No On “V” – The Deadbeat Subsidy

Measure “V” is the latest in a long series of attempts to subsidize residential roads. Since Clearlake was incorporated in 1980 there has been no effort to continue past road assessment districts for roads serving private property. The proponents of Measure “V” have made no effort to mitigate the regressiveness of this sales tax. This is in spite of the fact that California has still not replaced all of their “temporary” cuts in SSI payments made during the real estate bubble crash. Saying people can pay more who are living below official subsistence is like saying people who are anemic can give a little more blood. As the 5th poorest county in California there is a lot of anemia here.

Its all well and good to say these are “public” roads even if they are all in residential neighborhoods. But in reality people think of the road in front of their house as “their” road – even some proponents of Measure “V.” When neighbors of a previous mayor wanted to ban transit buses serving the Senior Center from turning around in “their” neighborhood the Clearlake City Council complied. This public action in deference to private property forced transit buses to make a partially blind U-turn in front of the senior complexes until an emergency agreement could be signed to use Walnut Grove’s property.

Yes, I know something about the buses. When the Lake Transit operations manager says the Clearlake roads tear up the buses she’s right. But she’s leaving out the fact that experienced drivers will have every rut and pothole memorized, slowing down or swerving around them. Due to high standards and low pay most drivers are qualified but relatively new. They don’t stay around long enough to know every bump on a first name basis. And don’t forget that in order to run as many routes for the money as possible Lake Transit buys the cheapest buses which fall apart faster.

It should be no surprise that the Measure “V” Committee meets weekly at the local realtors office. Obviously, if there was a road assessment attached to property it would be a little more difficult to sell depressed lots and houses. This is not surprising since many other local business people are reluctant to pay their bills also. The Business Improvement District was a structure created by the State Legislature in 1994 just for places like Clearlake. The businesses would have total control. The catch is the businesses within the district would have to pay the full assessment.

One goal that should be everyone’s priority is the health of the Lake. Worse than aquatic weeds and algae are the cyano bacteria blooms. These are the outbreaks that smell like sewage. They are unbearable and instantly empty out the lakeside motels and eateries. One of the critical factors is the balance of certain minerals running off into the Lake. More grading causes more sediment run offs.The Measure “V” proponents promise more grading for “The Avenues.” Any questions?

No one is disputing that a ten year sales tax will only make a tiny down payment on an abandoned road system that started out at the bottom in 1980 and went down hill from there. A previous Clearlake mayor quoted $1,000,000 per mile to pave roads. The voter’s pamphlet notes that Cearlake has 63 miles of paved roads and 49 miles of dirt roads. If half of the paved roads needed repaving that would require over 31,000,000. The added several million per year to grade 49 miles of dirt roads is money down the drain and into the Lake. The road job is huge and only assessment districts will generate the kind of money to get the job done, paid for by the people who will benefit the most.

Going back to Clearlake incorporation day, they designated every road as either a “Clearlake road” that they would assume the responsibility for maintaining or a non Clearlake road where the residents were on their own. Often these roads are side by side. Originally there was a difference in condition but the City has not kept up with the road obligations it assumed. Clearlake was not ready to be a real city that provides promised services. And now the people who should be whipping out their checkbooks want the minimum wage and fixed income crowd to pick up their slack. Oddly, local politicos in unguarded moments refer to them as “the wrong kind of people.”

Now I know what Chamber types who think everyone is economically stupid have been saying. Everyone will benefit from anyone’s improved road. But renters aren’t stupid. They will see their rents go up if their rental units become more valuable due to road paving. One City employee amazingly said he liked the idea of visitors paying for our roads. Half of Clearlake’s sales tax comes from Walmart. News bulletin: People are not coming to Clearlake to shop at our Walmart. They have their own Walmart….without the cyano bacteria blooms.

Clearlake could be a tourist mecca if the self anointed leaders didn’t cling to the defeatist strategy that any necessary infrastructure improvements must be paid for by the State, the Feds, the poor or we’ll do without. Frederick Douglas once said that “you can’t hold a man down without staying down with him.” I think that explains why a former part of a Bay Area county would now rather be associated with the proposed goober State of Jefferson than a vibrant community of possibilities for the future.

