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Contra Costa Taxpayers Association

Issue Updates & Perspectives

  • 20 Mar 2017 10:07 AM | Anonymous

    I can’t tell you how discouraging it is to see the leadership of the Contra Costa Community College district taken over by leftist politicians.  With the death of long-time conservative trustee John Nejedly, and the retirement of Chancellor Helen Benjamin, the board seems intent on pulling the district into the abyss of partisan politics.

    Our public education system is chartered to be non-partisan, for obvious reasons, but the California socialists, never a group to honor the law and the concepts of a free society, has now dragged the district into the “sanctuary” mess.

    State Senator Kevin De Leon, the state Senate president pro tem (who commented recently that he has family members living here illegally) visited Diablo Valley College to tout Senate Bill 54, which would create a state-wide sanctuary for illegal aliens.  His visit occurred just two months after the board voted unanimously to establish sanctuary status for “undocumented students” on all three main and satellite campuses.

    Adding partisan insult to injury, the leftist board will almost surely approve an extension of the trade union-initiated ”Project Stabilization Agreement” (formerly called Project Labor Agreement, as though changing the name would fool taxpayer advocates) which essentially prevents non-union contractors from bidding on taxpayer-funded school bond construction projects.  CoCoTax vigorously opposes PSA’s (or PLA’s) because a) they do not deliver on their promises of local hiring nor improved quality of workmanship, and b) they inevitably increase costs by 15-20% with no added value to taxpayers.  As union membership declines throughout the nation, unions use their political clout to lock up access to public construction funding.

    With massive cuts in federal funding to California looming in the near-term, one would think elected officials would think twice before taking such foolish steps.  But, we know the left has never put such stock in rationality, nor shown concern for taxpayers' interests.

  • 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

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