By DAN DRUMMOND
No one disputes that the Petaluma Friends of Recreation have done a commendable job organizing volunteers and gathering the signatures necessary to qualify their parcel tax measure for the November ballot (“A true grass-roots effort for recreation,” Close to Home, Aug. 4). Sadly, however, that effort cannot cure the numerous deficiencies of the measure itself.
The measure imposes annual taxes of up to $500 per parcel. The $52 figure quoted by supporters is just the minimum. An estimated $12 million is expected to be raised, which is intended to fund eight specified park and recreation projects.
Of immediate concern, however, is that the money to be raised is inadequate to fully fund the projects specified. There remains a $2 million shortfall even if the tax is approved. No source for the additional funding has been identified and given today’s economic environment can likely be found. The prospect of incomplete, partially constructed projects is a legacy we can ill-afford.
The measure also fails to identify any source for operating or maintenance costs. These projects, even if fully funded and completed, would incur ongoing expenses necessary to preserve the investment. The lack of an identified source for these expenses simply ensures that these projects will soon fall into disrepair.
And while the monies raised will be maintained in separate accounts, the measure allows the city of Petaluma to charge these accounts for certain “administrative” expenses. Petaluma has a history of using such loopholes to divert funds intended for one purpose to the general fund where no limitations or oversight exist. With no cap placed on the city’s ability to raid the account, residents cannot be assured their money will be used as intended.
Before authorizing any new tax, we must inquire into the status of taxes already paid. Has the council made effective and efficient use of monies previously entrusted to its care? Sadly, the answer is no.
Take, for example, the soaring costs of our public employee pensions. While our annual employee pension costs in Petaluma have soared nearly threefold in a scant eight years, from $5 million in 2004 to $14 million currently, taxes previously paid for parks and recreation projects have necessarily been diverted to pay these ever-increasing costs.
The same, of course, is also true for taxes paid for street maintenance, public safety programs, fire truck and ambulance replacements, storm water drainage systems, homeless shelters, after-school programs and senior services. All have been sacrificed to pay ever-increasing employee pension costs.
So what has been done to rein in unsustainable pension costs? Again, the answer is nothing. New two-year contracts just signed with our police officers and firefighters unions require absolutely no concessions from current employees. Current police officers and firefighters will continue to enjoy the same levels of compensation and benefits that have led to the current financial crisis. They will tell us that the lack of pay raises somehow demonstrates a commitment on their part to chip in and help during these tough economic times, but such statements simply belie their sense of entitlement to ever-increasing levels of compensation and are a slap in the face to the thousands of Petalumans who have lost their homes and jobs.
City officials will point to newly adopted two-tier plans as demonstrating their commitment to long-term pension reform. But all that two-tiered plans accomplish is to ensure the next generation of workers will be paid less so that the current group may continue their current levels of pay and benefits without sacrifice. Placing 100 percent of the burden on our children is not pension reform, it’s passing the buck, and we should be ashamed for doing it.
So, and with all due respect to the Petaluma Friends of Recreation volunteers, the measure is not only flawed on its face but simply hands to the City Council a new pile of money to replace the money it has taken from the parks and recreation budget to pay for police and fire salaries and benefits.
Dan Drummond is executive director of the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association.