Issue Updates

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  • 29 Nov 2016 12:54 PM | Anonymous

    Recently, we introduced CoCoTax to a discussion forum called the Nine-County Coalition.  The NCC seeks to inform members of the Greater Bay Area Community about issues related to the increasing existence of regional governance authorities in our lives.  In our last article, the case was made that Regionalism is indeed an issue of concern for CoCoTax because:

    • 1.       Appointed regional boards can reduce local land use decision-making authority and alter public expenditure priorities without the involvement of established governmental authorities (cities and counties.)
    • 2.       Regional governance can raises taxes for expenditures not authorized by local voters (recent Measure AA.)
    • 3.       Regional bodies can act on their own, reducing accountability for policy decisions affecting the electorate. 

    The Nine-County Coalition met in September to exchange information and perspectives on issues in each of our counties – especially fall election measures.  Prominent in the discussions were basic principles that we might keep in mind when considering how we want to live and the role of government/governance in our lives.

    These important principles of effective government include:

    • 1.       We live in a representative democracy.  We directly elect others to represent us in creating laws and adopting regulations within which we agree to live.
    • 2.       Our government is organized into city-county-state-national levels, so that issues are dealt with by directly-elected governing bodies closest to the people most affected.
    • 3.       We define the issues important to our communities and our lives.  Through our vote, we elect individuals and approve measures intended to create the society in which we choose to live.  If we are not satisfied with our representatives, we can elect others or change the laws through referendum.

    Consider, then, the “regional” measures placed on our ballots by the unelected regional authorities created by the California Legislature.  These measures can supersede the authority and discretion of our elected county government.  These “authorities” can place measures before voters across the Greater Bay Area that may not have been addressed by our own elected representatives, but which we are obliged to implement regardless of the Contra Costa County Electorate vote.  The recent Measure AA is such a measure.  Defeated in our county, Contra Costa County voters are still obligated to implement it, at taxpayer expense, despite our opposition.

    How do we recognize the encroachment of the “Regionalism” form of governance into our system of local control government? 

    • 1.       Look at the individual representatives in the organization’s controlling body.  Did you elect a representative to serve on the organization’s governing board, or were the board members appointed to their position to serve interests beyond what you elected them to do?
    • 2.       Look for the scope of impact for the decisions made by the board.  Are the goals and objectives something that you’ve had an opportunity to address in a public forum, or were they created by other interests from outside your community and your established government organizations.
    • 3.       Look for code words such as “sustainable” and “green.”  Are the policy choices made with an interest to serve the constituencies, balancing economic interests with other community priorities, or are judgements made to achieve goals set beyond the local constituents, regardless of the local economic cost-benefit analysis?
    • 4.       Look for the words “planning” and “coordinating” as the primary responsibility of the new organization.  “Planning” and “coordinating” organizations have no accountability for results.  They are not focused on specific issues raised by the community, nor are they limited to a charter given by government authorities.  Their mission is usually to create a model future driven by ideology, rather than reality.

    These points are directly visible in the largest regional authority in the nine Bay Area counties, Plan Bay Area.  According to its website, “Plan Bay Area is a long-range integrated transportation and land-use/housing strategy through 2040 for the San Francisco Bay Area.  On July 18, 2013, the Plan was jointly approved by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) Executive Board and by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC).” 

    The website goes on to say that “Plan Bay Area marks the nine-county region’s first long-range plan to meet the requirements of California’s landmark 2008 Senate Bill 375, which calls on each of the state’s 13 metropolitan areas to develop a Sustainable Communities Strategy to accommodate future population growth and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and light trucks.”

    Why is this of concern?  Plan Bay Area was not on our ballot, we have no mechanism to hold the “planners” accountable, and our participation is limited to periodic “community input” meetings.

    The Nine-County Coalition meets again on Saturday, December 3, in Alameda.


  • 25 Jul 2016 12:55 PM | Anonymous

    At the July monthly board meeting of the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association (CoCoTax), the board voted to support the Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA) proposal to increase and extend the transportation sales tax surcharge currently in effect.  This measure will appear on November ballots in Contra Costa.  Voters in the county have previously approved two such sales tax surcharges to fund needed transportation improvements such as the fourth bore of the Caldecott Tunnel, and other projects and maintenance programs.

    The vote followed a vigorous discussion, which focused primarily on the inclusion in this measure of $300M to help finance the expansion of the BART fleet.  The county transportation authority has included language in the measure to ensure that the other two BART counties will contribute like amounts, and that BART and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) will also contribute substantial funds to pay for expanding the fleet and related train control system and station improvements.

