My View: I Don’t See a Lot of Nascent Opposition to the Tax Measure, but the City Has Little Margin
On Tuesday, the council took steps to finalize the proposed revenue measures for the June ballot. While things can still change, the next meeting marks the deadline for putting such a matter on the ballot and, given that the council is going to need to devote a great deal of time to Nishi, it seems unlikely that much is going to change.
So here are my thoughts on the measures and the prospects for passage.
The most glaring thing is that they opted for two ballot measures. A lot of people are going to second guess that decision and I have to somewhat agree. I understand wanting to keep the lines very clear between parks and roads, but two ballot measures might coalesce opposition or invite the public to pick their favorite one and vote against the other one. Hard to know.
The logic I see here is that the council now sees the parks tax as a straight renewal, and although it keeps the initial level at the absurdly low $49 per year, it adds an inflator as well as a 20-year term. If anything, the council opens itself up on the parks tax to the charge that they have shot too low. The actual cost for parks is between two and four times that amount. And so at some point the city is going to end up either deferring maintenance here or is going to need to come back with another tax.
In the meantime, I think everyone kind of understands that roads are the biggest problem facing the community in terms of deferred maintenance for infrastructure.
As Alan Pryor put it in his public comment, “I think if you ask almost anyone in this city, what do you got to fix, they’re going to tell you it’s the street surfaces. I really think that’s what you should be focusing on.”
He added, “I think the people of Davis will pony up for street surfaces and bike paths, perhaps as much as $150.”
Councilmember Will Arnold was reluctant to go that low, “I wanted to be even more ambitious in terms of dollar amount.”
“We’re going too low for me,” Mayor Robb Davis jumped in on the $79 versus $99 question. “I’m not supportive of $79. I don’t sense it from Lucas (Frerichs), I think he wants to stay closer to $99.”
Personally, I think they went a little low, especially on parks. We’re basically generating $4 million when we need $8 million.
As Mayor Davis put it, “Remember the last parks tax, we weren’t bold enough. We’ve covered that a little bit through inflators. We’ve covered a little of that through a recognition that there’s only so much that we can ask of the community, and we’ve also said future councils need to look for opportunities to grow revenue and to contain costs.”
So for those who want to argue that we should be developing an economic development plan and wedding ourselves to cost-containment, they have a point. The council can push back that their revenue measure will force them to find new revenue and force them to contain costs or else they run the risk of negating even the half measure they’ve put on the ballot.
Mark West, who is among the ten candidates running for council, offered this in a comment on Wednesday: “I have been saying all along (that we need a) comprehensive plan starting with economic development and cost-containment, then adding new taxes as the last step to fill in the gaps.”
Instead he sees that, for the council majority, the plan has been “talk about economic development (but never implement) and then just raise taxes, with the requisite threat of cutting services thrown in for good measure. Until they make a serious effort at economic development and cost containment, there is no reason to give them more tax money to spend.”
While Mr. West certainly has a point there, from a policy standpoint I don’t think the council has the luxury of waiting for an economic development plan to come on line before shoring up city revenues. Instead, I see the need for a short-term revenue boost coupled with a longer term strategy for cost containment and economic development.
The parks tax being a straight renewal of current levels for 20 years plays into what I think the strategy needs to be here. They’ve asked for ten years of roads funding, and that basically gives the council a decade to figure out new revenues before they face the voters again. The voters in 2028 can then evaluate whether or not they should extend the taxes.
By getting only halfway to what they actually need, they actually force themselves to make some key decisions. Can we get economic development, the passage of an innovation park? I’m increasingly skeptical and want to see more upfront leadership from the city on this aspect.
Mayor Davis has expressed frustrations with regard to initiatives toward cost containment. Well, now the council is really committing to go down that road because, as it stands now, they are only getting the half the revenue that they need and I still believe the $8 million a year need is a low number.
Finally, let us address the issue of whether the measures can pass a vote. The council made an interesting decision to go with two revenue measures rather than a combined $149 tax. We will see if that proves to be wise or a mistake.
By going with a parcel tax, they have taken a leap of faith by facing a two-thirds vote rather than a majority vote. That does not give them a huge margin for error in the election.
But by going the parcel tax route, they can ensure that the money is spent as they have promised.
It was decided that the new tax would fund streets, bike lanes, bike paths, and sidewalks, along with traffic maintenance including signals, signs, and striping. Eliminated from the list were public facilities, surface parking lots, and transit stops.
I asked City Manager Mike Webb just how specific the measure will get. Assistant City Manager Kelly Stachowicz pointed out that, on Tuesday, “the Council did not specify the percentage of the amount of expected revenue that would go to road pavement or to the project-specific level.”
When staff comes back on February 6, she said, “I would suggest that we would start with a proportional allocation based on the defined need and start to put together annual spending plans from that. From year to year, exact % of money spent in one area (roads, bike paths, etc.) may vary, based on the needs of the specified projects. Council could, of course, provide different direction on February 6, if they choose to specify spending amounts.
“They also directed that we include a maintenance of effort requirement as part of the ordinance, so that we are not supplanting existing dollars with revenue from the transportation measure. Staff will be looking into the best ways to define that and will bring back wording on the 6th.”
A key point is that they are going to look for ways to ensure they are not just using revenue from the transportation measure to backfill existing money, but this remains a bit of a work in progress.
Will these measures pass? I think they have a good chance. One thing that is telling is that, despite the fact that some have suggested there could be an effort brewing to defeat the revenue measures, we did not see even a hint of organized opposition at all at the public meeting.
That is not definitive but it is fairly telling. The people who came to speak on the revenue measures, for the most part, were people who speak on every issue. The average person is not coming down to city hall to oppose the revenue measure.
Now maybe something emerges later, but it seems rather telling that there is no nascent discontent emerging at the meetings.
On the other hand, the defeated measures for land use have always had a good amount of heated public comment as a precursor to the opposition movement to the ballot measure. I just don’t see that with the revenue measure.
But again, the school parcel taxes have generated somewhere between 27 and 33 percent opposition, so it doesn’t take much of a shift to put a city ballot measure into the danger area.
—David M. Greenwald reporting