For the past 32 years, Piedmont's parcel tax -- for essential city services such as police, fire, paramedics as well as for parks and maintenance -- has merited little controversy. Residents have routinely approved the parcel tax with more than the needed two-thirds majority when it would come up for renewal every four years.
How times have changed in these past four years. The economic downturn has taken its toll on the city's finances and led to shrinking revenues. Piedmont lacks a sizable commercial and industrial base and relies primarily on property-based taxes: real property taxes, property transfer taxes and the parcel tax. Because of the decline in the real estate market, property transfer tax revenue fell by 50 percent from fiscal year 2006 to fiscal year 2009.
Thrown into the Measure Y parcel tax controversy are the city's handling -- or mishandling -- of the Piedmont Hills undergrounding project two years ago, which led to a $2 million cost overrun that was paid from the city's reserve fund, and the Blair Park financial matters. Earlier this year, the city rescinded approval of the Blair Park project but still ended up spending a few hundred thousand dollars for EIR studies and fighting the lawsuit from Friends of Moraga Canyon.
The city's Municipal Tax Review Committee itself is a source of some local controversy. The opponents of the parcel tax, the "No on Measure Y" forces, have pointed out that the committee majority opposes the parcel tax. Opponents consider Measure Y a referendum on the City Council's fiscal policies and actions and recommends rejecting it to help spur further belt-tightening and an end to what they consider wasteful spending. But we think that rejecting the parcel tax would be a big mistake, and we're not confident it would send any message to the council -- other than what leads to a reduction in essential services.
Opponents contend the city has done little in the way of controlling spending. We disagree.
The City Council has agreed to establish a five-year fiscal plan to look at long-term trends and impacts. It has hammered out concessions from police and fire employees and nonpublic safety workers within the past three months including: freezing salaries for the fourth consecutive year; requiring city employees to pay pension cost increases into CalPERS; and beginning a two-tier pension system that applies lesser CalPERS pension options to new employees.
We find it difficult to see how denying $1.6 million -- the amount the parcel tax would raise -- would not be felt by residents in the form of essential services. And talk of reducing or eliminating the city's contract for library services with Oakland -- an estimated $350,000-a-year contract -- is foolish and unwise for a community that prides itself on education.
The parcel tax would cost about $400 a year per Piedmont household, a reasonable sum considering that the median Piedmont house averages far more than $1 million.
The city of Piedmont averages just about a fire per year. The overwhelming majority of calls to the fire department are 911 or medical emergencies calls -- just look at the weekly Piedmont police blotter -- and considering the city's sizable segment of seniors, this is hardly an area to cut, even temporarily.
So, while we agree with many of the parcel tax opponents' arguments about soaring employee benefits and the city's fiscal blunders with Blair Park and the Piedmont Hills undergrounding district, we do not consider a vote on Measure Y a referendum on the Piedmont City Council.
We urge a "yes" vote on Measure Y to continue the excellent level of city services that Piedmonters enjoy.