    BART is also proposing a $3.5 billion bond on the November ballot to finance fleet expansion and upgrade.  There was unanimous concern expressed by the board regarding BART’s management of taxpayers’ dollars and labor relations in particular.  CoCoTax will shortly take the BART measure up separately for evaluation and a vote on our position.

  • 19 Jul 2016 11:59 AM | Anonymous

    Recently, voters in the 9 Bay Area counties approved Measure AA, a regional parcel tax intended to restore Bay Area wetlands and other worthy-sounding goals.  (5 counties approved the measure; 4 did not. The parcel tax applies to properties in all 9 by virtue of the 69% approval rate of votes tallied). 

    Measure AA is just the most recent example of a regional effort with the stated interest of achieving broad-based improvements across many of government’s jurisdictional lines.  The concept of joint powers between jurisdictions has existed since the 1920’s, and has produced beneficial results such as fire management, water management, and bridge construction. However, the vast expansion of these powers, especially in California, has produced downsides that should be of concern to all of us.

    The downsides are of concern to taxpayers, and these concerns are increasing as the number of regional organizations increases.  You have no doubt heard the outcry over the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s (MTC) use of transportation tax monies to build a headquarters building in San Francisco.  What you may not have heard was that also housed in that facility are Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), Bay Area Air Quality Management District committees (BAAQMD), Joint Policy Committee (part of ABAG), and the new San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority (SFBRA) to implement Measure AA.  ABAG pursues the initiatives of Plan Bay Area and One Bay Area Government, as well.

    All regional organizations and initiatives tend to have attractive mission statements and reasonable-sounding goals, but they share a common set of downsides that can be problematic. 

    • The thrust of many regional organizations and initiatives is to significantly reduce local land use decisions and alter public expenditure priorities without the involvement of established governmental authorities – cities, counties, and the State.
    • The governing bodies of the organizations are not elected by the public, but are rather appointed by other, sometimes un-elected, bodies. Once created, regional governance is on its own, operating without little or no influence from voters or elected officials.
    • Regional governance has the authority to tax without any input from voters or any say at the ballot box. Regional governance can sell bonds at will, without voter approval.

    CoCoTax met with representatives from the 9 counties in the Greater Bay Area before the June primary election in an effort to coordinate opposition to Measure AA.  Many of the individuals in the room have met regularly for the last 4 years as part of a loose-knit group called simply, The Nine-County Coalition (http://nine-county-coalition.squarespace.com/).  They have asked whether CoCoTax would like to attend their quarterly meetings with an intent to share information, provide and receive alerts regarding upcoming regional measures, and, in general, exchange suggestions and strategies. The overall goal is to assist all attendees advocate on behalf of taxpayers and property owners to retain local decision-making by our elected representatives whom we can hold accountable through our electoral process.

    Tell us what you think.  CoCoTax will plan to attend the Coalition meetings and report what we learn.  We encourage your input on issues and articles shared.


  • 31 May 2016 1:08 PM | Anonymous

    Richmond is required to pass a balanced budget by June 30, but the city suffers from a persistent budget deficit. Recently, the projected deficit amounted to $10.2 million.

    To close the gap, city officials propose to cut vital services to residents while largely ignoring that compensation for municipal employees is really driving the deficit.

    Even across the board cuts and the elimination of many city programs cannot achieve a balanced budget without fundamental reforms to salary structure and the overall size of the city workforce.

    Why? In recent years the city has shifted resources away from providing municipal services to residents while increasing funding for employee compensation.

    The city is forcing financially distressed residents in Richmond to swallow these steep costs. According to Transparent California, a nonpartisan think tank that gathers public employee compensation through public record requests, Richmond's fire chief in 2014 earned more than $560,000 in salary and benefits. In fact, more than 20 Richmond employees earned more than $300,000 in salary and benefits while more than 200 Richmond employees received more than $200,000 in salary and benefits.

    The average Richmond full-time employee earns $130,000 in total compensation.

    When considering that the average Richmond resident earns less than $40,000 full-time in the private sector, these figures become even more shocking.

    With just more than 106,000 residents, the average resident pays slightly more than $1,000 in annual compensation to Richmond city workers.

    The city is asking its distressed, low-income population to foot an ever-growing bill while reducing services like street paving and library hours. While people want first responders to be fairly compensated, at what point does "fair" become "extravagant"?

    In contrast, the city of Albany's police chief, the city's highest paid employee, earned $255,000 in salary and benefits in 2014. While the median resident earned more than $80,000 annually, the average Albany resident pays approximately $700 annually toward public employee compensation, $300 less than neighboring Richmond.

