OAKLAND -- Residents of the Oakland hills have until Nov. 13 to decide the fate of a parcel tax designed to prevent fires like 1991's disastrous blaze.
Voters in a special assessment district that covers most hills neighborhoods must decide whether to continue the district and its services at an annual cost of $78 per single-family home, $58.50 per unit for multifamily structures, $58.50 for condominiums and $39 per parcel for undeveloped property.
The district was established 10 years ago to provide preventive fire services such as extra fire patrols on high fire danger days, goat grazing to remove dry grass, vegetation management on public property, removing dead trees and cutting brush for emergency escape routes. Because the fee is being offered as a parcel tax instead of a special assessment, the measure must be approved by two-thirds of citizens within the district boundaries, which extend north to Berkeley and south to San Leandro.
Supporters and critics of the district and its fire prevention plan spoke at an Oct. 25 morning forum sponsored by the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. City Councilman Dan Kalb, whose District 1 includes the hills, said the assessment district's efforts are one of the reasons the hills have not had a major fire in the past 22 years.
"I think it's an opportunity the show the public up in the hills, many of whom were not here 22 years ago, that we do care about their safety," Kalb said.
Oakland resident David Mix disagreed.
"What we have here is simply false security," he said.
Mix said he doesn't oppose fire prevention or even the small cost of the tax. But the parcel tax is inequitable because large property owners would pay the same flat fee as homeowners with smaller parcels.
Public agencies that have land in the hills like the Oakland Unified School District and the East Bay Regional Park District are exempt from the parcel tax, Mix said, though they contributed under the old system.
Ken Benson, co chairman of the pro-Measure A group KeepOaklandFireSafe, urged a yes vote, reminding the panel that the 1991 blaze destroyed 3,000 structures and killed 25 people. Total property loss was estimated at $1 billion in 1991 dollars, which he said equals more than $4 billion today.
Measure opponent Ralph Kanz opposes the prevention plan because it does not account for impacts to some endangered plants which grow in the hills. The city must create a long-term plan for management of the species, which has not occurred because an environmental impact report for the prevention plan has not been created.
That sparked an exchange between Kalb and Mix, with Mix charging that the city had exempted the project from requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act. Kalb said the exemption applied only the formation of the district and not the overall management plan. Kalb said he has assurances from the city's fire chief that an EIR will be created to address environmental concerns.
"That will happen, "he said. "I have been guaranteed that it will happen and I would not be sitting here if I didn't think it will happen."
Mix classified Kalb's statement as "So much unadulterated bull."
Kanz said that regulations allowing the use of herbicides on certain types of trees required an environmental review. Creating an overall plan covering a 10-year period to identify critical fire danger areas would be more cost-effective than creating a new plan each year.
But Oakland Fire Inspector Vince Crudele, who supervises the inspection and prevention efforts in the district, said a multiyear plan is not possible because conditions in the hills change from year to year due to weather, housing construction and other factors.
"What I can identify today as the most critical fire area of this season may not be the most critical fire area next year, three years from now or five years from now," he said.
"If I concentrate all of my efforts there, I am neglecting all the other areas where conditions may be changed," he said.
Pressed how he would handle fire prevention if the parcel tax is defeated, Mix said that fire inspections are required by state law and that removal of vegetation near roads is handled by the city's Parks and Recreation and Public Works departments.
The Fire Department is not forcing public agencies that own land in the area to clear overgrown vegetation from their properties, Mix added.
"Drive through the hills and look at the properties that are over-vegetated and look up the property owners and you find that it's somebody with a little clout," he said.
Crudele replied that public landowners are cooperating with department requests. Oakland Unified School District officials recently cleared trees on a parcel that the school district owns. If residents spot vegetation problems in the hills, they should call or access the city's website to let fire officials know. Kalb said the city may not have the money to fund fire prevention efforts in the hills because of Oakland's tight budget picture.
"We all know that our top priority is public safety and essentially police, and any available money that could go to 10 different things -- 90 percent would go to police," he said.
"If we were flush (with cash) maybe we wouldn't need this, but we are not at that place and we have too many important needs in the city and we can't just do everything out of some general fund that people wish is bigger than it is," he said.
Ballots for Measure A, the hills Wildfire Prevention Assessment District, must be mailed back to the city before 8 p.m. Nov. 13. The address is: City Clerk, 1 Frank Ogawa Plaza, Oakland, CA 94612.