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Magic money, there when you need it

Jack Balshaw 7/10/02


I hesitate to get started on this piece because it makes me seem like such an ingrate. I supported a parcel tax and even a city sales tax for the purpose of fixing our streets when it seemed there was no other source of funds. Now, like magic and without any forewarning, the City Council has found a source that was there all along.

It appears that $3 million a year from the Redevelopment District can possibly be used for street repair. This is much better than the $800,000 a year that a parcel tax would have brought in and may be all the city staff can administer anyway.

With the reality of this money being available for the next construction season in spring of 2003, now is the time for the council to begin hearing from staff which specific streets and street sections are most in need of reconstruction. These details will be an eye-opener for us to learn just how much money it takes to reconstruct a short section of street. I suspect we will be appalled at the costs.

The good news is that this money could start the rebuilding process. The bad news is that, because the council doesn't have to come to the public for approval, it will be tempted to not just repair the streets but also add amenities. These are such things as bike lanes, landscaping and traffic circles.

The recent news that the city commissioned a poll to assess voter acceptance of a parcel tax, indicates they may still be considering this even with redevelopment money now being available. If so, I have concern that this will be brought to the City Council at the last minute with little opportunity for public discussion on the allowable uses of such a tax.

As I've said in a previous column; any action we are asked to vote on to provide more funds for street repair should have legal constraints on just how it may be used. First, it should be limited to roadway reconstruction and not to add frills and "look good" landscaping.

Second, the money should be placed in a separate account so that we know how it is spent. If it becomes merged with the general fund there will be no accounting for its expenditure.

Third, there should be limits on how much can be spent on design, inspection and administration.

And fourth, any voter approval should be in five-year increments. To pass a twenty-year duration parcel tax is to lose all control over how it's spent.

It wouldn't hurt if the city considered such conditions even for the expenditure of redevelopment money. There will always be the temptation of staff and the council to try to do more than just "fix" the streets. Even magic money has its limits on how much can be done with the amount to be made available.

The news just in as I write this that the City Manager is leaving may either make all the above moot or more important than before. A new city manager most likely can't be on board before October or November. This means the council has to make the decision on the parcel tax on its own and also to estimate if Mr. Stouder's departure will affect the possibility of receiving less Federal money for the flood fix. If it looks like there will be less flood money available, then the $3 million from redevelopment for streets may need to be reserved for flood expenditures.

Councilmember and candidate positions on a parcel tax and use of redevelopment dollars will surely be topics of discussion prior to the next election. And what these positions mean in relation to getting something done on our streets will the bottom line for many voters. Council members may find even more magic money and challengers may ask what won't get done if that money is spent on streets.

This might be an interesting election after all.


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