Looking at how two state propositions affect Concord

By Edi Birsan on October 23, 2018

One of the interesting aspects of California democracy is how a plethora of statewide propositions have come to replace what should arguably be the responsibility of the state Legislature.

What was originally intended as a way for people to override their elected officials on serious matters has resulted in, to some extent, an abuse of the system for even the most minute of issues – whether reflecting some extreme localized power play or some hilarious public sentiment. It reminds me that politics is the most expensive form of entertainment that our tax dollars are forced to buy.

An example of the latter was a proposition in San Francisco that mandated that the chief of police require officers to carry a hand puppet wearing a badge and uniform to assist in community outreach. Of course, it passed.

While I will not delve into the fascinating discussion of how big a chicken cage should be (though the question’s appearance on a statewide ballot must certainly warrant such a collective time expenditure by the electorate), I do wish to touch on two issues that I consider important as they affect our city: Prop. 6 and Prop. 10.

Gas taxes and roads

Prop. 6 would repeal the Road Repair and Accountability Act, also known as Senate Bill 1 (SB1).

Decades ago, the Legislature adopted a measure that placed a tax on gasoline to help pay for road construction and maintenance throughout the state. The amount of the tax was fixed while the price of gas increased over time, so the relative amount of tax revenue compared to the overall price of gas declined. This also resulted in an unavoidable decline over time in the amount of road maintenance and construction possible, due on one hand to inflation in the costs of labor and materials and on the other hand to an increase in miles driven, resulting in an increase in road wear and, consequently, an increase in the amount of new roads and maintenance required on existing roads.

Combined with less than prudent oversight and less than stellar accountability, the road funds got diverted and used for assorted hot button issues and crises. For decades, this fact did not sit well with the general public. In April 2017, the state Legislature passed SB1 to raise the tax but, significantly, allowed it to increase with the cost of living. A measure that passed on the June ballot also made it more difficult to divert the funds to things other than transportation projects.

As is the case for the state as a whole, the city of Concord is underfunded with respect to our road repair and replacement needs. The Great Recession forced us to seriously fall back on long-term road maintenance needs, and now our roads are deteriorating at an ever-expanding rate.

With the passage of SB1, we started to catch up on some of our replacement and repairs needs. Another $3 million that will become available under SB1 would help a lot in terms of dealing with our shortfall in road funds.

If Prop. 6 passes, the city’s transportation budget will be another $3 million short, and repairs to roads such as Oak Grove Road and Treat Boulevard will languish.

Ironically, if it passes, car drivers will have more dollars in their pockets to pay for the additional car repairs that will become necessary due to the continuing deterioration of the roads (as well as stamps for the many letters they will write to their elected officials regarding the bad condition of the roads).

Similarly, there will be a minor reduction in the costs of goods that are delivered by truck due to the reduced cost of gas. However, this cost reduction will again be offset by cost increases due to increased delivery delays due to road congestion and to increasing vehicle breakdowns resulting from the lack of adequate road maintenance.

Rental regulations

Prop. 10 would remove limits the state Legislature placed on cities regarding rental regulations in the 1995 bill known as the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act. State law currently only allows cities to regulate rents in multi-family structure built before 1995. For Concord, that is about 8,800 units. If Prop. 10 passes, the city will be empowered to address the whole range of possible rental market regulations.

Not that the city has shown much willingness to do so in the past, as evidenced by the irregular pattern of skyrocketing rents in the recent past. For example, the current City Council was not even able to agree to discuss the possibility of enacting a temporary ban on rent increases on an owner of more than 28 units who was recently found to be in default of the building code. (You really have to work at it to be in default after multiple notices from code enforcement.)

Many city officials across the state like provisions of Prop. 10 because, to some extent, it removes from them the pressure from groups wanting rent reform. It also shields them from the ire and fear of the large number of small and very small landlords who own rental properties as part of their personal livelihood and/or pensions, as opposed to large corporate owners who own their properties for profit only. (I believe in Concord we have 350 small landlords who have fewer rental units than are owned by the top two or three corporations combined.)

Any attempt by a city to balance the interests of all renters, small landlords and large corporate landlords with a stake in the city’s housing stock can be quite a challenge. It also brings with it a heightened concern on the part of all those who are affected, as well as raising sometimes unrealistic expectations – whether of harm or of good.

In the recent past, the city of Concord has heard a steadily increasing drumbeat advocating for solutions to these rental issues. The city’s responses (or lack thereof) have not satisfied the drummers, partially due to the limited scope of actions that the city is allowed under Costa-Hawkins. Opening up the range of possible actions as provided for in Prop. 10 would give the city more flexibility in addressing the needs of all concerned stakeholders.

This is your call, folks. It is a democracy, after all.

Email questions and comments to Mayor Birsan at EdiBirsan@gmail.com

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