Commentary: How Dare We Poll Before Putting a Parcel Tax on the Ballot

road-failureIt was back in late June, the city had just passed a sales tax by about a 58-42 margin, and the city, facing hundreds of millions of dollars in shortfalls on roads, was contemplating a parcel tax. The city of course had questions – could they pass a parcel tax, when should they attempt to put it on the ballot, and a big one was how much should that parcel tax be.

When you are dealing with hundreds of millions in taxpayer money, these are not small questions. You may only get one chance to get this right and if you miscalculate on it, you could end up with the parcel tax getting voted down.

So what did the city do? Did they blindly put a parcel tax on the ballot and hope that they could convince not 50% of the voters but two-thirds of the voters (9 percentage points more than supported the sales tax)? No. They polled the voters to see where things stood.

What they found was instructive – at a $149 per year parcel tax, less than half of the voters would support it. If they dropped it down to $99 per year, that number increased to 57.6% – a number that mirrored the Measure O vote but was well short of the percentage needed to pass a parcel tax.

So, based on these numbers, the council could make an informed decision. They could follow Councilmember Brett Lee’s lead and put a roads-only tax on the November ballot. They could attempt to capture the energy and support for pools and attempt a larger parcel tax, hoping the pool advocates would do the heavy lifting. Or they could wait until the spring and hope to make a better case to the public.

At this point, while pools are not precluded, the council has chosen to do the latter and wait until spring.

We can quibble on that, but it seems like a reasonable decision – and, moreover, it is based on actual facts and analysis rather than speculation.

But apparently to one columnist, this is bad policy.

Yesterday, Bob Dunning, likening this to Las Vegas style “poll dancing,” wrote, “It’s revealing to note that shortly after last month’s election, our cash-strapped city thought it was well and good to hire a ‘research consultant’ to help our beleaguered City Council determine exactly what the fine citizens of this town are thinking.”

He adds, “The poll, paid for with the tax dollars of those same fine citizens, was conducted by an out-of-town firm, since there clearly is no one in Davis smart enough to do polling and assemble the data into an intelligent format.”

“The stated reason for the poll was to determine how Davisites might vote on a parcel tax that would be used for any number of projects, some much more worthy than others,” he writes. “I don’t know about you, but it strikes me as completely inappropriate to spend city money polling residents on how they might vote, obviously with the intent of crafting ballot language, parcel tax numbers and campaign arguments to achieve the two-thirds ‘yes’ vote necessary to pass such a tax.”

Really? Really? Inappropriate? If there is satirical humor here, I’m just missing it.

So, it is inappropriate in the eyes of Bob Dunning for the city, before embarking on funding that could end up being $150 million in road repairs, to check to see if the voters might support it? As I stated above, the findings have already altered the city council’s direction. In fact, they altered my viewpoint on roads.

What’s instructive to me, at least, is that Bob Dunning has really avoided any discussion of the city’s fiscal crisis. He hasn’t covered the massive unfunded liabilities. He has rarely covered the labor issues, other than to criticize the city for its handling of the tree trimmers. And he has not covered the issue of roads.

In fact, remarkably, in the entire discussion of the parcel tax, Bob Dunning never mentions the words “roads,” “streets” or “pavement.” So he talks about a parcel tax without any sort of even a mention as to what the tax would be for.

He notes, “According to The Enterprise’s Ryan, the poll showed that ‘any new tax proposed would likely fail by a wide margin if the election were held at the time of the survey.’” Which is an interesting comment – since the $99 parcel tax polled at 58%, I’m not sure I would characterize that as a wide margin of failure and we do not know what the result would have been at $50, but we might suspect it would pass.

But, leaving that point aside, I simply do not see how anyone can argue it is inappropriate to poll prior to putting a measure on the ballot. In fact, I would argue it would be IRRESPONSIBLE to NOT poll.

Interestingly, Bob Dunning (like my wife) was one of those polled. The polling company, as we noted in our article, polled on a wide range of issues. Why wouldn’t they? It doesn’t cost more to poll more broadly than the subject – and if they are going to lay out money, why not get as much bang for their buck as possible?

