The news on Tuesday was not good for a parcel tax. The city commissioned a poll, and the results of that poll were bad – very bad. The poll results should not be surprising, but they should be sobering.
How bad are the results? Given what the city faces in terms of the hole on road funding and the magnitude of the roads crisis, they are bad enough that the city needs to completely re-think its approach.
It was kind of remarkable on Tuesday just how little this reality sunk in, either for council or the public. The news should have halted all discussion of pools, it should have halted all discussion of everything other than figuring out a way to educate the public on the reality. But more on that in a moment.
If we’re a bit fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing perhaps we can “imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.”
Okay, so it’s not quite that bad.
But as these things go, it’s bad. When they polled at $149 per year for 15 years, they got about 47 percent support and 44 percent opposition. So $149 is a non-starter in an election where you need two-thirds support.
Support for the measure increased to 58 percent at the lowest rate tested ($99) and opposition decreased to 34 percent. The 58 percent figure mirrored the support for the sales tax.
The council consensus moved from November to the spring based on these numbers and that might be a reasonable approach. Still, the council really has only themselves to blame.
It was a year ago that we learned of the re-emerging $5 million structural deficit. However, instead of working over the next six months to both educate themselves and the public, the council did not discuss this idea again until December when we were immediately put into a last-second crunch.
Still, given that Measure O was always likely to pass, the council failed to use that time and the Measure O campaign to really lay out their case to the public. They didn’t need to run a real campaign to pass Measure O, which was a very small tax with only token opposition.
For all the talk about CBFR, the real problem with both water and revenue is that the city did not take either Measure O or Measure P seriously enough to run a strong, robust, grassroots campaign. Look at the difference between the money and effort in the 2013 Measure I campaign, compared with Measure O and Measure P.
The city is paying for that right now on both issues – literally.
They needed to run a real campaign to educate the public about the next steps. We warned the council back in February about this, but they paid no heed. If the public really understood the amount of money that we are talking about and the stakes, they would be much more supportive.
These numbers convinced Brett Lee on Tuesday to push for a $50 parcel tax, which looks from the number like it has a decent chance to pass.
Councilmember Lee said, “I think a parcel tax in the neighborhood of $50 a year over 30 years, would generate about $20 million according to Mark Northcross, $20 million allows us to front load the road repairs and make a very significant investment.”
He argued that, at $50, it is small enough to leave room for further community discussion about a future comprehensive package of “nice to haves” to come before the council in the spring.
The problem is that Councilmember Lee, while being practical in terms of what we can pass, was not practical in terms of what we need.
Last May, the city laid out the scenarios. The best was Scenario A, which heavily front loaded $55 million over the first year, which would produce a relatively low backlog by 2032. However, it goes beyond saying that $55 million over six years is not practical.
The $25 million scenario would leave the city in a $3 million scenario escalated at around 3 percent (less than the inflation rate for pavement). The city concluded that this would not be enough to maintain a good average PCI (Pavement Condition Index).
A November campaign is probably out of the question. Unlike a June campaign, the council has a few weeks to get their act together to put the measure on the campaign. Then they and much of the public disappears for the next two months until late August and most likely after Labor Day the campaign starts, when they’ll have eight or nine weeks to run a campaign.
If this weren’t a heavy lift they could do it. Now they should wait for the election in March, but they should start running the campaign now.
The polling numbers should kill the pools discussion. But it won’t.
Mayor Pro Tem Dan Wolk said, “I brought up this idea last time of this Renew Davis concept that we need to think beyond simply our roads into other critical infrastructure that really form the lifeblood of this community.”
He has concerns that the polling shows that even a roads measure will have difficulty getting to two-thirds. “My concern about splitting them is that we’ll have had Measure O, we’ll have this parcel tax measure if we decide to do this roads one in November, then we’d be going back to the community for another revenue measure, conceivably just as large, I worry particularly about the community.”
The reason that pools are not dead is that there is this idea in everyone’s mind that the pools community can become the worker bees and they can walk the precincts and sell the community on this.
Here’s the problem: where was the pools community on Tuesday? If they had packed the chambers with supporters, I might reconsider this view. But they didn’t.
A couple of them, non-responsive to the polling, continued making the same case as though there is going to be a parcel tax. What parcel tax?
If the city is serious, create a parcel tax committee of the city council. Form a campaign exploratory committee. Reach out to the builders and contractors and see if you can put together an educational campaign for the fall, draft the parcel tax by November and then you have a two-month campaign in the winter leading to a March vote.
I respect Mark Northcross’ point that the council needs to figure out what they can pass and the financial planners will figure out how to bond off that. However, I think with a real campaign we can do the lifting from 58 percent to 67 percent. That should be our goal.
We can always poll again in December after an educational campaign.
—David M. Greenwald reporting