Capitol Mischief on Admission Day

SEPT. 10, 2010

Thursday was California Admission Day – the 160th anniversary of California getting admitted to the United States. Over at the state Capitol, they celebrated the old fashioned way, with a bunch of people dressed up in 1850s garb handing out cake and ice cream while photographers ran around getting shots of other people eating said cake and ice cream and, in at least one instance, feeding cake and ice cream to a pet dog. It was all pretty silly, but it was nothing compared to what was going on inside the Capitol.

There, among hundreds of bills passed by the Legislature and waiting for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s signature, are two proposed laws that will make it absurdly easy for local officials to push through wasteful redevelopment deals. There’s AB2531, authored by Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, D-Sylmar, that would expand the justifications for officials to use redevelopment powers. The bill says that officials could start defining redevelopment as providing “direct assistance to businesses” that “Reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” “Increase energy efficiency” or even “Improve indoor air quality.”

Keep in mind that redevelopment was originally conceived as a way for city officials to make it attractive for companies to locate in economically depressed areas. On paper this looks great, until you realize that it’s a zero-sum game – a new shopping center subsidized in a redevelopment zone will rob business from other nearby shopping areas that lack the benefits of government subsidies. They can’t compete, and die off, creating new redevelopment zones and so on.

The other bill, AB1791, is authored by Assemblyman William Monning, D-Santa Cruz, would loosen up the requirements for declaring a portion of old Fort Ord in Monterey blighted. This seems especially egregious considering how easy it already is for city officials to get redevelopment going, which usually ends up with cities condemning private property and then paying its owners pennies on the dollar in compensation. And don’t get me started on the amount of debt these agencies incur.

“All a city need to do to create or expand a redevelopment area is to declare it ‘blighted,’” states the Sept. 2007 edition of Redevelopment: The Unknown Government, which was edited by Assemblyman Chris Norby, R-Fullerton. “This is easily done. State law is so vague that most anything has been designated as ‘blight.’ Parkland, new residential areas, professional baseball stadiums, oil fields, shopping centers, orange groves, open desert and dry riverbeds have all been designated as ‘blight’ for redevelopment purposes.”

Norby knows redevelopment. He first learned of it years ago when confronted with a senior citizen who lost his home because the city wanted to build a Gemco. In 1996, he helped form Municipal Officials for Redevelopment Reform (MORR), which published its first Redevelopment report in October of that year. Updated versions of the report have appeared more or less each year since.

“MORR is a dot in the universe,” one of Norby’s aides told me. “Their overall budget is like $8,000, which is mainly to publish that report.”

A few years ago, cities pushed redevelopment on unsuspecting citizens by talking about all the “low-cost” housing it would create. These days, with property values far lower, officials are now trying to justify redevelopment in terms of the jobs it will supposedly create.

“If there were ever a time for redevelopment officials to focus their attention on the retention and creation of new jobs, it would be during this Great Recession,” reads one official comment attached to AB2531. “For the next seven years, AB2531 allows local officials (to) harness redevelopment agencies’ extraordinary powers to help private businesses keep existing jobs and grow the workforce.”

Bill watchers expect Schwarzenegger to sign both bills. For those like Norby, opposed to the expansion of such powers, it would seem a dark time. But even they have their bright moments.

In April Norby went to Martinez, where 50 or so residents opposed to city efforts to redevelop the downtown, marina and North Pacheco areas. “If there’s a need for it, the market will supply it,” Norby said, according to the Contra Costa Times. “We don’t need government subsidizing it.”

“Everyone got fired up,” Norby’s aide recalled. “There were people there of every color, every political party. They were all worried about their property rights, but they all came together. It was kind of refreshing.”

-Anthony Pignataro

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