Saturday, February 28, 2009

Want To Ride Your Bike In Oakland? Try Piedmont Instead

Today I decided to go for a nice 15-mile ride on my road bike.

As I usually do on such occasions, I took a direct route to Piedmont and cycled around the lovely homes, parks and schools of that well-maintained community.

I'd like to bike near my house, since I live in a location where there are plenty of challenging hills. But in most cases I cannot, because the roads are so poorly maintained here that I would quickly pop a tire or hit a pothole and fall down.

In fact, one of my favorite spots in Oakland is a location along Skyline where someone has actually drawn a circle in fluorescent spray paint around a crack that runs along the road. If you're riding along Skyline and put a tire in that crack, your tire isn't coming out, and you're going to fall down and potentially bend your wheel.

Another spot I love is the place along upper Broadway Terrace where, either due to an underground spring, a break in the water main or a break in the storm drain, there is a constant trickle of water coming out of the asphalt. It appears that the city occasionally slaps some new pavement on the location, but for some reason they'd rather not actually fix the underlying problem.

Contrast this with Piedmont. There, most streets have been resurfaced within the last few years. And many of the streets are wider than their Oakland counterparts.

One can easily tell when crossing the Piedmont-Oakland border, even though it is not well marked. No markings are needed. All you need to do is look down and notice when the road turns from smooth asphalt to warmed-over rubble.

I'm sure the folks at city hall can spin a good explanation for this. Undoubtedly it involves a dearth of funding for basic services.

The real problem is that Oakland's leaders don't put a priority on basics like roads and schools. Rather than putting the first dollar they receive into items like this, they spend their first dollars on pet projects and, apparently, nepotism.

And it's a good thing, too. Who needs roads when we have to keep Deborah Edgerly's entire family employed shuffling paper?

Friday, February 27, 2009

Taxes, Schools and the A's

When you get right down to it the East Bay is really composed of two totally separate communities.

The flatlands consist largely of "diverse" neighborhoods fighting day-to-day battles against urban problems such as crime and joblessness. Then there are the hilly areas to the east, which look a lot more like the wealthy suburbs of the peninsula.

Those living in the latter regions look at the East Bay as an area ripe for all kinds of visionary improvements, given its proximity to San Francisco. Sadly, those in the flatlands know that such change cannot and will not take place -- not, at least, without displacing large numbers of them.

I believe it is this dichotomy which makes many elements of the public discussion boring and a bit silly. The reality is that passage of a new parcel tax to fund cops or parks or education won't have much impact on the community at large. This is because the hills dwellers are already largely unaffected by each of these elements of public policy. And, most of the flatlanders just don't have much time or inclination to seek out the benefits such policies could provide.

Simple demographics indicate that the wealthier residents of our area have little voice in the process. This is actually the number one reason why parcel taxes frequently pass, even though everybody knows they will have no positive impacts and the funding mechanism is actually regressive. Since most voters are renters, they perceive the measures as having no costs to them. So, why not vote yes?

In other words, we live in a community with have-mores and have-nots, and very few people in the middle. This is problematic because the former set of people largely tune out because they just view this as a bedroom community, and the latter set of people mostly view public policy as a way to get money from the "system." Too few residents really behave as stakeholders in what happens to their city.

A number of issues have arisen recently which make a lot more sense when viewed through this lens. The issues involve taxes, schools and the Oakland A's. But rather than address them individually, I'd like to make the broader point so you can see the way I look at these things.

Most of the local bloggers like to sit around and discuss the nitty-gritty of these proposals.

Recently, I had an interesting online discussion in this vein with V Smoothe of A Better Oakland (who subsequently removed her link to this blog). Her point to me was that I could not comment intelligently on the California budget mess without knowing the details of funding formulas and revenue sources. My point to her was that she was trapped in a box by thinking about things at such a level of detail.

For example, I know that the tax burden on an average citizen in California vastly exceeds that in Nevada. I know this because I own houses in both places, and I spend time in each state. But, if I attempt to make a case for lower spending in California, such an argument can be easily rebuffed with reference to thousands of individual pieces of data about various programs, services and taxes.

But such a line of argumentation ignores the forest for the trees. The fact remains that a family living in Nevada and making $100k a year pays maybe $10k a year in combined sales, property and income taxes. In California, the same family pays $20k or more.

It's a frustrating situation, and it saddens me that similar lines of thinking have infected our local discourse. There is no room for "big picture" thinking, because we're always busy screwing around with Dullums' latest idiocy or the Bart shooting.

I realize such issues matter a lot to some people, but in a decade or two they will be irrelevant and forgotten.

Perhaps it's time for some of us to start talking about big things that, if accomplished, would make a difference to our region for years to come.

For starters, Oakland taxes its residents too much and provides far too little in return. In fact, it occurred to me recently that, as a ratio of school quality to property taxes, Oakland is probably the worst deal in the entire country.

If a family buys a house for $500k in East Oakland, they immediately must pay around $8000 a year in property taxes. That same family would likely be crazy to send kids to the local schools with API scores of 600 or less.

What's the big-picture thinking here? How about reducing property taxes to the California average and starting magnet schools at the elementary, middle and high school levels?

