Commentary: Parcel Tax is in Trouble and Council Should Look At Themselves

Councilmember Brett Lee carefully considers the options before him at the workshop a week ago
Councilmember Brett Lee carefully considers the options before him at the workshop a week ago

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

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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22 Comments

  1. Ken

    There were a few pool people; some during open comment. I got there too late for public comment on the parcel tax, because they moved it up on the agenda. The pools are getting discussed, because when Civic broke down over the winter and was out of commission for 2 months the aquatics community decided they needed to get more vocal about the state of the pools and the need to do something about them.

    1. Davis Progressive

      ken: i appreciate you’re perspective. i just want you to know that a lot of us expressing reluctance right now are not anti-pool, we just aren’t sure on the timing of asking for money for a pool.

      1. Davis Progressive

        from the enterprise article:

        “Asking about specific projects in the city, bike path repair outranked every other project for support, while maintenance and enhancement of city parks was slightly behind that, and streets and roads was third.

        A new sports complex drew the most opposition along with a new 50-meter swimming pool.”

        1. Ken

          Rehabbing the pools was just behind roads. That mirrors the results of surveys that were done to determine priorities for parks in the Master Parks Plan. Greenbelts, bike paths, and parks were the top three (although I can’t recall whether they were in that order) and pools were next.

  2. Frankly

    During early group discussion the parcel tax number being discusses was $50 per month. The participants at that point agreed that it was palatable as long as the city was working on a revenue replacement strategy. The idea was that it would provide a $50 million bond that would be enough to get the roads to a reasonable status, have some money for the surface water project infrastructure project to lower the overall cost of water to the city (not completely sure about this one) and do some needed maintenance to other critical infrastructure (not sure about this one either).

    The term of the bond would be 10 years, and by the time it termed out we would have increased revenue from the business parks.

    Pools are not a necessity. They are a value add luxury amenity that only benefits a minority few. And we cannot afford to pay for 100% of them because instead of directing money to them, the city directed money to the pockets of the city employees whose unions and associations game money to their campaigns. That too was never a necessity. Over compensating city employees was/is another luxury amenity that only benefits a minority few.

    If the city is making a case that they have to come back into everyone’s pockets again, then the justification for that has to be to fund the necessities… not the luxuries.

    The luxuries have to be funded by excess earnings.

    That is same for any person, family or business. You take care of your necessities first, and you fund your luxury nice-to-have amenities with excess earnings.

    So, move forward on the business parks. Then consider a bond backed by the projected increased revenue streams derived from the parks to fund the pool and park renewal or expansion.

  3. Michelle Millet

    Mayor Pro Tem Dan Wolk 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.”

    This begs the question, why should the construction of a $10-million dollar 50 meter pool complex be the only amenity put on this parcel tax. If we are only going to do one tax, because a second one would be harder to pass, then it should include the needs of all our special interest groups not just the aquatics community.

  4. Michelle Millet

    Getting a parcel tax to pay for road repair to pass does not seem that complicated. Compile a picture of the pot holes/cracks/and general deterioration of our roads, sidewalk, and bike paths. Pose the question, would you pay $50 a year now to fix this? Explain that the cost to do so will rise exponentially the longer we wait to do so. I think it can be that simple. (throw in a $10-million dollar 50 meter pool complex and all bets are off).

  5. DavisBurns

    Excuse me but I don’t think elected leaders can run a grassroots campaign. Grassroots means it comes from the people like the opposition to the surface water project and water rates. It seems the city council consistently falls short, in your opinion, in public outreach, education and communication. Following this site since last year, I’d say the council needs a public relations person to run these campaigns but that would only lead to more backlash about city employees and all that goes with it. We do have Rob White, our Chief Innovation Officer but that’s a public private greased wheel that aims to help well heeled companies with university/government connections find a home in Davis.

    The way this city works is leadership studies a problem, sometimes for years, frequently with citizens on advisory committees, the council deliberates (frequently too long because they know there will be backlash), they propose a solution and somewhere, sooner or later, the public figures out what’s going to happen or what IS happening and the process is halted while all the interests groups weigh in. Then it’s back to the drawing board and the process grinds on. Seems like trying to govern Davis is like herding cats. I’m not sure it can be done any better but maybe you do. I don’t think anyone will listen early in the process, if they don’t get involved early on then the process bogs down when it’s down to the wire. Haven’t you, David, been warning of the fiscal problems and the infastructure problems for years now? How effective have you been at getting the larger community involved before it finally got on the councils agenda? I appreciate this site because you do more in depth coverage of local issues than our pitiful newspaper but….Aren’t you STILL saying the public needs to understand how bad things are? If we, the people of Davis, are good at anything it is getting vocal at the last minute.

    1. Michelle Millet

      I’d say the council needs a public relations person to run these campaigns

      I don’t think the city can pay for any cost associated with running a campaign.

    2. Michelle Millet

      Excuse me but I don’t think elected leaders can run a grassroots campaign. Grassroots means it comes from the people like the opposition to the surface water project and water rates.

      Elected leaders are people.

    3. Davis Progressive

      “Excuse me but I don’t think elected leaders can run a grassroots campaign. ”

      grassroots is a style that is based on citizen mobilization and precinct walking rather than heavy media.

  6. D.D.

    I left Davis a few years back and moved to Tucson, where the skies are sunny, the cost of living is reasonable, and the roads are truly horrible! Every time I drive over a huge pothole, I chuckle at Davis’ problem. Davis, you do not have bad roads! And there are better ways to spend your tax dollars: parks and bike lanes. You have an incredible opportunity to create some of the most bicycle friendly roads in the world. If you truly want to be a green village, and the bicycle city you brag you are, stop improving the roads for gas guzzilng autos and start improving your bike lanes, sidewalks, and public transportation.

    1. David Greenwald

      Davis doesn’t have horrible roads – yet. However, the report indicate that they are declining in condition and the general belief is that the road conditions go from passable to bad very quickly. Most roads have seems and cracks, and moisture getting in will cause subsidence and ultimately potholes. We are actually fortunate for the drought in that respect.

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