Monday, April 21, 2008

Earth Day 2008

Tomorrow is the 38th Earth Day. That's one day a year set aside to think about how what we do affects the planet that we live on.

I'll commemorate Earth Day by not using my car at all. This is a mostly symbolic gesture for me. I travel so much for my day job that I spend a lot of time driving back and forth to the airport and flying around, so I have a bigger carbon footprint than most people. But I do try to have at least one car-free day a week. I'm lucky to be able to have the option because I can walk or bike or conveniently take the bus to practically everything I need, including my job, the supermarket, and City Hall.

Earth Day has had meaning for me since it began back in 1970. I was a ninth-grader in a small city in Upstate New York, and I was part of a group called "Growing Americans Stopping Pollution" (GASP). We spent earth day cleaning litter out of our local riverbed. Almost 40 years later, and we are still trying to figure out how to keep our riverbeds -- and our planet -- clean enough for us to survive. (Though on Saturday morning, 450 people turned out for Earth Day beach cleanup and picked up an enormous amount of trash!) It does seem to me that the issue of climate change has created a "special moment" in our environmental awareness similar to the one that gave birth to the original Earthy Day.

I won't go on at great length about what we at the City are doing or what we as a community are doing on the environment. Suffice it to say that every day should be Earth Day; every technology should be a green technology; and every job should be a green job. But the job of protecting the environment -- on top of everything else we have to do at City Hall -- is sometimes really overwhelming. For example, climate change is sure to be on of our biggest issues here in Ventura in the years ahead. We are a beach town in between two rivers, and a rising sea level will have enormous consequences. But in the rush of daily business, neither I nor anyone else has had the time or energy (to say nothing of the money!) to begin dealing with the question. All I can promise to you is that I'll work harder on that one in the months and years ahead.

What's a tax and what's a fee?

We've been getting some flak for the new fire inspection fee for high fire hazard areas, and I think the topic warrants some discussion. The fee charges high-fire-hazard homeowners $99 each for the City's annual inspection of their property.

Last week we on the City Council got this email from a constituent:

Was this $99.00 fee for weed abatement dreamed up at the same time as the 911 fee? Fire and police protection clearly fall into the 'General Fund' category. Therefore I'm not sure what I'm paying for; but I am VERY sure I'm not getting my money's worth from this City Government . . . !!

Here's the response I wrote:

Thanks for writing. I wish we never had to charge anybody any fees for anything. Unfortunately, sometimes we do.

As I'm sure you know, the state laws governing property tax (principally Proposition 13) keep those property taxes fairly low compared to other states and also gives us only a small share of the property tax -- only about $1 out of every $6 in property taxes you pay come to the city. I wish we could change that, but we really can't. It's all either set in the state constitution or determined by the Legislature.

Therefore, sometimes we have to charge fees for specific things. In this case, the City is obligated to enforce the State Fire Code as it pertains to 1,200 property owners who live in high fire hazard areas. (This is about 3% of all the properties in the city -- there are about 40,000 properties altogether.) As I am sure you know, it is the property owner's responsibility to abate the weeds and grass in the fire hazard areas, and if this is not done by the time fire season starts the fire department will go on to your property and do it for you and you still have to reimburse the city. (I know this because I used to live in one of these areas.)

But even if you cut down the weeds yourself, there's still a cost to the city for coming out and inspecting each of the 1,200 properties and determining whether the property owner is complying. The $99 fee is designed to cover most of the city's cost of "monitoring compliance" in this way. And you're right, this fee is new. For the City, it's a question of who bears the cost of monitoring compliance of these 1,200 properties with the mandatory State Fire Code. Should that cost be borne by the 1,200 property owners in the fire hazard areas, who must comply with the law? Or should the cost be borne by the other 39,000 property owners whose properties are not in fire hazard areas? Our conclusion was that, since it is the responsibility of the 1,200 property owners to comply with the law, it is only fair that it should be their responsibility to pay for compliance monitoring too. I wish we could pay for everything out of general tax money, but we can't.

I'm sorry you don't feel like you're getting your money's worth. As I said before, unfortunately under state law the City only receives $1 out of every $6 in property taxes you pay. I don't know how much your property tax bill is, so let me use an example. Let's say the property tax bill that you just paid (due April 10th) was $1,500. (This would be about right for a house that was purchased for $300,000.) Well, about $750 of that bill goes to the school district. About $500 goes to the county. And about $250 of it goes to the City. I'm sorry if you don't feel like you're getting $250 worth of service (or whatever the amount is for you) in a six-month period from everything the City does.

This is why Cities have to charge fees when we often wish we didn't have to -- because we don't get as much property tax as people think we do. I know this is hard to believe, but generally speaking Ventura charges fees on fewer things, and charges lower fees, than most other cities in this area.

Bill Fulton
Deputy Mayor

The constituent and I emailed back and forth a couple of times more, and it was a pretty cordial exchange. In the end he still believed it was a tax, rather than a fee, and joked that politically this was okay for us because it was a tax on only 3% of the voters.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the flak on both this and the 911 fee comes from the perception that the constituents who pay the fee don't see what they're getting for it. We already have access to the 911 system, so why do have to all of a sudden start paying for that access? The city already inspects our properties, so why do we have to all of a sudden start paying for that? And it's not like we're getting anything new or anything we want. We're just paying fees for things that should be general government expenses.

