Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Council Votes to Push RCV Decision to January



The Citizen

It's always wise to have a good backup plan. During a night of political wrangling unusual for the San Leandro City Council, its members voted to shelve a decision on the use of Ranked Choice Voting to January.

The recent approval of voting software by the Secretary of State's office along with the promise of further one-time savings appeared to sway the votes of two councilmembers who appeared to be against the voting system.

The 5-2 vote to push the council's decision to the Jan. 19 meeting included the votes of Councilmembers Ursula Reed and Bill Stephens. In previous comments, Reed appeared to be inclined to vote no against RCV. After the vote, she told The Citizen she preferred to wait until a decision on a proposed ballot measure for next year is clear. At this time there is no proposed measure prepared by the city. Councilmembers Joyce Starosciak and Diana Souza voted against the motion.

Reed also voted against Starosciak's substitute motion calling for the council to approve the city staff's recommendation to not pursue RCV next year. Reed's no vote, for now, surprisingly thwarted Starosciak's plan to hold off on RCV for budgetary reasons. RCV, in many ways, has become a proxy battle for next year's mayoral race between Mayor Tony Santos and Starosciak and one she may have lost for the time being.

Stephens' was seen as the swing vote on a council split down gender lines. He typically equivocated on the benefits of RCV before revealing his disapproval. "I'm not sure this is the year," said Stephens. "It's an idea whose time is coming but I'm not sure 2010 is quite the time yet."

Councilmembers Jim Prola, who has been at the forefront of instituting RCV in San Leandro, nearly made a costly mistake when he attempted to call for a vote without yet knowing the mindset of Stephens. It is conceivable without his later "compromise motion" to put off a vote until January, RCV could have been voted down 4-3. Instead, Councilwoman Diana Souza interrupted and asked the staff a question, which was followed by Stephens voicing his preference against RCV.

Despite putting off a decision until January, Starosciak believes more time will not change the variables against RCV. "It seems to me whether we wait or not, it does not change the cost for us this year and doesn't change how much our staff works," said Starosciak. "In fact, the longer we put this off the longer the more work they have to do in parallel planning." Although the latest date the council can approve RCV is Feb. 1, City Clerk Marian Handa says, for practical reasons, her office will need more lead time to prepare.

Alameda County Registrar of Voters Dave Macdonald noted any cost savings from using RCV for a single November election will "evaporate" if an additional ballot measure is placed on a June ballot. Some councilmembers, including Starosciak want to maintain the possibility of a June tax revenue measure if the economy worsens next year.

"We need to make this decision based on how difficult our budgetary times are this year and where our flexibility needs to be for elections next year," said Starosciak. "For this coming year it really doesn't work well with our budget." Santos disagreed with the rationale and said June voters are fewer and more conservative and less likely to approve raising taxes than November voters.

At various moments, Prola and Santos sounded like car salesmen attempting to lure unsure buyers by searching for ways to lower the price of RCV. Prola questioned an estimated $10,000 price tag to mail voters notice of a change of election date, but City Attorney Jayne Williams said the expenditure was state law. The main thrust of next month's debate is likely include the possibility San Leandro can defer the startup costs estimated at $170,000 for the first year. The bulk of the price is due to providing voter education. Prola said he hopes to convince Alameda County to loan the city roughly $40,000; nearly the cost of the voting software.

The total cost of the Sequoia voting system is $350,000, which would be split proportionally among Berkeley, Oakland and San Leandro. With 12 percent of the voters, San Leandro would pitch in that percentage, or $42,000. Macdonald said the rest of the costs, including more polling workers, community outreach and education would be paid by each city. According to Handa, two elections in 2010 would cost $125,000, while the first year of RCV would cost $170,000 and decrease every election cycle afterwards. The city can achieve cost savings on RCV by 2012 according to Handa.

"After 10 election cycles we are going to save hundreds of thousands of dollars that can put towards a lot of things this city needs, including school crossing guards and maintenance," said Prola.

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You state, "Some councilmembers, including Starosciak want to maintain the possibility of a June tax revenue measure if the economy worsens next year."

Is your statement based on comments made by Vice Mayor Starosciak and other council members last night?

If that is the case, the real story of last night's meeting is not the IRV, but certain council member's failure to understand that the city today is in a gave fiscal crisis.

Council members don't have to wait until next year to see if revenues are dropping. The latest revenue numbers from the finance department show the city’s deficit this year may exceed $8 million.

That's a deficit $3 million greater than was anticipated in the budget the city council adopted in June. Further, the city is projecting $4 to $6 million annual deficits through 2014. All reserves will be used in two years and San Leandro could be forced to declare bankruptcy.

Instead of working to meaningfully reduce expenditures, the mayor and city council are moving full speed ahead with another tax measure, an increase in the sales tax, taking it to at least 10%. San Leandro would have the highest sales tax in Northern California. Even at this amount, the city would still be running annual deficits and additional tax measures would have to be placed on future ballots.

The mayor and city council are convinced San Leandrans will support higher taxes. They were also convinced just a few months ago when they adopted the 2009-2010 budget that the California economy would experience a strong rebound and city sales and property taxes receipts would increase.

I believe any sales tax hike will go down to defeat. Seven of the nine municipal sales tax measures on the ballot in California in 2009 lost.
The mayor and city council are rolling the dice and placing the fiscal solvency of our city on the outcome of an election.

Finally, despite Mayor Santos' confusion, the City Manager's plan from the beginning has been to place a sales tax measure on the June 2010 ballot. That's why the city spent $40,000 on a poll and consulting firm a couple of months ago and why the city council just authorized spending $61,000 on a "public information" campaign to sell voters a sales tax hike. The timeline the City Manager gave the city council when he recommended that they approve the information campaign was based on a sales tax measure for the June 2010 ballot.

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