Nevertheless, Bob Dunning complains, “Oddly, even though our leaders claim to have abandoned their multimillion-dollar plan to buy out PG&E and provide the residents of this town with low-cost, squeaky-green power forever, Godbe nevertheless asked me several questions about that very topic. Makes me wonder if that supposedly dead plan is buried under six inches of red tape and not six feet of Portland cement.”

Bob Dunning concludes after running through the numbers, “Now, of course, the fun begins. The council will start by paying the bill for this suspect research, then will set about ‘educating’ the unwashed masses of the Second Most Educated City in America.”

The city has to educate the public, because right now we face a crisis. Bob Dunning is not going report on that crisis apparently. The roads costs go up exponentially.

In mid-June I ran a Sunday Commentary entitled, “Why We Can’t Wait on Roads.” One of the big drivers in this is that the price of asphalt has traditionally increased at a rate far faster than inflation and currently the city projects about an 8% increase in cost.

While some have noted that the cost driver has been overstated and noted that asphalt costs have stabilized since the start of 2013, if you look at the 20 year data-line, it looks more like a blip than a trend and with oil prices expected to rise, it is difficult to believe that will hold.

However, as we noted, if the 8% inflation were the only issue, we could well wait longer. However, the biggest issue is that, as roadway conditions decline, costs skyrocket.

Here is a graphic that demonstrates the problem:

 Roads-14-1

The price goes up dramatically based on the deterioration of the pavement condition. Every month that has passed since 2009 to deal with this problem is adding costs – a lot of costs.

As the chart shows, it’s relatively inexpensive to patch the surface. However, the cost quickly rises five-fold to pay for the $20 per square yard cards of a thin AC Overlay, it goes up another 35% to do a thick AC Overlay and, for the streets that are almost gone, it is $81 per square yard.

Based on this data, I originally pushed for a November parcel tax. Councilmember Brett Lee has argued for a $50 per year one just for roads. I’m hesitant on that because I think $50 is too little and we may not get a second chance.

The “may not get a second chance” is what convinced me to wait. The city claims it has about $4.7 million in general fund money for roads in the short term, so it may not impact our costs.

But we are still looking at a declining standard for roads. What the council has supported is the so-called B-Modified approach, which seeks $25 million in the first two years with variable revenues over the next 20 years of construction for a total cost of a non-adjusted $246 million over that time.

The B-Modified version is $25 million up front and more money per year than the other options, Mayor Krovoza pointed out.

B-Mod takes the city’s PCI from 57 upwards toward 63. 63 is not good, but it is better than the projected precipitous drop in the level of road condition we would face with no action.

As City Public Works Director Bob Clarke noted, “What that really represents is we have a great deal of pavement that’s on the verge of falling into a poor condition that we would like to prevent. That’s why we discussed last year the benefit of an upfront infusion to stave off that.”

However, none of this is workable unless the voters support it. It just seems reasonable that if Bob Dunning is going to pan the city’s efforts to poll, he might want to talk about why the city needs to pass a parcel tax. But I guess that wouldn’t be as funny.

—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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36 Comments

  1. Barack Palin

    “he might want to talk about why the city needs to pass a parcel tax”

    That’s simple, the City gave away too much taxpayer money to city employees so now they have to come after the people once again to fund things that should’ve been taken care of all along.

  2. South of Davis

    After spending $1 million on “polling” we will probably end up with a parcel tax to fund roads, a new pool, a senior center (while reminding the seniors that they don’t have to pay any parcel taxes), playgrounds and a program to help feed feral kittens healthy organic vegan meals…

      1. South of Davis

        David wrote:

        > Polling is nowhere near a million, you’re talking in the low tens of thousands.

        If they pay for fifty $50K polls how much will they spend?

          1. Barack Palin

            LOL, we all know the City never has bad planning or is inefficient.

            Matt, was your tongue in your cheek?

          2. Matt Williams

            BP, my emphasis was on the words “really bad.” 50 was an absurdly high number.

          3. Davis Progressive

            if you ran monthly polls it would take more than four years to get to 50. to what end? meanwhile costs keep skyrocketing. $600 million is not far away, but dunning of course doesn’t wanna talk about that.

