El Cerrito Utility Tax Steamrolls Voters: By PETER S. LOUBAL

Tuesday November 02, 2004

El Cerrito aspires to be Contra Costa County’s progressive bastion, providing supermajority support for school, library and transit taxes. But emulating Berkeley cuts both ways, and the city, seemingly inspired by Berkeley’s “Budget Watch,” now has a like tax revolt battling “Measure K”—an attempt to legitimize a hitherto illegal 8 percent utility user’s tax. The City Council ignored a 2001 court decision forcing it to get voter approval. All it did was cut its statute of limitations exposure to a year, to minimize tax rebate requests in case of a lawsuit. Now it plays catch-up in a very heavy-handed manner. Political satellites tend towards theatrics, achieving a nuttiness of their very own. 

City Manager Scott Hanin prepared for battle by getting a 20 percent raise, just prior to declaring fiscal doom should the tax fail. He now matches the governor’s or San Francisco mayor’s take-home. He’s mobilizing all city resources, possibly illegally—pro-tax mailers paid from city funds, “Save our Services” rallies by city workers at City Hall venues. Scott has mastered the eternal victim role, and his chutzpah is perfect for a Borscht Belt skit, with a whiny shlemazl style, matching his nebbich complaints against “staff-bashing malcontents.” As my grandma used to kvetch, “Mit Geld weint es sich besser”—“Early retirement at 90 percent salary helps dry the tears.” Scott will make sure his money’s there. 

El Cerrito’s Measure K extends the tax to water and to solar power—even if the meter runs backwards! Anything to up the city’s take. No sunset clause. No cap to reflect soaring energy costs. All calls for discussing financial needs before settling details were ignored. By waiting to coincide with a council election the tax can pass by simple majority vote, but the city is taking no chances. It mobilized employees’ unions and council supporters by threatening layoffs, cuts in police and fire services, eliminating the Senior Center, curtailing swimming pool hours The city’s service providers (i.e. garbage) were strong-armed to contribute. Controversial developers, such as would be builders of an absurd proposed BART parking garage, were forced to give campaign donations. City operations have come to a halt, so managers and employees can distribute door hangers and staff phone banks. 

Measure K opponents agree that the city could use more money, but are incensed by the steamrolling. Should Measure K be defeated, they suggest immediately sitting down with council and staff to craft a modified new measure, to minimize using up reserve funds. Residents would be asked to not request refunds in the interim. 

While tax supporters proudly contribute large donations, opposing residents carefully reduce contributions so they don’t have to be reported—few will risk coming to the attention of “City Hall.” But the tax supporters are running scared in spite of their 10 to 1 financial war-chest. To manage the campaign they hired “hit-piece master” Kevin Reikes, who helped oust popular Councilwoman Kathy Perka two years ago. Her crime? Asking too many questions about where the money goes. 

There’s some chance Measure K will be defeated. It’s sure to stay below a super-majority, making it easy to challenge as the extent of the city’s half-truth arguments and strong-arm tactics sinks in. A new compromise utility tax could follow. There remains a greater problem. After the Perka experience, there’s no serious opposition contender for City Council office. There may not be a council capable of common sense. It would take three months of precinct walking and perhaps $20,000 in startup campaign funds to stand a chance against El Cerrito’s dominant political establishment. Who’d want to sacrifice what it takes? With the last independent voice leaving the council in November, El Cerrito can expect total hegemony, a homogeneous council serving the same political machine as Scott Hanin. But there’s hope. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, they’re bound to mess up royally. El Cerrito voters are not dumb, they just pay more attention to global issues than to local ones. President Bush will be lucky to get 10 percent of El Cerrito’s vote. So maybe, after we’ve cleaned up Washington, D.C.... 


Peter S. Loubal is an El Cerrito resident.›