 

Clearlake – The Developmentally Disabled City

Everyone has gripes about how their city functions or was developed. Most problems are manageable and residents learn from them in hindsight. On the other hand, it is possible for a few arrogant, narrow minded people to cause almost unimaginable systemic damage in the formative period of a city. The same people violently resist all attempts by newcomers to make obvious changes, decade after decade. This is what happened to Clearlake.

The biggest deal killer, if there ever was one, was the decision by a small group of realtors and developers to reach out from the old Clearlake Highlands resort strip as far as they could into the howling wilderness to create a fictitious city of 10.6 square miles. Simple people deluded by vague promises of services and skyrocketing land values voted for the incorporation. Never mind that it’s considered poor planning to assume municipal service responsibility for any area that can’t or won’t pay for its own infrastructure. Best practices were irrelevant for founders with their own agenda.

Most of “The City” was composed of hundreds of paper lots with paper access. Forty-four percent of this charming war zone is still only accessible by dirt roads that pollute the Lake with silt. A recent City Manager even tried to give the sprawling paper development called “The Avenues” back to the County. The County laughed in his face.

Lake County wasn’t the poster child for California’s State Map Act for nothing. The constant refrain around here is “When will someone pave the roads?” Post-Map Act, the developers pave them. But Clearlake is pre-Map Act so the only way a dirt road resident’s feet are going to touch asphalt is for neighbors to form multiple road assessment districts and pay for it.

After incorporation the City did not wait for the other shoe to drop before shooting themselves in the foot. The City Fathers, or Deadbeat Dads, frightened the locals in voting for Measure P which mandated that 63% of the City budget must go for police in addition to a half-cent City sales tax. Robert VanNort, an interim City Manager who didn’t plan to stick around, reported that nothing will improve in Clearlake until this restrictive measure is reformed. He was ignored by the Goobertocracy.

While Clearlake can’t spend enough on police, sewers are a low priority. The future thinking brain trust put in a bargain basement version of what the County recommended. This was a faith based infrastructure project where overloaded pipes were believed to drain uphill by divine intervention. Prayers were answered after heavy rains by manhole cover lifting miracles where waves of toilet paper streamed out like dollar store bridal veils.

Clearly, what Clearlake needs is free enterprise. You know, where businesses don’t wait around for incompetent, wasteful government to find a solution. It is entrepreneurial know how and the will to put your money where your mouth is that will save the day. For a City that was never a town, that means the old resort strip of businesses would have to vote in a Business Improvement District, made possible by a 1994 law, to assess themselves.

This would give business property owners control of several blocks to create a commercial oasis and vacation paradise. They would make the decisions and pay the bills, knowing that their superior knowledge of how the market works to satisfy consumer demands will enable this self- supporting district to draw tourists from hundreds of miles. Then and only then will their substantial investment, free of government subsidies and interference, pay off.

Then I woke up – to a city where the business community never forked over a dime of their own money for a long range project. Why should they? This is a City that acts as their agent to be first in line for State Bond money and Federal stimulus packages. That City launches another sales tax attempt every election on the poorest residents in the State while never considering an infrastructure assessment.

Since local businesses don’t want to pay their own bills they certainly won’t contribute their share to the few basic City functions. So the City spends all their time trolling for short term start up grants to fund desired services such as wood chipping or a youth center program. The grants give the City “administration” money for the grant and an opportunity to hire a crony or their unemployable relative for the grant’s duration. When the grant ends, the service that people enjoyed as a step forward is not continued with local funds. That’s the standard operating procedure in Clearlake.

The 8th Avenue Boys

by Dante DeAmicis

Hugging the fringe of this 10 square mile war zone is the true center of Clearlake.  One would think that Clearlake’s hub of activity would be either the 2 mile “has-been” resort strip of Lakeshore Drive or the City-Hall-to-Highway 53 escape of Olympic Drive.  But no, the City’s standard of excellence is sales tax revenue from whatever source.  Using this single minded criteria, Clearlake’s “center” is an oasis of cleared brush on the last freeway exit.  We’re too downstream to have a downtown anyway.