  3. Tia Will

    BP

    It is only simple if you have been following the issues. If you are living in the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” mode that I was in until my kids were out of the house, you may be using Bob Dunning as your news source ( as arguably one of the more engaging features of the Enterprise) so you may really not appreciate what is underlying this issue and may see it in the Randall/Granda sense as only another “unwarranted” plea for money by the City Council, as though they were using it for their own private benefit. I seem to remember a recent comment on another Vanguad thread that demonstrated that Vanguard readers had a higher degree of knowledge of city issues than did those who did not read the Vanguard. It is important to realize that just because you know something, doesn’t mean that every one else shares that knowledge.

  4. Anon

    IMO, Council member Brett Lee had it right – a $50 parcel tax for roads in November. If the city waits until spring, my guess is they will come up with a more comprehensive $150 parcel tax that will include non-necessities such as swimming pool and tennis court repairs, so it will be unlikely to be approved by voters. Then there will be no money to fix roads down the line.

    1. Matt Williams

      Anon, there are between 14,000 and 15,000 single family residences in Davis, which means a $50.00 parcel tax would raise $750,000 a year from single family residence parcel owners assuming the 15,000 to allow for unimproved lots. There are approximately 13,500 Multi-Family Units, which if taxed at a $50/unit rate would yield another $675,000 per year. So the question that those numbers beg is how much of a dent in the roads will $1,425.000 per year make? Our current deferred maintenance backlog reported in December 2013 by Staff to Council is in excess of $20 million and rising.

  5. La pace sia con voi.

    I do not approve of taking taxpayer money to repair roads unless there is an equal number of dollars dedicated to pedestrian paths and bike paths.

    1. Barack Palin

      How about we have people that actually live in Davis decide what or what not they approve of when it comes to their parcel taxes, and I’m not talking about you Matt.

          1. Mark West

            “Mi diverte che siete curiosi circa la mia posizione.”

            Why Don? It takes 10 seconds to plug it into Google and get it translated.

            “it amuses me that you’re curious about my position.”

            I don’t know why someone would post in a language that many will not understand, but your English only standard doesn’t make a lot of sense either.

          2. Don Shor

            I’m the moderator. I read every single comment on every single post, and I don’t feel like having to translate a bunch of other languages. If you have a problem with that, you can discuss it with me at donshor@gmail.com, or discuss it with David.
            English only, please.

          3. Mark West

            It doesn’t impact me one way or the other Don so I don’t see any reason to discuss it with either you or David. I just made a comment (in English mind you) that your standard doesn’t made a lot of sense. This is your playground, so you all make the rules.

          4. Davis Progressive

            i agree with mark, i don’t get why it needs to be english only. there is no policy. nada. oh shoot, i used spanish.

    2. Tia Will

      La Pace

      “I do not approve of taking taxpayer money to repair roads unless there is an equal number of dollars dedicated to pedestrian paths and bike paths.”

      Would you accept the amount of money allotted to each sufficient to bring it to full, safe functionality even if the dollar amounts do not turn out to be equal ( as I assume they would not be) ?

  6. DavisBurns

    Bob Dunning is not a reporter. His column is humor, commentary or opinion. He has no commitment to telling more than one side of a story. He makes fun of stuff and it is unfortunate that he weighs in on serious subjects, people read him and use his opinions to form their opinions. He has undue influence . Expecting him to report both sides of an issue seriously, is futile. If anyone has a better way to mitigate the damage he does, other than this blog, is Ike to hear it

  7. WesC

    Opening up a parcel tax to include a pool or anything other than roads/bike paths is a bad idea because it will inevitably very quickly become an extensive wish list of projects for everyone who thinks their priorities should be everyone’s priorities. I would guess that Davis probably has more families involved in soccer than swimming activities. If I were a soccer dad and I saw a parcel tax with $10 million for a pool, I would want a equivalent amount of financial resources devoted to supporting soccer. Same goes for gymnastics, expanded services for seniors, etc.. Lets also not forget the rather significant necessary Emerson Jr. High renovation and the DHS multipurpose room replacement which will also likely require some sort of parcel tax in the not to distant future.

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