Public Comment

Why Measure GG Deserves a Big NO

By Russ Mitchell
Thursday October 30, 2008 - 10:01:00 AM

Every Berkeley resident concerned about the city’s future should vote “no” on Measure GG. Why? Consider a conversation I recently had with Mayor Tom Bates. 

I bumped into Bates at the Spice of Life Festival a week ago Sunday. I asked him why property owners and renters should be asked to pay ever more in taxes when the city is doing such a lousy job finding other sources of income. In particular, I asked him why he had agreed with the University of California to make Berkeley taxpayers subsidize police, fire and sewer services for UCB to the tune of $14 million a year. 

“It’s the best deal we could get,” he said. 

That’s hard to believe, I told him, “The city has ultimate leverage in such ‘negotiations.’” I said, “why negotiate at all? Why not simply say, ‘Hey, it costs our taxpayers $14 million a year to provide you with services. You don’t pay any taxes. We’re simply informing you that you need to pay for what you use or we won’t provide the services to you anymore.’ Isn’t that the way the rest of the world works?” 

“We couldn’t do that,” Bates responded.  

“Why not?” 

“We have to provide those services to them.” 

“No, you don’t,” I said. “Not if they don’t pay for them. There is no law that requires such a thing.” 

“Well, the university makes the argument that they are the economic engine that drives Berkeley’s economy,” Bates told me. 

“But the university is already here,” I said. “It’s not like we’re some bum-luck town in South Carolina trying to attract a BMW plant. The university isn’t going anywhere. A $14 million subsidy buys Berkeley nothing.” 

He took another tack. If the university were forced to pay its way, there would be pressure to make other groups pay. 

I didn’t follow the logic. “Everybody else in Berkeley is already paying!” I said. 

He nodded, and thought for a few moments. “Well,” he said with a little smile, “I have considered putting a perimeter up around the university and charging people to get in and out.” 

At that point, I realized an intelligent conversation was impossible, and I wished him well. 

The $14 million subsidy figure leads us to the Berkeley’s next revenue-raising failure. Consider these two figures: 

1. $14,225,098; 2. $14,442,238  

Number 1 is the sales tax revenue for Berkeley in 2002. Number 2 is the sales tax revenue five years later, in 2007. 

First, notice that the $14 million the city earns in sales taxes goes straight to subsidizing the university. Just about all of it. 

Second, notice the puny rate at which sales tax revenue increased in Berkeley over that period, a time when the economy was growing strongly around Berkeley and across the USA. The State of California saw a sales tax increase of 30 percent over those five years. Berkeley: barely 4 percent. 

So while Berkeley taxpayers subsidize UCB, our city leaders are creating barren storefronts downtown and scaring business into surrounding communities. No, we don’t want to look like Emeryville. But a town that can’t even get an organic grocery store built or agree to allow its car dealers to move from inner-city neighborhoods to locations next to the freeway clearly shows an anti-business bias and is putting its economic future in jeopardy. 

Finally, let me restate what others have argued on these pages: that Measure GG is a fear-based campaign that might have been taken from the Karl Rove playbook. The extra taxes ostensibly would be used to beef up fire protection and medical emergency response. Both are good things. But shouldn’t fire protection and ambulance service be one of the city’s topmost priorities? Shouldn’t the least essential parts of the city’s budget be put up for taxpayer approval instead? 

The dirty secret of Measure GG is that the increased revenue is fungible—it goes into the city’s general account. It can be spent on anything. By creating fear and anxiety about the level of fire services, city leaders get away with not having to make tough choices about more-expendable programs. 

Enough! Stop subsidizing the university, and use the money for fire protection, for a warm water pool, and more. Get smart about making Berkeley attractive to business. Stop scaring citizens with stealth tax hike measures. Send city leaders a message: Vote “no” on GG. 


Russ Mitchell is a Berkeley resident and a journalist who has written for the New York Times, Smart Money and others.