A two-time interim Clearlake Administrator reported that only Walmart was increasing the flow of sales tax blood into the City’s anemic coffers.  This last-stop freeway nexus also features 3 fast food joints and a Rays grocery store.

The middle drive of this cash cow boasts the biggest bus transfer site in Lake County – top of the list on Clearlake Chamber of Commerce’s “points of interest.”  Why are 50 buses a day rolling through the middle of a shared parking lot?  Because this daily transit parade route is actually an unmarked right-of-way dividing 2 parking lots.  Once the pavement ends and the howling wilderness begins, this stealth road continues on the map as “8th Avenue.”

This also explains why milling throngs of homeless are routinely rousted from the Safeway parking lot but are only moved out of the bus shelters here.  They are free to get in line with their signs as sort of a low-brow haiku show for lost Napa tourists.  (Have your picture taken with a real homeless person?)

A few years back a developer had to promise to punch this paper road through to get approval for his paper subdivision 3 miles away. For now, its a place to arrive by bus from distant lands, check your e-mail on McDonalds’ wi-fi, discuss investment strategies with the homeless, and steal something from Walmart.

Usually the only reason I hang out here, longer than to take my bike off the bus rack during the day, is to walk through the Jack-In-The-Box lobby doors before Midnight.  Everyone working at night here are required to speak 2 languages or have 3 tattoos. Management has to do both.  Its the only place in Clearlake I can sit down in a lighted room, write awhile, and charge my cell phone after 11 pm.  If I’m not quite finished when they lock the doors I have “Plan B” across the street – the secret 2-plug outlet on the closed McDonald’s flag pole.

There’s a trashy surrealism inside this “Jacks” that works for me.  Cabaret tables stand against the windows, patiently waiting for Margaritas that will never come.  The crowning touch is the stereo mini mirror balls, suggestively gyrating from the ceiling.  Weak rotating colors thrown off create a dance floor effect only bright enough for moths and mosquitoes.  No one else would notice unless they were filling their root beer cup underneath.

I asked the counter person if she really wanted me to disco in front of the fountain drinks.  It won’t be a pretty sight on the security camera.  Unfazed, “Sure, why not?”

Closing time.  I leave the lobby as the last of the homeless are leaving the pavement into the broken promise of a street that never was.  A hundred betrayed GPS navigators wail about the breach of trust with their stranded owners.  The shabby people and their dogs are grateful tonight for that broken promise unlike the many broken promises made to them.

Welcome to 8th Avenue, another poster child for the “State Map Act.”  Clearlake has an orphanage full of them.

Measure H – Real Estate Rip Off

By Dante DeAmicis

We want it and we want it real bad.  How do we get it?  Either we pay for it or someone else pays for it.  Nice paved roads in Clearlake – we want them.  Who should pay for them?  Who used to pay for them?

At one time all someone had to do to call themselves a developer was draw a bunch of squares on a plot map and sell them off like numbers in a football pool.  There was no legal requirement to put in any property improvements such as roads.

Some lot buyers were just speculating themselves.  Others were shocked to find out how much basic improvements would cost, even if they could get enough of the neighbors together to form assessment districts or associations.  The result was many attempts to live in desirable places under undesirable conditions.  Another result was the passage of the State Map Act where developers would be required to submit subdivision maps to the State for approval with a plan on how to provide short list of property improvements.  You could say its caveat emptor as far as individual buyers were concerned but these land scams were blighting whole regions.

Fast forward to 1981.  Clearlake incorporates.  As part of the incorporation process the new city will get to decide which roads that people are using will be designated official Clearlake “streets”, with the obligation for future City maintenance.  The people on dirt roads will still have to form assessment districts to get their roads paved.  The people on badly paved roads, unchosen by the City, would also have to form assessment districts. If there were any new developments greater than 4 parcels those property related improvements would be put in by the developer.

The situation in this long inhabited, new city that was never a town, is as follows:  Four or five road assessment districts have been formed.  There is one state freeway, one old state highway, and a half dozen paved arteries from the time the County ran things.  State listed arteries have received recent cash infusions but this bond and stimulus money can only be used on those arteries.  People who want the roads to their homes paved will still have to pay for their roads or be put a a waiting list if they are on the City’s short list of responsibilities.