    Additionally, Richmond's workforce appears to be bloated. With a population of 106,000, Richmond has 735 year-round, full-time employees.

    Although nearby Concord has a larger population of 125,000, it only has 319 year-round, full-time employees. While Richmond has one city employee for every 144 residents, Concord only has one city employee for every 390 residents.

    When including part-time employees, Richmond pays total compensation of $116 million total for all city employees. Concord, on the other hand, only pays about $54 million.

    In 2014, Richmond urged voters to pass Measure U, a half-cent sales tax deemed necessary to fund essential city services, like the pavings of roads. After Richmond voters dutifully passed Measure U, the city manager and City Council within weeks redirected Measure U proceeds to plug its budget deficit at that time.

    Rather than reform an unsustainable salary structure at that time, Richmond just kicked the can down the road. Unfortunately, as compensation rises, long-term pension benefits costs continue to increase.

    If the city manager and City Council cannot rein in these excessive costs, Richmond residents should demand an independent review of Richmond's salary structure and the makeup of its workforce.

    This review should indicate market rates in compensation and benefits for city employees, particularly for senior managers and department heads, as well as the typical staffing levels.

    Richmond residents must then ensure that the city manager and City Council implement the recommendations fairly. This is the only way to stop the perennial budget deficits and to balance services for residents with affordable compensation for its employees.

    Ben Steinberg is a Richmond resident and Jack Weir is president of the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association.


  • 12 May 2016 1:43 PM | Anonymous

    Suggesting that the West Contra Costa Unified School District has “outstanding financial management” is akin to suggesting that the 7-9 Oakland Raiders had an outstanding season last year. Yet this is exactly what outgoing Superintendent Bruce Harter wrote in his recent April “Superintendent Message” that went out to all staff and was posted publicly on the District’s homepage.

    As citizen advocates for taxpayers whose money the District is managing, we are compelled to point out the myriad ways in which Superintendent Harter’s spin does not hold up to scrutiny. Here are the sobering facts:

    Harter suggests that complaints about the WCCUSD Bond Program being plagued by cost overruns are a myth because “During the formative years of the bond[s], our Board implemented a system of checks and balances to ensure that the schools were built as envisioned and that the bond dollars were spent as intended” and that “Annual external audits review the entirety of the program.”

    The fact is that until recently, school construction projects were not managed on the basis of carefully planned budgets! Instead, they were designed and managed “on scope,” a fanciful term meaning that cost was no object in pursuit of buildings with whatever features anyone wanted to include. The system of checks and balances that Harter cites was so weak that it took a whistleblower coming forward and alleging tens of millions of dollars of wasteful mismanagement (which Harter himself is asserted by the whistleblower to have “facilitated”) to get the board and the public to pay attention. The annual audits have been so flimsy that the school board was recently compelled to authorize nearly $1 million to conduct a full, independent forensic audit to uncover what’s been happening behind closed doors.

    What is most disturbing about Harter’s suggestion that costs have been kept in check is the stark reality that a huge $1.6 billion bond program is essentially out of money while thousands of WCCUSD students are still stuck in portables or buildings with worrisome seismic conditions, with few new facilities in operation. How could a well-run facilities program possibly produce that result?  It is like saying that your personal budget worked perfectly when you run out of money halfway through the month and still need groceries.

    Harter then goes on to state that “our construction costs are lower than the averages in the Bay Area or Los Angeles,” citing costs per-square-foot. This is simply incorrect. The costs per-square-foot measure does not take into account either the bloated building sizes (at 150-225% of State averages) or the other “soft” costs (no-bid contracts to favored campaign contributors) where ballooning always happens — it’s like figuring only the cost of a steak without considering the hundred-dollar bottle of wine you’ve also decided to order. One might expect Bay Area costs to be somewhat higher, but WCCUSD’s new facilities are enormously more costly than the state average, when measured on a cost per student basis.  For instance, the new Pinole Valley High School will be 268,000 square feet, 161% of the California average for high schools - if it had the 1,600 students for which it is designed.  In truth, there are currently only 1,200 students, which means 223% of the benchmark, and by the time it is complete the District projects only 1,000 students, driving the ratio to 268%.  On the soft cost side, the architect’s fee for this Taj Mahal is a whopping $14.8 million, or $12,300 per current student. For comparison, a full service charter high school campus at Hilltop was built recently by an outside foundation for a total construction cost, including land acquisition, of $30 million, or only about twice that of the Pinole project’s architect’s fees alone…stunning!

