Editorial: Anatomy of a Failed Tax Vote

Becky O'Malley
Friday December 05, 2003

An old lefty labor organizer, someone I’ve known slightly for a while, came up to me at a party in The City this week. “How come no one asked me if I’d support a parcel tax increase?” he said. “I live in Dona Spring’s district…I get mail from Linda Maio all the time…but no one asked me!” He has a point. As the former head of a big public service union, his opinion is predictable—he favors a tax increase. But we discussed the bigger question of What Went Wrong at some length. He wondered where all the opposition came from.  

Another person at the same party, a union member who works for the City of Berkeley, asked me the same question. She told me that her union colleagues had been gearing up internally to make a big push for the parcel tax ballot measure during the holidays, and were taken by surprise when the item was pulled. “Who are those people?” she asked about the opponents. Her conclusion: “They must be neighborhood people.” Well, yes. But in Berkeley, where almost everyone, even students, can tell you the name of the neighborhood they live in, “neighborhood people” covers a lot of different political points of view. 

For example, because of rent control, renters have often lived in the same place for many years, and care a lot about what goes on in their neighborhood. So “neighborhood people” is not synonymous with “homeowners.” Conversely, not all homeowners are “neighborhood people.” The higher hills and the Claremont district are increasingly populated by Piedmontesque rich people whose connection with Baha Berkeley is tangential at best. They shop in San Francisco or Walnut Creek, they read the New York Times, they summer on Cape Cod, and their kids (if they have any at home, and many don’t) go to private schools. School closings, barrier placement, location of fast food joints, “big ugly boxes”—they don’t care about that stuff, and why should they? They probably don’t read the Daily Planet, because they seldom set foot to earth in places where we can have pickup boxes. 

Most UC faculty members with kids used to live in Berkeley, but many now don’t, preferring the clean and spacious public schools of Lamorinda or Albany since they can’t easily afford private schools. (They would indignantly deny a racial motivation for choosing suburban school districts.) Some even live in Piedmont. They’ve opted out of Berkeley’s problems. 

But the hard-core neighborhood people are those whose everyday life is strongly impacted by city decisions. No one in the hills has to face enormous delivery trucks rumbling past their houses and making the windows vibrate at all hours of the day and night, but the people in Le Conte Neighborhood do. When City of Berkeley traffic planners just didn’t get it together to solve the problem, Le Conte neighbors suffered the consequences, and after enough suffering they got tired of paying the bills and came out against the tax increase. Ironically, many of this new breed of tax objectors are dedicated leftists who have stayed in Berkeley and kept their kids in the public schools because of their political convictions. So it’s not just another “Prog” vs. “Mod” battle. 

The mayor still lives in the Le Conte neighborhood, in his wife Loni Hancock’s longtime family home, but because he was in Sacramento for so long, and has been traveling a lot in retirement, he’s in it but not of it. (Folklore says that one reason he convened a task force on permits is that he did have a lot of trouble with permits for one retirement project, building a fence.) He can still count, however, and he knows that his neighborhood association has 1,400 members, and they vote.  

The only city service high hills homeowners really count on is firefighting, since they live in the most dangerous wooded fringe areas. They would have voted for the parcel tax increase if it were packaged as a “fire tax.” Since it was based on square footage, it represented a modest percentage of their high property values anyhow. When the firefighters came out against the tax (now there’s one I can’t explain) hills votes were jeopardized, another good reason for taking the measure off the ballot at this time.  

Where do we go from here? Same old answer you’ve read in this space before: Open public process produces the best decisions. There’s still time, barely, to go back to square one and start talking. Many people now know the details of city employees’ generous scheduled pay increases. Union members might think these hikes are still deserved, even in the face of changing state revenues, but they have to convince the voters. The city unions absolutely must engage in direct dialogue with citizens in open public forums. In Berkeley, that takes more than leaflets dropped on porches to be swept away with the leaves, or boiler room phone banks staffed by retirees.  

Becky O’Malley is executive editor of the Berkeley Daily Planet.