Thursday, April 17, 2008

AlamoInc FAQ

The Alamo INC website has a "frequently asked questions" (FAQ) page that seems to has some answers that seem a little off to me. Some are offering more reassurance than I think can honestly be provided, and some others are trying to provide facts that talk around rather than directly to some mal-formed questoins.

In the interest of dialog, here are some of those points:

Frequently asked questions about incorporation

Question: Will incorporation raise my taxes?

Response: No. California state law prohibits any incorporation from raising taxes to balance the books. Any future tax increase or tax cut requires a vote by Alamo residents, with a 2/3 majority in most cases. A city council cannot, solely on its own action, impose or raise taxes.

Me: "No" is overstated. The real answer is "probably not", for the reasons given.

Question: Are there enough sales taxes to support a Town of Alamo?

Response: Yes. The comprehensive Initial Fiscal Analysis, available for review on our website at, lays out in detail the sources of tax revenues for the Town of Alamo. 35% of the expected revenues will come from your property taxes, and 19% will come from Vehicle License Fees (VLF). VLF revenue is not available to either Alamo or the County today – it is reserved for incorporated cities, and the only way Alamo can take advantage of the substantial fees we pay on our vehicles is if we incorporate. Sales tax ranks third at 11% or around $1 million – significant but far from the major source. The balance comes from parks, gas/road, police and other taxes – taxes Alamo residents already pay today.

Me: "Probably" is more like it than a flat "Yes." AlamoINC thinks so based on the Initial Fiscal Analysis, but this still needs to be examined in more detail.

Question: I understand incorporation is expensive. What are the expected costs and who pays them?

Response: The cost will be about $250,000. Neither the State nor County will pay for this so this amount has to be raised by Alamo residents. The principal components of the expense are about $90,000 for a Comprehensive Fiscal Analysis, prepared by outside consultants, a Metes and Bounds (surveyed boundaries) project for about $60,000, an environmental review for about $25,000 and so on. These costs do not include the cost of an election campaign in late 2008/ early 2009, likely to require another $50,000. Alamo is an affluent community so we should be able to raise this amount of money.

Me: If AlamoINC doesn't raise it, it won't happen. With either result (yes or no) there is no taxpayer liability, so this shouldn't affect anyone's decision one way or the other.

Question: I'm concerned that incorporation will bring sidewalks and city lighting to our community and change its character.

Response: There's no reason to be concerned. The whole purpose of incorporation is to give us – Alamo residents and voters – control over how Alamo changes and develops. All communities change, but our best chance of keeping Alamo the town we love is to take control through incorporation. None of our plans and suggestions would change the character of Alamo – in fact, preserving its character is one of our most fundamental goals in incorporation. Alamo's future should be decided in Alamo, not in Martinez.

Me: Of course there is reason to be concerned! This is one of the key issues!!! That is why people had better vote in the elections!

Choosing words carefully, while the county is unlikely to mandate things out of thin air, it is less unlikely to happen in a Town of Alamo. My guess is the officials who voted for such a thing would be run out of town on a rail, but it seems more likely to happen in a town than the county.

The same thing is true of permit reviews and other critical matters.

Question: Won't this increase bureaucracy?

Response:Response: - Not at all - the County employs over 9,000 staff. Decision making will be simplified by transferring both tax revenues and the responsibility for services to the Town of Alamo: decisions will be made locally. If Alamo voters don't like the result, they can vote out the entire council. Today, our votes affect neither the County nor Alamo - we are effectively disenfranchised.

Me: "Not at all" is flippant, and arguably flat wrong. The right answer is probably "Maybe, depending on how you look at it." The answer is reliant on a value judgements about whether the county bureaucracy is efficient, and whether the one Alamo puts in place as an an alternative is worse, better, or just more of the same.

Question submitted from the website:
I would like some specific vision, value, and strategy. Can you give me several specific goals, or plans? Nothing generic please. What would be done Better, Cheaper, Faster, and what would be done that isn't done Now?

I am looking for something more like a quantifiable platform. We citizens are being asked to redirect our tax based investment in Alamo from the County which has a long track record of at least some success, to something we can't see or talk to before transferring all the money to it. I don't like playing roulette when I can't even see the table.