     A new Pinole Valley High School, with a $231 million budget, will cost nearly $200,000 per student! Let that sink in. Two hundred thousand dollars per student, half of the cost of the median home in Pinole. The average cost-per-student for California high schools is $61,000.

    From the experience of CoCoTax members serving for years on citizens school bond oversight committees in the county, we know that managing a facilities bond program is a complicated, complex and daunting task, one fraught with political challenges. However, we cannot mislead our way to an acceptable outcome. If we are going to move forward and provide the schools all of our students deserve, we must manage from a place of truth, transparency and reality. If voters and taxpayers are ever going to trust the District enough to support revenue measures in the future, district leaders must be open and truthful, and the board must hold accountable those who do not meet those requirements.

    The painful truth is that WCCUSD has not exhibited “outstanding financial management.” The plain truth is that district taxpayers have much higher tax bills, with less new schools to show for them, than do the taxpayers in other communities. However, it is also true that we now have an opportunity for a better future, since many of the actors involved in the mismanagement have left or are leaving the district.

    Sunlight, as it is often said, is the best disinfectant. We believe by shining some light on the reality of WCCUSD’s financial management, we are taking a necessary step towards a future where it can be said with a straight face that such management is more like the Warriors than the Raiders – truly outstanding.

    Jack Weir, President


  • 07 Mar 2016 2:48 PM | Anonymous


                The Times editorial supporting the San Francisco Bay Restoration Measure AA misses the mark.  This seemingly minor tax increase to finance shoreline projects is actually the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent.

                The proposed $12 annual parcel tax is grossly unfair and inequitable.  Even though it amounts to what one might spend for lunch for two at McDonalds, it is a serious incremental burden for those seniors and others who are already strapped to meet the dramatically growing cost of living in this region - the highest in the nation.  The owners of multi-million dollar commercial properties along the shoreline will pay exactly the same as the elderly widow struggling to stay in her small inland cottage, but they will reap huge hikes in property value.

                Under the “environmental” banner, there is a politically correct implication that the proposal must be worthwhile.  Everyone is for a clean environment, but will this scheme really accomplish what it claims?  Or, is it more likely that once launched, we will be asked for additional taxes down the road?   As new regional agencies have evolved, local taxpayers have been asked repeatedly to pay new taxes for worthy infrastructure purposes.  Yet, we have witnessed the state correspondingly decrease its traditional funding for those functions, instead diverting funds to pay for ballooning pension costs and social programs. 

                In terms of jurisdiction, if the Bay is threatened by rising sea levels, why isn’t the US Army Corps of Engineers leading the way?  It is chartered by Congress and funded by our federal taxes to manage all navigable waterways in the nation, and spends mega-billions annually in regions other than California.  Why should the Bay Area pay higher taxes in order to lure back some of the money we send to Washington in the first place?  It is well known that California is viewed in Washington as a reliable cash cow “exporter” of tax revenues to subsidize other states’ needs.

                So, what is the SF Bay Restoration Authority agency?  Few knew of its existence before this tax proposal was announced, other than the various environmental groups and construction unions that stand to benefit financially from its activities.  The board is considering a Project Labor Agreement, which will raise costs by 15-20%, and lock non-union contractors out of bidding.  All publicly-funded projects should go to the lowest qualified bidder; PLA’s are bad public policy.

                The really scary thing is that this is the first “regional” government body empowered to levy taxes, and its governing board consists of officials NOT directly elected to the position; where is public accountability?

                If this measure passes, the camel will be back, again and again, sticking its nose deeper and deeper into our wallets.  Proponents proclaim there is no opposition to this proposal, of which the public only recently learned.  For over 75 years the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association has promoted “Good government at affordable cost.”  We vigorously oppose this scheme, because it is neither.


  • 07 Mar 2016 2:47 PM | Anonymous

    No good deed goes unpunished in the world of public union politics. The firefighters’ union and its cronies have attacked the efforts of two east county citizens to correct the local fire district’s underlying fiscal problem.  Hal Bray and Bryan Scott formed the East County Voters for Equal Protection (ECV) to develop a relatively painless tax reallocation solution that will allow the district to reopen several shuttered fire stations, significantly improving emergency response in the area.  They have the full support of the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association.

