Thursday, March 10, 2011

League of Cities! or "9 Fellows... (Pt. 2)"

The bus was delayed. BART rail to Walnut Creek was delayed. The ride from Walnut to Creek to Sacramento SHOULD have been delayed, but somehow Marielle, Eliot, Whitney and I made it through any traffic and across the Central Valley in an hour 0_O thanks Rocco!

All of the fellows were booked for one room in a huge 1880’s Victorian home-turned-to-hostel just a few blocks from the Capital building. Way back in the day it was owned by a wealthy family making bank on the industries sprouting up around the Gold Rush, but it was later purchased by a hostel company and moved a few blocks down the road (yeah, that’s right. The whole thing.), perhaps because buying another building and simply keeping it on its foundation would have cost too much. Our check-in lasted about 5 minutes – hardly enough time for a superfast suit-up – and then we were off to the California League of Cities.

The League stands up to state government tyranny!
Defends the Integrity of Redevelopment Agencies!

Protects the way of the public sector lobbying institutions!
And fights for the good of all Cities! (except for Vernon. They actually want to dis-incorporate Vernon.) *(1)
The League today is essentially a government PAC. Ideally it consolidates the interests of over 480 member cities in California, and affects issues that impact those members through the state's legislative process and rule-making bodies. LoCAC also offers consultation and expertise to these institutions on matters affecting local government, as well as to each other. In reality Los Angeles, San Francisco and - oh, let's say El Cerrito - differ on a lot of issues. The 10 largest cities are permanent members of the Board, but each municipality gets one vote in their general Assembly. This makes for some good arguments about state priorities.

Our speaker laid out 3 critical areas of an effective organization in their field:
1) Recognizing that grassroots organizing is a resource for harnessing and targeting political capital. 
2) Understanding its responsibility to lobby Sacramento on issues concerning local governments (i.e. its core mission) 
3) An explicit and unapologetic focus on an organization's measured ability to use the California Legislative Initiative process as a credible threat to circumvent an uncooperative legislature. This seems a little like cheating, but progressive democracy has been part of CA politics for over a century. It's how we roll. *(2)
Towards the end of our discussion, we asked our speakers candidly what they thought of Governor Brown's proposal to reduce the deficit by dissolving all of the state's redevelopment agencies, and he had an interesting response that I'll get to in a moment.

There is firstly a bit of semantics involved when we say that cutting redevelopment agencies would "reduce the deficit" - that is only a "kinda" truth. Redevelop agencies are really more of a mechanism for local financing with local funds. It starts when the agency identifies an area of blight within their jurisdiction, ex. within the City or County limits that the agency operates. "Blight" is a funny word when it comes to politics, because there is no measurable definition of blight. 

There is some qualitative language set out, but it can really include anything that is perceived by the community to be a burden on their welfare and value of assets (i.e. an abandoned half-torched warehouse filled with recurring violent heroin addicts that keep pet mice infected with several diseased including the Black Plague would clearly fit this definition, whereas an unruly pile of leaves in a street in Danville is debatable).

The agency zones a block of property as a redevelopment area, and locks in a flat rate of property tax. If Old Factory is worth $100,000 in value, and taxed by the state at a rate of 5%, then the annual tax is (let's do the math here.....) $5000. The redevelopment agency locks that tax value of $5000 for maybe 30 years for the state to collect on, and then collects a whole bunch of money from the locality and invested groups to develop the parcel(s) into something more valuable - say a new apartment complex - that benefits the area with increased local value. Nearby parcels are now worth more, the developers are assured a certain level of tax relief or even income from the local government, and the County gets to benefit from the overall increase in revenue. The money from those taxes would ultimately stay local, but with the RA the local government has more discretion about how to use the money without State intervention.

The argument FOR Redevelopment Agencies is that it reduces the cost and liability of developers to invest in a 'blighted' neighborhood that would otherwise remain blighted, with no accounting cost to the State (per se) and a large benefit to the municipality. The argument AGAINST them is that Redevelopment Agencies are a way for cities and counties to be crafty about their taxes, build out areas that would perhaps otherwise develop anyways but reduce the pay out to the State, and abuse the mechanism to build things not relevant to blight (like a new stadium in Emeryville).

Our speakers at the League of Cities were adamant that the Governor's proposal to cut RA's was illegal and even unconstitutional, and that the sudden bureaucratic hole in local governments would throw thousands of legal contracts between private investors and RAs into limbo. That last part is especially true for San Francisco, where 12%+ of the territory of the City/County is managed by SFRA, including hundreds of millions of dollars in investments into areas like Hunter's Point/Bay View and Mission Creek.

- - -

*(1) The City of Vernon is supposedly a stain on the League’s model character. The City was created with the intent of no one actually living there, but instead using it’s political jurisdiction to consolidate heavy industries in a single place and providing tax incentives and other benefits. There are fewer than a hundred residents, and even that’s too many. Predictably, there is no shortage of corruption, laundering, pollution, white collar crimes or federal charges. [ADDENDUM 4/29/2011: CA Assembly votes to dissolve Vernon]

*(2) Several of the representatives that we have met with have expressed a common concern about the initiative process, and that is the fact that the language and structure of initiatives are shaped by emotions over hot-button issues and stubborn tunnel vision. The language and mandates of this legislation are not generally vetted by industry leads or reviewed by lawmakers before they take effect, meaning that really stupid things end up happening despite good intentions. It's also nigh impossible for the legislature to change an initiative measure once it's been voted on.

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