This is the way roads should be paid for, if they are to be paid for:  The roads that connect all parts of a government jurisdiction are called “arteries.”  These benefit everyone in the City whether they go by a particular person’s property or not.  Emergency personnel and HazMaz deliveries need functional roads or all could suffer.  State and Federal governments realize this which is why these major roads are partly funded from outside the City.  This outside funding is also the reason why these few roads are not in too bad of shape.

Residential roads, including their “connectors” to the arteries, primarily benefit the property owners that they access.  If paved roads make property more valuable then it is the property owner who will primarily benefit.  These property owners and renters could have formed or continued assessment districts to pave their roads anytime they wanted. They chose not to.  They had more important things to do with their money.

Of course, everyone who drives a car will benefit to some extent but not nearly as much as with the arteries.  People who do not drive will not benefit at all outside of the arteries.  These people and most renters will be net losers.  After all, if paved residential streets cause property values to go up then landowners should be able to charge more rent.  Why should renters subsidize their own higher rents?  It is unlikely that landlords will share their capital gains with them.

But the free lunch advocates irrationally cling to their feeble argument that any possible benefit justifies a net upward transfer of wealth.  Their reasoning is irrational, because if one were to ask these same deep thinkers if they derived any possible benefit from a service would it justify a transfer in the other direction, the response would be confusion and silence.

With such a clear value in having your road paved and such a high current cost in having it done, there is an incentive to try and get someone else to pay most of the cost.  This would have to be people who can be fooled into thinking they will be getting something they are not.  This is easiest to do with a sales tax.  Sales taxes are easy to collect so they are hard to resist.

Get it?  Sales taxes are easy and assessment districts are hard.  So why don’t the pavement prophets advocate that taxes be expanded to include those who would gain the most from better roads?  Where are the demands to make real estate interests pay their fair share with a local real estate capital gains or real estate sales tax.  No advocate of the last several attempts to impost a new sales tax have proposed any of these measures.

The best sales tax proponents can do is point to the partial exclusion of food from the tax . The reason that this is a partial exclusion is because of all the food that is not excluded.  As much as 20 percent of the average American’s calories are carbonated beverages, which are taxable. One can argue that they shouldn’t be but it is not reasonable to expect people to alter eating patterns to make a sales tax exclusion appear more significant. Also, many people rent rooms and substandard housing without cooking facilities.  They make do with a lot of “value menu” and promotional item eating at fast food joints.  This is also taxable.

Personal care and household products clearly affect health and quality of life almost as much as food.  I doubt any proponent of sales tax real estate subsidies has ever suggested that additional escrow fees for roads might be more appropriate than taxing bars of soap for the same purpose.

Looking on down the road, it is not hard to see how increasing the desperation factor for the powerless increases other costs for everyone. These are our residents who have taken post real-estate-bubble hits in their SSI and other government program assistance.  Even people with low paying jobs have seen ceilings put in right above their entry level pay rate. Compromising these people further will add to the health and law enforcement costs for the whole community.

Probably the largest group of deluded residents are people who live in “The Avenues.”  Except for roads to the dump, the hospital, and three roads from an expired assessment district all roads here are dirt. Amazingly some of these residents think they will get a little something from a 1 percent sales tax.  They have not read the measure.  It is for maintenance and repair of existing roads, not for building new roads.  For purposes of this measure, a dirt road is not any type of road at all.  In ten years of paying they will get nothing except for the laughter of real estate flippers in the better parts of town.

This additional 1 percent local sales tax would be in addition to the one-half percent City tax we already have and the new one-quarter cent State tax (which I voted for).  No civic leader ever proposes that we tax those who passively benefit from what others pay.  This is because real estate interests have the organized resources to credibly threaten lawsuits against any entity who suggest that they pay their fair share.  No, let’s squeeze more from those with little who are getting less.

Other taxes for roads are a possibility as well.  Anyone who has looked over property tax bills knows many types of property related taxes are possible even outside the structure of assessment districts.  These taxes, which could be designated for roads, can be charged per lot or “ad valorum”, based on value.  Without using assessment districts these property tax funds could be spent on roads “in general.”