    A cabal of union-influenced proponents are pushing for an increase in local property taxes, an idea that surfaced in the past.  It was opposed by CoCoTax, and was soundly rejected by voters for good reasons:

    • The district has done little to correct its crippling unfunded pension obligation, a problem that can only be addressed if the board opens its eyes. It must reject the assumption that taxpayers will somehow foot the bill; municipal bankruptcies in Vallejo, Stockton and San Bernadino have shattered that myth.
    • The unwillingness of the fire district board to even seriously acknowledge the problem is evidenced by the fact that they recently granted a 5% across-the-board wage increase, thereby exacerbating the pension shortfall.
    • Area taxpayers are already struggling to make ends meet with recent tax increases at every level of government, and face a flood of new tax hikes on the June and November ballots. Most of these proposals are generated by the reality that unfunded public employee post-retirement obligations - whose disclosure is now required by new national accounting rules - represent hundreds of billions of debt statewide, and are clearly unsustainable.

    Mary Piepho and other officials who have attacked the ECV effort should be ashamed of themselves for encouraging such bald falsehoods:

    • The tax reallocation proposal does NOT force any participating agency to cut its current spending. It does ask them to forgo a very small portion of their projected future tax revenue increases in order for the fire district to receive funding at the average of all the county’s fire agencies. Any of the government bodies involved should easily manage this shift, given the importance of effective emergency response.
    • Bray and Scott do NOT oppose a parcel tax increase. They have made clear that if area voters wish to impose such a tax on themselves, so be it. They are focused solely on correcting a structural tax imbalance that has persisted for decades.
    • “Sacred cow” school districts should NOT be exempt from contributing. These agencies receive by far the largest share of county property tax revenues. Any incident involving large groups of school children to which the fire department cannot promptly respond is potentially devastating.

    CoCoTax has met with various parties in east county and stands ready to work with anyone who is truly dedicated to finding sound long-term solutions to the dire need for better emergency response, but only at a cost taxpayers can afford.  We do not wish to demonize firefighters, whose emergency response efforts we fully appreciate, but we vigorously oppose this campaign of lies and slander for the ultimate purpose of kicking the public pension can down the road.

    Jack Weir

    President, Contra Costa Taxpayers Association

    jweir39@aol.com

                


  • 22 Feb 2016 3:56 PM | Anonymous

    ECCFPD-Headquarters-2.jpg

    Fire District Funding Committee Reviews Progress, Goals


    February 19, 2016, Brentwood, CA --   About a dozen members of the East County Voters for Equal Protection (ECV) met in the Brentwood Raley’s Event Center on Wednesday, February 17th, and reviewed the citizens action committee’s progress as well as short-term plans.

    The ECV committee has developed a program that would shift $7.8 million of the current $154 million in property tax funds collected within the fire district boundaries to the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD), following procedures outlined in the California Revenue and Taxation Code and elsewhere.   These funds would allow the district to permanently open and staff three additional fire stations with no additional taxes imposed on residents.  The special assessments appearing on tax bills would not be effected. 

    The ECV program calls for government entities, recipients of the 1% ad valorem property tax, to voluntarily shift a small portion of their property tax allocations to the fire district.  District tax payers would not be asked to pay any additional taxes.  Phasing in the program over three or four years would mean that no current budgets would be cut, and the reallocated amount would bring the ECCFPD allocation percentage level to approximately average for all fire districts within the county. 

    Hal Bray and Bryan Scott, Co-Chairs of the committee, reviewed recent informal meetings with elected members of the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors, the City Councils of Brentwood and Oakley, and civic administrators.  Meetings with candidates for the District 3 Board of Supervisor position, to be open in November of this year, were also discussed, as well as past and planned presentations to civic and service groups.  The ECV is continuing to make progress in researching the leadership of the many Special Districts that receive property tax funds within the ECCFPD, in anticipation of garnering their participation.

     Members of the ECV reviewed their progress in setting up presentations to civic and service groups as well as progress in researching the leadership of the many Special Districts that receive property tax funds within the ECCFPD. 

     Changes to the organization’s Facebook page were discussed, as were plans for a printed brochure.  Members contributed $150 to defray printing expenses. 

    The next ECV meeting will be held on Thursday, March 3rd at the same location, the Raley's Event Center, 2400 Sand Creek Road, in Brentwood.  The Event Center is located within the grocery store, next to the Pharmacy.  The public and all interested parties are invited to attend.

    #   #   #

     
    “East County Voters for Equal Protection” is a non-partisan grass roots citizens action committee formed to address the unequal funding of fire and emergency medical services existing in 249 square miles of Eastern Contra Costa County.  About 110,000 residents, as well as those who work and play in Eastern Contra Costa, have services funded at a level one-fourth to one-third of those levels in other parts of Contra Costa County.  For more information contact committee Co-Chairs Hal Bray at hal.bray@pacbell.net or Bryan Scott scott.bryan@comcast.net.   The group’s Facebook page is located at https://www.facebook.com/EastCountyVoters/ on the Internet. 


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