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.


  1. I just wish my husband and I had read this article before we left Marin County to restore a Victorian in the Eastlake area of Oakland. Probably we would not have moved and would have saved ourselves a whole bunch of problems. However, things are looking up for us, my husband was able to leave his position at Stanford and secure a new position at a company based in AZ. Although he has been working from home his new employer has just asked him if he would be open to relocating to AZ. This is the answer to our prayers. We finally have some hope of getting out of the Bay Area. I suppose we will have to carve up our Victorian and rent it out as apartments, which is not what we had planned at all, but with CA poised to raise taxes yet again we have to do what is best for us. I predict the brain drain in CA will not only continue, but grow more rapidly in the next four yrs.

    Next topic---you should run for Mayor, you actually might be able to turn this place around, if anyone can. At least you can see the forest for the trees, unlike V Smoothe. She lost me when she said that Costco has to be on a bus line. Has she ever gone to a Costco? Can you imagine trying to carry 12 rolls of tp, 10 lbs of coffee and a case of wine home on the bus??????

  2. Buying or selling a house in Oakland costs both the buyer and seller 0.75% of the gross sale price in city transfer tax (1.5% in total). Then property taxes (ad valorem and parcel) kick in. The problem is a matter of culture... not practical solutions. The political culture of the Bay Area, and Oakland in particular, is not interested in common sense. As Chip Johnson wrote a few years ago, local political activists are constantly pushing a whole menagerie of screwball agendas. The elected ones pander to these activists and their screwball agendas. Fixing pot holes, attracting new tax base, public safety, bringing local taxes into proper parameters... the activists don't care about these. The activists put out orders of magnitude more visible outrage over the accidental shooting of a BART rider in the Fruitvale station... than the totality of community objection to the cold blooded murders of hundreds of young, local Black men.

  3. I'm in a similar spot to below 580. The next time I move I am going to consider demographics very carefully.