I'm sure people can give me all sorts of minutia-type arguments as to why this is impossible. But everyone knows it's completely possible given the right leadership and the right set of laws.

Another example is the Oakland A's. Yes, I know that city government would rather blow the money on anti-violence social programs. Yet, here we are with an enormous federal stimulus program that is supposedly aimed at "shovel-ready" programs. Well, how about we hit up the government for money to redevelop an area of Oakland with a new stadium?

People tell me that new stadiums don't help economically. Then I ask them why the South of Market area of San Francisco has revitalized so quickly, and they tell me that's a special case. And, by the way, there are a million environmental and urban-planning restrictions on the books that make such a move impossible.

This kind of thinking is exactly why nearly every single piece of compelling urban art or architecture in the City of Oakland dates from the 1950s or earlier. Go take a look at the Rose Garden, Joaquin Miller Park, City Hall and the (closed) convention center. The list goes on and on. Oakland has no big-picture thinkers.

So, I'd like to challenge readers and other bloggers to try and get past the minutia of the day-to-day issues and consider a vision for what big things you'd like to see happen here. I'd be very interested to read about it.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Oakland School District's Latest Poverty Ploy

I'll be the first to admit that I don't really know where the money goes in the Oakland school district.

Somehow, no matter what happens at the state or local level, the district is always out of money. And it always underperforms other nearby districts by a significant margin.

Like most people, I have read anecdotal reports suggesting that Oakland's bureaucracy is top-heavy and inefficient. I also know that the Oakland teachers' union is very powerful. Owing to an extremely liberal electorate, there is no real check on that power. Parents support the union, even as it abuses their children.

Regardless of the exact spending patterns, I think it's safe to conclude the district's money is not being spent in a particularly efficient fashion.

For example, since I started this blog, I have called for the school district to create some sort of magnet high school. This would lure more affluent students back into the district, it would improve scores districtwide and it would provide an excellent school that high performers from lower-income neighborhoods could attend.

There's no real argument against such an idea, yet the district won't implement it. The closest they come is the excellent Paideia program at Oakland Technical. But that's just one relatively small program at one school.

This weekend I read an article in the East Bay Express about many Oakland's schools not having heat in the classrooms this winter.

Apparently, this problem is a consequence of the school district laying off two of its four "steamfitters" -- the people who turn on the boilers when they are needed. Presumably this is a unionized job, so the district is prevented from just hiring these people as contracters during the busy winter months.

I looked up the job on Wikipedia, and it looks like the only facilities that need full-time steamfitters are places like nuclear power plants. But, I digress.

There's a reason why the school district was unable to turn on the heat this winter, and it has nothing to do with budgetary problems. They did it on purpose.

But what purpose could this possibly serve? Why make the classrooms cold?

It's simple. The Leftists in the government want to get as much money as possible -- not to run a great school district but because they're following the bureaucratic imperative. To do so, they need to make it clear to Oakland residents that there is a budgetary problem that can only be solved by tax increases.

How best to do this?

Oakland's school district has a time-tested strategy when it comes to fundraising. They simply cut things that matter to the vast majority of stuents and parents.

No, they'll never cut out car allowances for the superintendent or bonus pay for principals -- that's not the kind of stuff that will get noticed. Instead, they cut out front-line teachers, they cut music programs and they turn the schools into iceboxes.

The police department does the same thing, incidentally. What better way to get more money out of taxpayers than to allow the city to descend into a lawless disaster zone?

I know many out there will accuse me of looking for conspiracies. But, honestly, how else can you explain this kind of absurd failure? And, honestly, why doesn't the city have a magnet high school? No one has ever explained this to me, in spite of repeated queries to numerous people in and out of government.

I know liberals want to make the charitable assumption that those in leadership positions in government have our best interests at heart.

But it's just not true. All they want is your money and their car allowances. That's the way the game is played in the big city.

Daily Planet's Tiny Dose Of Balance

I can usually rely on the Berkeley Daily Planet for a political viewpoint which is 100 percent Leftist.

An example of this is an article published in the commentary pages this week titled, "Capitalism: A Self-Devouring Beast." I'm not going to bother linking you to this article, for fear of encouraging more people to find it via search engines. But, suffice it to say that its content is every bit as idiotic as its title implies.

But every so often, the Daily Planet publishes a refreshingly rational commentary. This week, I was somewhat shocked to see an article penned by a student at UC Berkeley arguing in favor of restraining government spending.

Here is a link to the article. The author makes the point that the only way to stop politicians from spending the public's money poorly is to simply take the money away from them by lowering taxes.

While the author makes this point in reference to the state of California, it is equally applicable locally. Each time East Bay residents vote in favor of tax increases, all they are doing is encouraging a misallocation of resources by the government.

Because the government is inherently incapable of overcoming such obstacles as special interests and pet projects, it is better simply to cut off the money supply.

I have never really heard a liberal counterargument to this point that made much sense. Liberals generally will tell you how great it would be to see their programs funded.

But they have no response to the reality that the government has no capacity to accomplish what looks so useful and effective on paper.

Anyway, I encourage my readers to read the article in the Daily Planet.