These are all fair points and I can understand why people have this reaction. But my response is this: For better or worse, over the past 30 years -- since the passage of Proposition 13 -- cities have been charging more and more, and higher and higher, fees for a variety of specialized services because we can no longer afford to pay for them out of general tax revenue. The goal in charging these fees is recover costs from individual constituents who benefit from individual services; so that the general tax money can be used for things that benefit our community as a whole. We in Ventura have been behind the curve on this for many years -- there's been a culture in City Hall that we just can't bear to charge our constituents for anything. As a result, we have high expectations and not enough money to meet those expectations. We have to begin reconciling the two.

How Do We Avoid Becoming a Commuter town?

Last week my friend Camille Harris delivered another negative broadside in the Star, attacking the City on a wide range of issues. I thought the article was both inaccurate and unfair, and so I have submitted this letter to the editor to the Star.

To the Editor,

Once again, Camille Harris has written an op/ed piece that relies mostly on hyperbole -- and, in some cases, erroneous information -- to make a case against the City of Ventura's economic development and planning policies. ("New urbanists trying to wall city in gray," April 18).

That's too bad, because the goals Camille seeks to promote in her article -- especially her goal of a town with fewer commuters -- are goals shared by the City Council. And the very policies she harshly criticizes are, in fact, designed to promote the goal she professes to support. I hope that Camille and everyone else in Ventura can unite around these common goals and work together to achieve them, rather than focusing on negative rhetoric.

First, a little fact-checking is in order.

Camille claims that Ventura is mostly a commuter town and the end result of our planning efforts will be to build more housing for commuters. These statements are not true.

By any standard, Ventura is job rich, with more than 50,000 jobs -- including many good-paying jobs at the County Government center and elsewhere.

Also, about 50% of the people who work in Ventura also live in Ventura. This is a far better situation than in any other city in Ventura County. In most of the other cities, only about 25% of workers live in town and 75% commute. So we are far more in balance -- and have fewer commuters relative to the size of our city -- than Oxnard, Thousand Oaks, Santa Paula, or any other city nearby.

To me, this is the single most wonderful and precious aspect of living in Ventura. Because so many people who live in town don't have to commute somewhere else, they have more time, energy, and money to devote to life in our community -- as neighborhood activists, soccer coaches, PTO presidents, and so forth.

But this wonderful balance of living and working in Ventura is also fragile. The percentage of people who both live here and work here is going down. This is especially true in the western part of our city, such as the Midtown neighborhood where Camille lives, because Santa Barbara folks can afford to outbid local residents for beautiful old houses. That is why I believe that all of us in Ventura -- the city government, businesess, environmentalists, and neighborhood activists -- must work together to ensure that our beautiful city remains a city where people can both live and work.

In fact, both of the city policies that Camille criticized so harshly in her op/ed piece -- our infill development policy and our economic development policy -- have been put in place for the purpose of maintaining the fragile jobs-housing balance that all of us, including both Camille and myself, value so highly.

If we had continued our housing sprawl policy of past years, the result would be the construction of many more large single-family homes on large lots, which would be affordable only to Santa Barbara commuters and L.A. refugees with lots of home equity. In addition to discouraging that type of development, the City Council has also strongly resisted attempts by developers to take land reserved for jobs and convert it to housing. We've been heavily criticized by the business community for being anti-business in these situations -- especially when we refused to allow this switcheroo to happen with the Star's former headquarters on Ralston. But for most of us on the council, it wasn't clear to us why being "pro-business" required us to create more housing for commuters -- and take needed land away from office and industrial developments to do it.

By contrast, our infill development policy instead encourages developers to build a greater variety of housing -- including two- and three-bedroom townhomes and condominiums -- that will be less attractive to commuters and more affordable to the hard-working people who already live and work here in town. These folks will then have the time and energy to serve as soccer coaches and PTO presidents.

On economic development, Camille is quite right that we have not done a very good job over the last decade of fostering positive economic growth -- and especially bringing good jobs to town. That is why we partnered with a venture capital firm to encourage the creation and expansion of high-tech and biotech companies here in Ventura. These companies are well established in both Santa Barbara and the Camarillo-Thousand Oaks area -- but many of the people who work at those companies commute out to those locations. With the help of our venture capital partners, we will be able to nurture companies here in town where these folks will be able to work. This will allow them to stop commuting, work in town, and -- again -- allow them to conserve their time and energy to benefit our community.

It is always tempting to believe, as Camille often suggests, that we on the City Council have the power to stop the world from changing or to protect our beautiful town from anything bad that might happen. I wish we had this power, but of course we don't. The world -- and our community -- will change whether we like it or not. I believe our job on the City Council is to work hard to make sure that we can manage the change so that it makes our community better rather than worse.

I agree with Camille that our goal should be a community where as many people as possible can both live and work in town. But this won't happen if all we do is pine for bygone days. To succeed, we all have to work together to recognize what is going on in the world around us and find ways to work aggressively to achieve the goals we all share.