Feb 25, 2016
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By Richmond Mayor Tom Butt,

In addition to the two initiatives that have already qualified for the June 7, 2016, election (Compensation Levels Initiative and General Plan 2030 Amendment – Riviera Project), backers of four other initiatives are circulating petitions, hoping to get enough signatures to qualify for the November 8, 2016, ballot. The four are:

  1. District Elections
  2. 2016 Richmond Kids First Initiative
  3. Charter Amendment – the Right to Vote on Development Subsidies
  4. Richmond Fair Rent, Just Cause for Eviction and Homeowner Protection Ordinance

Before you sign a petition, read the text and understand what you are signing. Don’t act based on what the petition circulator tells you or the excuse that it doesn’t hurt to put it on the ballot and let the voters decide. All of them on the surface appear to be attractive, or at least innocuous. But they are all flawed, some much deeper than others. Most have well-meaning motivations, and some are merely solutions looking for a problem. All of them will increase cost and bureaucracy to a City government that is facing serious budget challenges, and if passed, some will siphon resources from critical needs like crime prevention, libraries, parks and streets.

None of these initiatives directly addresses the priorities of Richmond residents (see Richmond, CA 2015 Community Survey). It could be argued that some indirectly address the priorities, for example that additional services to kids reduce crime. However, it is more realistic to argue that they will have a negative impact on the ability of the City of Richmond to address the residents’ real priorities. They are each the product of a small group of people with their own ideas about what Richmond needs. Each of these lacks support from a majority of the City Council, hence the effort to implement them by initiative rather than City Council action.

Finally, most of the initiatives are very poorly and hastily drafted, making them vulnerable to legal attacks that will cost the City even more time and money.

District Elections

The District Election initiative is based on the premise that the City Council lacks “neighborhood representation.” It would require that Richmond be divided into six districts, each of which would elect its own City Council member. The City of Richmond population is approximately 107,000, and each district would have a population of about 18,000. These are not your mother’s neighborhoods. For comparison, each district would have a population the same as the City of Pinole, which has five City Council members. Currently, there are nominally 37 neighborhood councils, each representing a “neighborhood” in Richmond, some large and some small, some active and some inactive. With 37 neighborhoods and only six districts, it is clear that each neighborhood is not going to get its own city council member. In fact, 31 of the 37 identified neighborhoods (as defined by neighborhood councils) is going to lack “neighborhood representation” when the votes are counted and six City Council members are elected. See the map.

With each district the size of Pinole, the boundaries of are by necessity going to have to include multiple neighborhoods, typically combining areas that don’t feel like coherent neighborhoods. To get to a population of 18,000, for example, the district including Point Richmond and Brickyard Cove would probably have to include Santa Fe and the Iron Triangle. Either Nat Bates or Jael Myrick would have to find somewhere else to live if they want to stay in politics. Marina Bay would have to include Coronado and Pullman. Some areas, like Hilltop-Fairmeade have a population that appears to exceed 18,000, so it would have to divided into two districts, each of which might reach west into El Sobrante or east into Parchester or even North Richmond.

Most cities that have moved to district elections, some even by court order, have done so to correct racial or ethnic imbalances on their City Councils. Richmond does not have that problem. In fact, district elections may exacerbate a lack of diversity instead of improving it.

With each City Council member representing a single district, the fights over limited resources will make today’s City Council dysfunctions look like the good old days. It will pit neighborhood against neighborhood and make the vision of “One Richmond” a distant dream.

2016 Richmond Kids First Initiative

How could anyone not support the children? Any opponent risks being immediately labeled as mean spirited and selfish. This initiative is based on the premise that insufficient City resources are being spent on kids. The reality is that we can never spend enough on kids, but the way it is drafted, this initiative cannot be implemented without removing resources from some other critical City service or program, many of which are also critical to youth. The City would get no credit for existing programs and projects, such as recreation programs, libraries, parks or even the $35 million dedicated one of the highest funded Promise Programs in the United States.

This would have to be new money, but the initiative provides no new source for this. It’s rob Peter to pay Paul. We already know from the December 15, 2015 presentation by the National Resource Network, that Richmond is facing an $8.7 million long term budget imbalance. If the 2016 Richmond Kids First Initiative passes, that will add an additional $5 million to the long term deficit each year after it reaches full funding. Advocates will argue that it has an escape hatch if revenues decrease. However, volatile revenues are not the risk; it has no provision for adjustment if expenditures increase and widen a budget deficit, which is far more likely. And 70% of the money is required to go to grants to non-profit organizations, meaning the City cannot continue to spend it on traditional youth-oriented services provided by the City such as libraries, parks and recreation – or even after-school programs.

