PIEDMONT -- Why Y? is the question some Piedmonters are asking regarding the measure on the Nov. 6 ballot for a municipal services tax.
Measure Y renews an existing tax and brings about $1.6 million per year to city coffers.
The tax has been approved by voters for three decades, but this year's outlook is not so rosy.
No on Measure Y opponents have launched an aggressive campaign, saying the city has not taken enough steps to contain costs. They point to the $2.1 million bailout for the Piedmont Hills undergrounding district, and what they call an ill-conceived plan to allow a sports complex at Blair Park, costing the city several hundred thousand dollars in fees for environmental studies and litigation. The Blair Park plan by Piedmont Recreational Facilities Organization was scrapped, but the bitter taste remains for some.
"The city should not get the parcel tax to paper over their bad decisions," said Michael Rancer, chair of the Municipal Tax Review Committee.
The city has taken steps to control costs, but opponents say it's not enough. They feel rejection of the municipal services tax will force more belt-tightening and accountability.
"The council has given one of the richest benefit packages in the state," Rancer said. "These projects drained city coffers. The council needs to bring the budget under control. There is a lack of rigorous management procedures that have cost taxpayers millions the past few years."
City officials disagree, saying the parcel tax is essential to preserve the level of services to which Piedmonters are accustomed. Without it, capital improvement projects and facilities maintenance would suffer, and reserves would be depleted. All monies from the parcel tax stay in Piedmont. It needs a two-thirds majority to pass.
Opponents counter that cities of similar size have lower staffing levels, such as in the fire department.
Piedmont averages about one fire per year, but the department is kept busy with 911 emergency calls from an aging Piedmont population.
Unlike similar sized cities, Piedmont relies on real estate and property transfer taxes for revenues because it has a very small commercial base for sales tax revenue. Proponents point out that Hillsborough (a prosperous city like Piedmont) has a permanent $570-per-year public safety parcel tax. Oakland and Berkeley also have parcel taxes to support essential services. The current parcel tax, which expires June 30, costs the average parcel about $411 per year, with larger parcels paying $476 to $925 for commercial properties of more than 10,000 square feet.
The City Council can choose to not levy the parcel tax in any year, which it did in 2007-08 because the city was enjoying a spike in revenues from a lively real estate market. With the economic downturn, the picture changed. City officials point to the cost-saving measures they have taken to improve.
More than $800,000 is being saved now, finance Director Mark Bichsel said. Piedmont shares its fire chief with Albany for a $140,000 savings. City Clerk John Tulloch and Public Works Director Chester Nakahara replaced their predecessors at lower salaries, saving $60,000. Tulloch's old position was not filled, saving $140,000. A second captain's position in the police department has been frozen to save $270,000. And the city garners $190,000 per year from billing insurance companies for ambulance service.
City staffers have received no raises for four years. City Hall managers are salaried and receive no overtime for the numerous extra hours they put in for heavy workloads and night meetings. The City Council serves without pay and with minimal perks.
A two-tier pension system has been implemented so new hires will have reduced benefits. The city still pays 100 percent of employees' health insurance but has instituted $100 monthly deductions for retiree medical. Mayor John Chiang has pledged that the council will negotiate for more employee contributions when contracts come up for renewal.
Of the controversy, Councilman Jeff Wieler said, "(Opponents) have this idea if you cause pain to the council that somehow fixes the problem. Why punish the rest of the town? The city has done a lot, but you can't please all the people all the time."
Resident William Blackwell says "costly missteps by city officials are cause for concern, but the parcel tax is not the culprit.
"The parcel tax is not a slush fund, however. But it provides a cushion to absorb unexpected expenditures or revenue reductions."
Five of the nine-member Municipal Tax Review Committee that originally supported the parcel tax changed their position saying, "It's time to force these decisions; the council (has) to set priorities and establish proper controls."