Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | April 18, 2006

Let’s look at all the RDA options

As I write on Sunday, the skies are gray and drizzling. While I’m as sick as anyone of our unseasonably late rainy season, I’ve managed to avoid whining about the weather too much — until now.

But no longer does the sight of emerald hills outweigh my lengthened inclement-weather commutes. No longer does the comfort of cold-weather soups and stews outweigh my desire to fire up the grill. No longer does the ease of pulling weeds from sodden soil outweigh my desire to put plants in the ground.

In part due to cabin fever brought on by the seemingly endless rain, I recently succumbed to a yearlong temptation to add my satellite television service’s sports channel package. I didn’t want the sports package for golf, baseball games or NASCAR races. I can’t think of anything more boring than televised golf, baseball or auto racing – OK, fishing is more yawn-inducing.

No, I wanted it for poker. If I’m going to be stuck inside, I decided, I’m at least going to watch top poker professionals voluntarily indoors for hours playing a game that fascinates me.

I added the sports package in part because I’m tired of spending my stuck-indoors time pondering Morgan Hill politics. In particular, I’ve been vexed about why mothballing or shuttering Morgan Hill’s redevelopment agency wasn’t presented as an budget-balancing option at the city’s much-ballyhooed community conversations. Recently it came to light that, due to complex property tax shuffling rules for agencies with RDAs, suspending or dissolving the agency would nearly eliminate the city’s $1.5 million general fund budget deficit without tax increases or service cuts.

Instead, residents who participated in the conversations were asked which services they’d cut if taxes aren’t increased. For example, attendees were asked if they’d rather lay off police officers or have the parks go brown. They were also asked if they’d support a tax increase to maintain current services or a steeper one to increase services.

Before news that suspending or dissolving the city’s RDA would greatly ease its budget crunch broke, I spoke to several community conversation attendees who felt the process was designed to lead them to one conclusion: taxes must increase; the only real question was how much. Whether or not it’s an accurate assessment, the fact remains that it’s the impression many people had. When residents learned that the city didn’t present a viable no-tax-increase, no-service-cut option at those meetings, that impression was reinforced.

I recently attended a Morgan Hill City Council meeting during which several councilmen used their dais time to mention that were it not for its RDA, Morgan Hill would not be able to build a new library. And as far as that goes, it’s true enough.

But it omits an important detail: The library costs the city nothing to run, because operating costs are covered by the Joint Powers Authority. Because RDAs can only pay for capital costs, not operating costs, the library is an ideal RDA project.

The library stands in stark contrast to other facilities that the Morgan Hill RDA built, like the community center, the play house and the aquatics center, none of which cover their operating costs and therefore contribute greatly to the city’s $1.5 million deficit. When the currently under construction indoor recreation center opens, it will also be a drain on the city’s general fund.

I’d like to have a conversation about extending the RDA under the condition that no facilities can be built that would cost the city money to operate. I’d like to discuss creating an RDA that only pays to fix infrastructure, to remove blight, to build affordable housing and to create a cohesive downtown plan. Those items aren’t as sexy as swim centers, granted, but also cost the general fund nothing to operate.

But given the recent history of building facilities that the city cannot afford to operate, and given that suspending or ending the RDA would greatly ease the city’s general fund deficit, I’m having a hard time justifying extending the RDA in its current form to 2038. Nevertheless, that’s just what the city is poised to do — without any community conversations or ballot measures, and without any restrictions on projects that create red ink for the city’s general fund.

And I cannot understand why — if city officials truly wanted community conversations about how to manage the city’s fiscal woes — they did not talk to residents about suspending or ending the RDA, because the city really needs to answer this question: Does the desire to build spiffy new facilities outweigh residents’ willingness to pay to operate them?

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