Without a designated new revenue source, the money – a lot of it — has to come from somewhere. And it will probably come from traditional youth-supporting programs, such as libraries, parks and recreation. It will also likely come from cuts in police, making the streets less safe for kids to walk or bicycle to school. It will come from programs such as the City’s match for grant-funded projects like the Yellow Brick Road, the Richmond Greenway, and Elm Street Playlot (Pogo Park) that make neighborhoods safer and encourage healthy activities for kids.

This is simply a massive transfer of jobs from the government sector to the non-profit sector, financed by your taxes. I am told that the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) does not support the 2016 Richmond Kids First Initiative because it would ultimately function to divert jobs now provided by unionized public employees to non-unionized employees of non-profit providers. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU 1021) is an “allied member” of the RPA and would stand to lose big time if this initiative passes.

The initiative would also discourage donors to continue giving to existing non-profits providing services to Richmond kids because those providers would be supported by public funds in the future.

This is an initiative with a winning title that is a really bad idea.

Charter Amendment – the Right to Vote on Development Subsidies

The motivation for this initiative is the strangest of all. The sponsor is AFSCME (American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees), which has chosen Richmond as the unlikely venue for a power struggle showdown with the University of California. Richmond has no history of public subsidies for private business. No sports team is asking for a stadium in Richmond. The activities of the now defunct Redevelopment Agency are long gone.

This all started when the City of Richmond explored the concept of a possible partnership with UC Berkeley to build infrastructure jointly for the Global Campus and the Richmond Bay Specific Plan Area. Looking for an opening in its ongoing beef with the University of California,  AFSCME is unhappy that the University of California system is using private consultants and developers rather than public employees to build and operate projects system-wide, as it might in the proposed Global Campus. Expansion of jobs for AFSCME members is a top priority, and AFSCME wants to make sure this happens at the Global Campus.

Any partnership between Richmond and the Global Campus that might involve, say dedication of a street right-of-way, would require a public vote under the proposed initiative. If AFSCME didn’t like the labor arrangements for the Global Campus, presumably it would campaign in opposition. Given the right concessions, AFSCME might support it.

AFSCME characterizes public-private partnerships potentially as subsidies from local governments as incentives for business. From the AFSCME legislative/issues web page:

State and local governments must find balanced solutions to budget challenges, recognizing that state employees and services have already taken big cuts and further reductions will cause the most harm – both to state residents and to the state’s economic recovery. It’s time to have smarter government that best meets the needs of our communities.

With respect to the Global Campus, AFSCME wrote:

Given Richmond’s problems with city finances and credit rating, voters should have a say in decisions about public subsidies and debt, especially when the recipients don’t pay their share of taxes. This initiative would require the UC to seek voter approval for subsidies to the Berkeley Global Campus, and this ensure that the university is held accountable to community concerns about this enormous development that is going [sic] mean big changes for our community.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to see how this would affect Richmond one way or another, except that it would add one more layer of complexity to any municipal endeavor, costing the City of Richmond both time and money, both of which are in short supply.

Richmond Fair Rent, Just Cause for Eviction and Homeowner Protection Ordinance

The only good thing I can say about this is that because it is going to the voters, it will not be the subject of endless City Council debates for the remainder of this year. The campaign will have to be waged elsewhere. These rent control schemes have never worked and never will. Bay Area cities with some version of rent control now have the highest rents and the highest rate of rent increases in the United States, not a good model to emulate. Richmond still has the lowest rents in the inner Bay Area.

Virtually all credible sources agree that rapidly rising rents are a result of an imbalance in supply and demand for housing, and the only effective solution is to build more housing (See From SPUR – Why New Housing Construction Matters for Low-Income Households, February 21, 2016, Legislative Analyst’s Office encourages construction not rent control to fix housing crisis, February 16, 2016, and Beacon Economics Report Concludes Rent Control Does Not Help Low-Income Households, February 19, 2016.

Setting up a new multi-million dollar bureaucracy in a cash strapped city to regulate the rental housing market, deciding what landlords can spend on repairs and maintenance, what rents they can charge and what profits are fair is doomed to failure. Richmond’s already aging housing stock that will be subject to rent control will accelerate in deterioration, and developers will be discouraged from investing in Richmond, even though new housing will be exempt from rent control. It is inherently inequitable, favoring renters in older housing over renters in new housing and favoring existing renters over new renters. As time passes, the inequities accelerate and accumulate, yielding unintended results that are far from the original objectives.

In contrast, the Mayor’s Office is pursuing a multi-faceted effort to develop more affordable housing, including providing city-owned property to affordable housing developers as a subsidy, supporting social impact bonds to rehabilitate foreclosed and vacant homes and meeting regularly with affordable housing developers to find ways to remove barriers and provide incentives to build in Richmond. We are even looking into a voluntary mediation program that has been successful in other areas for the resolution of landlord-tenant disputes.

This piece originally published in Mayor Butt’s e-forum newsletter.