Public Comment

Commentary: Say No to the Cost of Oakland’s Measure N

By Jane Powell
Friday November 03, 2006

Everyone supports libraries—it’s like Mom and apple pie. But hardly any of the Measure N money is going to the branch libraries- instead it is going to build a new main library in a building that wasn’t meant for that purpose, for an unbelievable amount of money. This year I will be paying $77.42 per year on my prop tax bill for “City Library Serv.”—not a bond measure, but an assessment we were sold a few years ago in order to keep the libraries open and fully staffed. Meanwhile, the number of top-level managers has almost doubled—from eight in 2002 to fourteen now—does Carmen Martinez need that much help?  

According to the ballot information, the new Main Library will cost $98 million for 150,000 square feet—which works out to $653 per square foot. The normal cost for a new commercial building of this sort is around $151 per square foot. Even tripling that cost to allow for the complications of adaptive reuse would only make it $68 million. And building it new somewhere else (perhaps the Port of Oakland would give the city some cheap land like they give Signature for Oak-to-Ninth...) would come in at $22.6 million. The proponents claim it will cost only $315 per square foot for construction costs—I guess the other $337 per square foot is for furnishings, landscaping, and probably graft—that’s some pretty expensive custom shelving!  

The Yes on N campaign has been careful to have frontpeople like Ishmael Reed and David Kakishiba to make us feel like this is all about reading and education, because citizens would be lot more suspicious if Ed deSilva signed the ballot argument! But almost no mention has been made of books—it’s all about computers and wi-fi and teen rooms. The city could buy computers (assuming a cost per computer of $1000, even though you could buy one at Office Depot for $650, because the city always gets screwed on these things); that would buy 98,000 computers, which would be enough to give one to every family in Oakland that might want one! 

The ballot information mentions that issuance of these bonds might reduce the city’s credit rating because we have so much debt. They don’t bother to mention the $4,488,517,817 (that’s billion, folks!) in Redevelopment Agency debt, on top of the city’s other debt. Nor do they mention that the reason they keep reaching into our pockets with endless fixed charges and special assessments is because over 50 percent of the city is in redevelopment areas, and any rise in property taxes there (the so-call “tax-increment”) does not go into the General Fund. In fact, a great deal of the tax increment goes to pay the interest on the bonds issued by the Redevelopment Agency.  

This tax is also distributed unequally. For instance, I have friends who own a pre-Prop. 13 home in North Oakland. Their house is assessed at $22,375, and their taxes are $882 a year. This measure will cost them about $10. When their assessment goes up 2 percent, that will be $448, to $22,823. My house, for which I paid $495,000, is now assessed at $535,000, having gone up about $10,000 every year since I bought it. My taxes last year were $7512.00, this year they are $7775 ($263 increase). Next year, even without this measure, they will rise to $8152.00 ($377 increase). If this measure passes, they will rise by $588 to $8740.00. Essentially what is happening is that more and more of the property tax burden is being shifted not only onto residential homeowners, but onto recent homeowners—the people who are already paying the highest taxes and the highest mortgage payments. 

I am sure that Ishmael Reed and Maxine Hong Kingston, the writers who signed the ballot argument, can probably afford to pay the tax. (As I recollect, Mr. Reed is a long time resident of North Oakland—possibly pre-Prop. 13). I am also a writer, but unlike them, my writing earns me a poverty-level income that would, frankly, qualify me for the very low-income housing that the city is always seeming to want to build. By some miracle, a good credit rating, and a great deal of hard work I managed to purchase this house, yet the money I might have spent fixing it up has mostly gone to property taxes and insurance. Perhaps it wouldn’t bother me so much if I actually got some services from the city. But we have no cops, we can’t afford gardeners for city parks or people to pick up trash, yet there seems to be plenty of money for planners to “service” the developers, for outside consultants, for a city attorney who is the highest paid official in the state, and for a level of corruption that runs so deep I am hard-pressed to explain to outsiders how bad it is. I’m sure the threat that otherwise the Kaiser Auditorium will be sold for private development is probably for real—since all the City Council seems to be able to do is attempt to sell off all of Oakland to the well-heeled developers who fund their political campaigns. 

As a preservationist I am all in favor of adaptive reuse, but trying to put a library into this building is like trying to ram a square peg into a round hole. And I simply do not believe that this is cheaper than adding on to the existing Main Library. I am especially amused by Jean Quan’s argument that with the Measure DD improvements to that end of the Lake, it’s bound to become a cultural mecca. Those improvements came about as a response by the Coalition of Advocates for Lake Merritt to the City Council’s plan to sell that end of the Lake to the Catholic Diocese for a cathedral. CALM came up with an alternate proposal, the Lake Merritt Boulevard Plan, which was eventually incorporated into Measure DD. Now the city wants to take credit for it. That end of the lake might yet become a cultural mecca—one with an auditorium, if the city wasn’t so completely incompetent. And if we had any freaking cops, so that people might be willing to go there at night! And after this magnificent edifice is built, what happens to the old Main Library? Will it be labeled “under-utilized,” and sold off for another high-rise by the lake, as the city tried to do with the Fire Alarm Building across the street? 

I’m a writer. I love books. I love libraries. I will fight for the Kaiser Auditorium to be preserved and not sold for development. But I will not vote for Measure N and I urge others not to vote for it either. 


Oakland resident Jane Powell is an author and a Daily Planet contributor.