What would be done Better:
Police services would be combined in one Town of Alamo Police Department responsible for both crime suppression and traffic enforcement. Now, responsibility for policing rests with the sheriff and traffic enforcement is legally the responsibility of the California Highway Patrol, which means very little enforcement is done other than on the freeway. The Town of Alamo Police Department will have regular patrols and will know the town intimately, which will discourage some of the vandalism and the smash and grab car robberies in Alamo. Since traffic stops are also a crime deterrent (for example, a traffic stop may result in a drug bust or a DUI), it is more efficient and effective to have law enforcement combined into one local agency.

Alamo's share of road taxes will come to Alamo and can only be spent in Alamo on Alamo roads. The county is not required to spend road taxes in Alamo but must pay attention to countywide priorities. In past years, these priorities have sometimes conflicted with Alamo needs in lean budget years.

Alamo is now obligated to function under the general plan created for us by the county. Under cityhood we would have the opportunity to create and adopt our own general plan specific to our goals and objectives, as the writer wishes. The process of general plan development would be highly interactive and would involve any citizens who are interested. However, by law, it can only commence post-incorporation.

What would be done Cheaper:
Alamo citizens pay taxes into county service area R-7A for parks and recreation development and services. The county charges R-7A significant sums for overhead and administration, including staff and travel time for a staffer to travel to Alamo to attend advisory committee meetings. The same is true for Alamo's Zone 36, the Alamo Beautification Committee, whose budget is eaten up with county administrative charges. A new Town of Alamo will have significantly reduced overhead charges for our parks and beautification committees since the Town will not be responsible for the lifetime health benefits the county is obligated to pay its retirees.

What would be done Faster:
The county has been discussing traffic improvements on Danville Boulevard for twenty years. Common sense tells us that when only Alamo citizens are involved in the discussions, and those citizens are driving on the Boulevard every day, that traffic problems will be addressed in a shorter time frame.

There are many other examples of the efficiencies of dealing with local people and making local choices.

In passing, please note that after incorporation, we will be a far cry from transferring "all the money" to the new town. We will continue to pay our fair share of taxes to run the county, to pay for fire protection, schools, police protection, etc. Please refer to the article on the website, "How the new Town of Alamo will use your tax dollars" which provides details on projected expenditures.

Me: Remember, AlamoINC isn't putting a platform together about how to actually run things, it is trying to create a local framework for making decisions about how to do run things. Asking for the equivalent of a "party platform" isn't in the scope. The real answer to all such questions ought to be, "it will be a democracy based on the will of the voters in the town."

I don't get the impression there is uniform opinion on many matters within the generally pr0-invorporation crowd, so generalization is impossible. For one particularly tender topic, there are folks who have been on radically opposite ends of the debate about the YMCA at Hap Magee who are pro-incorporation.

Comment submitted from the website:
We lived in Moraga for 24 years and watched them incorporate. That added more layers of bureaucracy and taxes. Go look at how they spent their money and evaluate the terrible condition of their and Orinda's roads. We would not want to see Alamo go that route.

Reduced Layers of Bureaucracy
One benefit of incorporation would be that a number of government functions would transfer from the County to the Town of Alamo. The result would be that Alamo residents would have more input and influence in the local decisions that directly affect us.

No New Taxes
California state law forbids taxes from being raised to "balance the books" for incorporation. The new town must be able to pay its own way over the long term using existing revenues. California law also requires that all tax increases be submitted to the voters - the town council will not have the power to raise taxes.

Road Maintenance is in the Plan
A Public Services Plan was developed to assess the feasibility of incorporation. This is presented in Chapter IV of the Initial Feasibility Study which states in part, " The IFA assumes an approximate $5,800 per road mile maintenance cost for repair and maintenance of pavement, hardscape repairs, drainage, and traffic signals, based on data from other comparable cities. An additional $1,700 per mile is also included for administration and related costs, based on the County budget."

Me: The response doesn't seem to really answer the questions, because a real answer would have to challenge the premises. (1) Do Moraga residents pay more taxes now than they would have had it not Incorporated? (I don't know the answer, but I tend to doubt it. Perceptions and reality in this area seem likely to be quite different); (2) How terrible are Orinda roads compared to those in unincorporated county with similar traffic density? Objective measures only, not just anecdote; (3) How is Orinda/Moraga spending tax money that is inappropriate? (4) For each thing offered in answer to (3), did the voters approve it, and if so, what is the complaint?

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