Since only people more concerned with real estate values than roads are pushing this sales tax we have to ask, are there any specific groups within this broad category that are paying even less than average for what is already a subsidy from residents least able to pay?  In fact there is.  These are people we rarely see in Lake County because they are either part time residents or property owners who are not residents at all.

The last real estate bubble in Clearlake included people who were priced out of the housing market in Napa and Santa Rosa.  Clearlake had hundreds of pre Map Act lots that lured “spec builders” here to serve this market by building oversized cracker boxes.  These quasi residents still work over the hill.  Their friends are over the hill.  They recreate and shop over the hill.  In all ways except age they are over the hill residents where most of their functional life still is.  They contribute little to the life or sales taxes of Clearlake.  However, that will not prevent them from profiting on better roads our renters pay for.

Local sales taxes seem to hold absentee land owners in highest esteem. Most of those lots not snapped up by spec builders are still owned by people who have not set foot on them in decades, nor do they intend to. Vacant lots are just poker chips to them.  Paved roads will improve their position at the casino.  Many in Clearlake will struggle to stake them at the table.  Anyone with a shred of decency or common sense should be able to see that properties without residents are the roadway free riders, not our residents without property.

Bottom line is there’s a certain class of people who posture themselves as “our leaders” who believe they are too good to pay what are essentially their bills.  There is nothing wrong with asking people to pay for their roads. They could have done it anytime.  They could do it now if they really wanted to.

Sales Tax A-Go-Go

Sales Tax A-Go-Goan image of author as the Mad Hatter
by Dante DeAmicis

Last Thursday Clearlake City Council voted 4 to 1 to continue their class war against our poorest residents in the service of real estate interests by sending a whooping new 1% city sales tax to the ballot. This would be in addition to the present 1/2% City sales tax – a legacy of the old Measure P.

It has been a recent tradition to slap a sales tax before the voters each election in Clearlake. No other local funding devices are ever considered. Self appointed, self anointed leaders of the goober pack generally hail from the real estate crowd on the South shore. Their dream is a bigger and better Measure P which also mandated that 63% of the City budget had to go to the police department. Most municipal functions are performed by special districts or private companies. The city of Clearlake is a life support system for a police department.

The limitations of such myopia was even made clear by interim City Administrator Robert Van Nort in 2006 when he reported that nothing was going to improve in Clearlake until Measure P was reformed. The response from the Goobertocracy, then and afterwards, was total silence. Reform? Naw, we got more sales taxes to push.

The Council proved that inconvenient facts are not inconvenient at all if you ignore them. New subdivisions have their roads paid for by developers and tack it on the house prices. In Clearlake’s land rush era people once could buy paper lots in howling wildernesses. Then buyers either formed assessment districts to pave a few roads or bounce around on dirt roads. Assessment districts had a term limit and a point was reached where a majority of land owners did not see the benefit of renewing the assessments.

The result was large tracts where people were living in near third world conditions, courtesy of real estate developers. Clearlake and parts of North shore became poster children for the State Map Act. This law defined an allowable subdivision as something more than abstract lines drawn on a land sale map. Roads that were not major arteries were now considered property related and property’s responsibility. That’s why the new rules require new developers to pay for roads.

These matters are too ethically complex when politics only means “we want it, we need it, and we don’t think anyone can stop us.” The shameless ones see no problem in dinging people who have already taken major hits in their safety nets after the crash of the real estate casino. Placing bets was more important than paying bills in the bubble years, now they want renters to stake them in the streets.

For the Council, the issue is never one of fairness or efficiency. The whole point is to be on the side with juice in Clearlake and you will be rewarded. What’s the reward for declaring open season on those who have nothing and no way to escape? For a part-time councilperson, who is expected to have other means, you get a free $2100 per month health plan. Meanwhile, their tax targets have to take their MediCal chances with the “Deadbud” house of horrors.

The latest sales tax also kicks off money for Code Enforcement. In the context of Clearlake’s class war the word “code” is also a code. The necessary goals of code enforcement should be focused on clear and present dangers to health and safety. In the past they have also been used to pursue social goals often at the expense of civil rights and sustainable practices. The only extra scrutiny that can be justified is on absentee lot owners. If one is not a resident they cannot claim the rights of a resident.