BY DAVE PRICE
Daily Post Editor
The city government in Redwood City had a surplus of $26 million for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2017, and $31 million the year before that.
Property tax collections were up along with fees paid by developers.
You’d think City Manager Melissa Stevenson Diaz and her seven council members would have big smiles on their faces.
Instead, Stevenson Diaz will ask council tonight (July 23) to put on the ballot a half-cent increase in the sales tax that would generate $8 million a year (about a third of last year’s surplus).
Why would the city be reaching into residents’ pockets for more money when they’re banking such large surpluses?
First, increases in pensions are expected to throw the city budget into a deficit in the years ahead.
Two, they know they can get voters to pass the increase. A survey showed the measure would win and five other cities have passed sales tax increases in the last three years.
Pension costs rising
There’s no doubt that overly-generous pensions are going to strangle our city governments in the years ahead. The answer isn’t to raise taxes, though. Cities should be cutting their budgets, making their employees pay more for their pension benefits, and outsourcing everything possible.
Another sales tax increase hurts the poorest in the community. A wealthy person isn’t bothered by a half-cent increase in the sales tax because it represents a small percent of their expenses. But a lower-income resident pays a higher percentage of their household budget for consumer goods that are subject to a sales tax. A rising sales tax takes a bigger percentage out of their paycheck than the well-to-do. (It’s a bunch of bull when you hear politicians around here saying they’re on the side of the poor and downtrodden. They kick the poor every time they get a chance.)
One side of the story
However, this tax hike will pass because there will be no organized opposition and people will hear one side of the story. The poll the city did on this tax emphasized the money would be used to “maintain rapid 911 emergency response times” not that it would go to employees retiring at age 50 who will get 90% of their salary as a pension. (Imagine how the poll would have gone if the respondents were told the money would go to pensions.)
It will also pass because residents will only hear one side of the story. Rarely is there ever an opposition group that attempts to challenge such a proposal.
In the olden days, the Republican Party stood for smaller government and lower taxes. But they’ve disappeared. The ballot argument against the tax will probably be written by a couple of out-of-town Libertarians.
You’d think that local social justice warriors would want to defend the poor from a regressive tax, but don’t count on it. They’re too cozy with the people in the city government who want this tax to pass.
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Hotel President: If this goes to court …
The flipflop by Palo Alto officials on whether the Hotel President can become a hotel again is fascinating. At first, when AJ Capital bought the seven-story apartment building on University Avenue for $65 million, city officials were saying they couldn’t stop the new owners from kicking out the tenants and converting it to a hotel. Then, as the Post reported on Thursday (July 19), the city decided the conversion to a hotel isn’t allowed under the zoning code.
If I understand the logic correctly, the city is now saying that because the building is a “non-conforming use” (meaning it’s not permitted by existing zoning but is allowed anyway because it existed before the zoning went into effect), a change to the use of the property isn’t allowed.
It’s funny that nobody mentioned that to AJ Capital when its president met privately with council members and City Manager Jim Keene in mid-June, days before the sale closed. And it’s strange that nobody from the city brought that up at the June 18 council meeting when tenants descended upon the council.
Seems a sharp-eyed resident, Jeff Levinsky, had to bring it to the city’s attention that the change in use wasn’t allowed.
Now imagine if this all goes to court, and Keene or another top city official is on the witness stand and is asked about the flip-flop.
Lawyer: “Are you saying the city’s zoning code is so confusing, you didn’t even understand it?”
How will they answer that question?
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Legislative races: Looking 2 years ahead
The November elections are 31/2 months away, but there are people thinking about the 2020 election and who will run for the state senate seat that Jerry Hill will have to give up due to term limits.
Redwood City Councilwoman Shelly Masur is already running. Another talked-about candidate, San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine of Burlingame, announced last week he isn’t running. Former assemblywoman and former Mountain View mayor Sally Lieber is also in the hunt.
Another political figure who might be interested in the seat is Marc Berman, the former Palo Alto councilman who won a seat in the Assembly in 2016 in a fierce race against intellectual property attorney Vicki Veenker.
In 2020, he will have had six years of Assembly experience. He could remain in the Assembly for another six years before hitting term limits.
But the winner of the senate seat in 2020 could remain there until 2032 under the term limits law. That would leave Berman with no place to go when his time in the Assembly ends.
A senate run for Berman in 2020 would be the next logical step up for him. Of course he won’t announce anything now because he has to win re-election to the Assembly this fall.
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A debating machine
I saw a story about a new IBM computer program that can engage in debates with humans. They tested it the other day. An Israeli college debate champion went head-to-head with the IBM Debater, and the machine did pretty well. The author of the story raised a question: “Can a machine talk too much?” I hate to tell IBM this, but such a machine has already been invented and it’s been around for years. It’s called a spouse.
Editor Dave Price’s column appears on Mondays. His email address is email@example.com.