City muddles tax cut verbiage

JULY 26, 2010

By KATY GRIMES

Ballot language for a Sacramento city utilities initiative that would rollback rates — proposed by the city attorney and approved by the City Council last week — is so confusing and unreadable that even the measure’s sponsor says he doesn’t understand it. He worries that it will cause the measure to lose at the polls.

The rate rollback measure, which will appear on the Nov. 2 ballot as Measure B, will cancel a scheduled July 1, 2020, 9.2 percent hike in city utilities rates, freeze rates for one year and then allow the City Council to raise rates in the future up to annual increases in the Consumer Price Index, but require the city to obtain voter approval rates hikes above the CPI.

“Last week, the Sacramento City Council approved a ballot question for Measure B that is so convoluted in its wording and so tortured in its construction that many voters may throw up their hands in frustration and vote against it just because they won’t understand it,” said Craig Powell, chairman of the Campaign for Common Sense Utilities Rates, the sponsor of Measure B.

“I had to reread it three times myself before I could begin to understand it — and I wrote the measure,” said Powell, a local attorney.

The ballot question was one of three that were submitted by Sacramento city attorney Eileen Teichert to the council last Tuesday night. The other two were for proposed new tax measures: one for a tax on marijuana sales, and the other for a $29 parcel tax to fund youth programs, which was subsequently withdrawn. Both of the council-proposed tax hike ballot measures were easy to understand, while ironically, the measure that would place limits on the council’s ability to continue raise utilities rates, is ambiguous and deceptive.

This leads some critics to question the council’s motives in approving the convoluted ballot language.

“Even the misleading, confusing language was recognized by members of the Sacramento City Council,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, referring to questions by council members before voting to approve the language. Councilwoman Lauren Hammond said that the initiative’s ballot language is “difficult and confusing.” Coupal’s association has been keeping a close watch on the utility measure.

Powell said it is an abuse of discretion and a misuse power and position to produce ballot language designed to confuse voters.  Powell suggested that it was an attempt to manipulate the outcome of an election.

Powell, a member of the board of directors for the Sacramento County Taxpayers League said that the league will protest the misleading ballot language at Tuesday’s council meeting, and is likely to seek a court order striking the current language in favor of adopting clear ballot language if the council fails to take action to correct the problem itself.

City utilities manager Marty Hanneman insisted that if the initiative passes it will impose significant costs on the city and the utilities department, including approximately $20 million in reductions to the water, sewer and solid waste funds for budget year 2011-12. He insisted that large-scale cuts would be necessary. Some of the proposed cuts Hanneman recommended include a reduction in utility department employees, suspension of water department memberships to other water associations, delayed responses to flooding, suspension of the city’s $1 million per-year water fluoridation program, reduced water pressure in homes and businesses and fines for building moratoriums. Hanneman said that the long-term impact would be even more dramatic if costs of service increase at a rate exceeding the CPI, and voters do not approve rate increases.

Greg Hatfield, vice chairman, of the Campaign for Common Sense Utilities Rates disagreed with Hanneman’s assessments, and testified at the council meeting that the same loss-of-service threats were presented last year as cuts to the utility department were discussed. Hatfield offered evidence of a city water project budgeted at $4 million in 2009, but the same project in the 2010 budget was mysteriously elevated to $10 million. Hatfield suggested that the department needs to make cuts, and used the dramatic increase in a single project cost as evidence.

The Measure B ballot question wording written by the city attorney reads:

Shall the ordinance repealing increases in monthly water, sewer, garbage/solid waste disposal service rates approved by the Sacramento City Council in June 2009, setting these monthly utility rates at the amounts in effect on February 2010, and allowing the City Council to increase these rates without voter approval beginning July 2012 only if the rates are not increased above the annual increase in a specified consumer price index, be adopted?

Powell’s proposed rewrite of the Measure B ballot question is easier to understand:

Shall monthly rates for water, sewer and garbage services be rolled back to the rates that were in effect on February 10, 2010, and shall the City Council be allowed, after July 2012, to increase monthly rates by no more than annual increases in the consumer price index, unless Sacramento voters approve rate increases above annual increases in the Consumer Price Index?

Several calls to the utility department were not returned.

1 comment

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  1. Tom Tanton
    Tom Tanton 27 July, 2010, 13:51

    see now they’re learning from our AG (see title for proposition 23). It’s a shame and disenfranchises voters to have such poorly written and misleading titles/summaries/text to vote on. It isn’t by mistake.

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