Commentary: Reasons for the Defeat of J, K, L and M

Friday November 12, 2004

In her commentary “Defeat of Tax Measures Favors Individual, Not Common Good,” (Daily Planet, Nov. 5-8) Nancy Feinstein argues voters who rejected Measures J, K, L and M were motivated primarily by a desire to minimize their own tax burden. But an examination of the facts indicates this assumption is incorrect. In fairness to Ms. Feinstein it must be acknowledged that some voters did reject the taxes out of a selfish desire to minimize their taxes, but we need also recognize that others, such as seniors on fixed incomes, rejected J, K, L and M simply because they can’t afford to pay more. But these two explanations leave out the issue that may well have been the key factor in rejecting the taxes. The reality is that 71 percent of Berkeley voters willingly increased taxes to fund the school district, exceeding by 20 percent the number of voters willing to fund city coffers by voting for Measures J, K, L and M. Less then 38 percent of Berkeley voters supported a utility tax of about five dollars a month, while over 65 percent of them supported state tax increases to fund mental health and children’s hospitals. These results indicate a large number of voters were not opposed to taxes per se, but were instead opposed to how Berkeley spends our tax money. 

Ms. Feinstein writes she is “…heart sick at the defeat of Measures J, K, L and M—which would have paid for youth programs…”, leading one to wonder why anyone would vote against taxes for youth services. But over the years Berkeley voters have learned our tax money enriches the city’s General Fund, with no guarantee the money will be used as promised. Nor is this the only problem. If General Fund monies were used wisely the tax measures may well have succeeded. Instead voters have witnessed expenditures for purposes many find not only wasteful, but offensive. 

Many will remember how city bureaucrats destroyed $100,000 in public property by violating a City Council resolution to save eight trees, when they hired a contractor to destroy the trees and stoneware planters that once graced the area in front of the downtown library. Just a few years later residents of one neighborhood woke up to see an industrial size communication tower erected on a Saturday morning, without permits and in violation of an agreement with the community. When outraged citizens packed City Council demanding the tower be removed, the council spent hundreds of thousands in consultant fees to buy time so tempers would cool, before admitting to the voters they had no intention of removing the tower (at the time I predicted the outcome in a Daily Planet piece saying the city manager acted deliberately knowing that “…the people would complain, but the tower would remain”). And as recently as this year the library spent over half million dollars to purchase high tech radio tags to track books despite warnings that the technology endangers reader privacy. Given these instances of abuse is it really a surprise that many voters choose to reject giving city officials the means of funding projects many feel are detrimental? 

Nor are these the only reasons many voters rejected the taxes. Berkeley voters are generous. But claims the city needed new revenue were undermined by their own actions. As the months passed voters saw one revelation after another: that the city was not collecting tens of thousands in taxes from developers; that the City Council was “cutting the budget” by “eliminating” staff positions that were already vacant. When the city reported they had enough unspent funds from the prior year to cover the projected short fall for approximately two years, many voters were astonished when the city voted to spend the money, instead of putting it aside to avoid the fiscal deficit. We were told the city could save tens of thousands by closing non-essential services for the week between Christmas and New Years, but the idea wasn’t implemented, until this year, after voters denied the tax increases. So forgive voters who believe that the city is lying when they claim they’ve done all they can to cut cost and that the tax increases are really necessary. 

Already rumors are circulating claiming the mayor’s office wants the City Council to try again. But unless the council stops awarding tens of thousands in “consultant” contracts, takes steps to trim administrative waste, and stops giving benefits and land worth millions of dollars away to developers the city may find voters increasingly unwilling to support further taxes. 


Elliot Cohen voted to support some, but not all, of the tax measures.›