facilities and lease them - under stringent leasing contracts - to non-profit charter school companies with a demonstrated record of academic success.  Among the conditions the charters must meet are:

         Fund their programs only with the public school revenues the local district receives and passes on;

         Serve a student population that mirrors the demographics of their serving area;

         Establish high academic goals and meet or surpass them, for ALL students enrolled, and

         Ensure the curriculum is teacher-driven, student-focused, and results oriented.

The results are - simply put - amazing.  Steve compared educational results and operational costs to those of the West Contra Costa Unified School district, and the facial expressions and follow-up questions and comments from attendees showed how deeply impressed they were by Steve’s presentation.

Ironically, Steve’s presentation preceded a report by the CoCoTax president of a breakthrough in WCCUSD, where the board of education just passed a resolution approving the second phase of a forensic audit of the district’s school bond program.  Allegations of gross mismanagement by the district have received major attention in the media, and the district is under investigation by the FBI and SEC.  CoCoTax members have monitored and exposed many instances of misconduct and violations of the state’s laws, and the internal investigation will continue.  Standby for future disclosures, and - hopefully - the recovery of potentially tens of millions of taxpayer dollars.

CFF’s efforts directly support CoCoTa’s mission: Good government at affordable cost.  Good government can only occur when voters are equipped with the knowledge and judgement necessary for informed citizenship, and high quality public services must be provided at a cost taxpayers can afford.  The CFF model certainly sets a standard for all schools to attain.


Jack Weir, President

925-899-4298 (cell)

president@cocotax.org



President’s Report – December, 2015


WCCUSD Investigates Whistleblower’s Allegations – December 1, 2015

For those not familiar with the scandal, the west county school district has been rocked by charges of mismanagement and corruption in its school bond program for years during the regime of former board president Charles Ramsay.  Trustees recently formed a subcommittee to investigate charges brought forward by Dennis Clay, a district employee, among others.  (The district is also being investigated by the FBI and SEC.)  The subcommittee consists of trustees Bloc and Cuevas (both recently elected) and citizens bond oversight committee (CBOC) chair Ricco. CoCoTax members from the new West County chapter have also monitored the district’s actions, and several serve on the CBOC and citizens budget advisory committee (CBAC).  Over the past six months, I have attended board and committee meetings and have spoken of the need for the district to fully disclose the details of the scandal and take action to restore taxpayer trust in district leadership and management.

The forensic auditor (VLS, LLP), engaged by the board to assess and evaluate the allegations of mismanagement, gave its report last evening to the board’s “Clay Subcommittee” on the risk it sees in over a hundred charges, part of Phase 1 of its work.  After interviewing over a dozen current and former employees, contractors and others, and reviewing reams of documents, the auditors presented a risk assessment of 68 specific allegations.  The charges were arranged in several categories, including:

·       Potential conflict of interest;

·       Compliance with legal requirements and board policies;

·       Budgeting controls;

·       Vendor contract administration;

·       Billing and performance of the outside construction manager;

·       Change order approval and accounting practices;

·       Project accounting systems;

·       Financial reporting, and

·       Adequacy of performance audits.

Each of the 68 specific charges was assigned a risk assessment from three levels:

·       High – 36 charges

·       Medium – 24 charges

·       Low – 8 charges

The lead auditor made clear that although their initial review of testimony and documents revealed likelihood of authenticity, a more detailed examination of specific transactions would be undertaken in Phase 2.  Their main strategy is to identify the lack of controls that allows errors and inappropriate actions, and the auditors reported that the district has already undertaken to establish many such new controls.  These controls will be tested in Phase 2, and a final report delivered sometime in 2016.  I commented that while preventing such problems going forward is important, the district must fully disclose all past violations and hold those responsible accountable, and to recover as much misspent taxpayer money as possible.

I want to acknowledge the dedication of CoCoTax members Anton Jungherr, Ben Steinberg, Fatima Alleyde and others who have worked tirelessly - often in the face of disrespect and harassment - to bring the district’s issues to light.  CoCoTax will continue to monitor the district’s actions and to ensure that taxpayers’ interests are served.  This scandal makes clear that school bond programs must be closely watched, and that CoCoTax’s position as the sole bona fide taxpayer advocacy organization provides an opportunity and responsibility to appoint members to serve on oversight and advisory committees.  Members currently serve on at least four CBOC’s and advisory committees in the county, overseeing billions of bond and parcel tax dollars. 


Jack Weir

President

(925) 899-4298 cell

jweir39@aol.com        



President’s Report – July 2015

 

  • Many thanks to Margaret Eychner for her good work on the BOS Compensation Advisory Commission.  Their results were reasonable, fair and widely appreciated – except for the petulant responses from supervisors Piepho and Mitchoff, who apparently feel it’s fair to taxpayers for them to receive both a generous auto allowance AND mileage reimbursement.  Brother Steve Weir, who facilitated the commission’s work, is highly complimentary of Margaret’s contributions.
  • Please welcome our new Business Manager, Denise Sheehan.  I have known Denise for many years, and am confident she will soon resolve several pressing administrative issues.  I appreciate Holly Dickerson’s help during this turnover period, and we wish her well in her new full-time position.
  • We continue to support the work of activists in the West Contra Costa USD who are pushing for a thorough and unbiased examination of the allegations published by a whistleblower on the district’s bond mismanagement.  These charges reinforce the concerns often raised in the past by CoCoTax members Anton Jungherr, Ben Steinberg, Sue Pricco and others.  Bond oversight remains a top priority at CoCoTax, in the spirit and letter of Prop 39.
  • Pension reform remains another critical issue for taxpayers, as the total unfunded liability for public employees’ pensions is now being disclosed throughout the state and our region.  As VP Jim Pezzaglia pointed out recently, CalPERS 7.5% estimated rate of return stands in stark contrast to its current 2.4% actual return.  This means higher pension premiums for cash-starved municipalities, and cuts in services – see East County Fire District.  Short of bankruptcy – a looming probably for many cities and districts – agencies are scrambling to raise new taxes and fees, which we generally oppose.  Former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed’s new state-wide pension reform initiative offers hope, and we have invited Chuck to address a membership meeting later this year.
  • VP Ryder Brose has completed the first phase of our project to identify the various government bodies in which our members are constituents, and we will soon have a guide to member resources available to perform a variety of watchdog and advocacy tasks; stay tuned.

Jack Weir

President

(925) 899-4298 (cell)

jweir39@aol.com

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