Claremont Insider: Trouble in River City

Friday, August 3, 2007

Trouble in River City

Not to beat a dead horse, but we received one more email regarding Claremont's Landscaping and Lighting District (LLD) assessment, the revenue generator that the city uses to pay for various maintenance costs.

Because the city revisits the LLD each year to revise and raise the amount it levies each property owner, it continues to generate controversy and represents, to many citizens, an annual reminder of the sort of manipulation the Claremont 400 is famous for around these parts.

The LLD was never put to a property owner vote when it first instituted in 1990 and would likely have failed as the Parks and Pasture Assessment did in 2006 (56% to 44%).

After California's Proposition 215 in 1996 mandated a vote on assessment districts and taxes if they had not submitted to a public vote, Claremont, rather than voting on the LLD separately, combined the LLD with the city's utility tax in a single initiative.

This had the effect of giving Claremont voters a false all-or-nothing choice. If they voted NO, they would have been voting to cripple the city's finances. The city and the Claremont 400 were thus able to argue that eliminating both the LLD and utility tax would result in drastic cuts in city services. The more reasonable decision would have been to separate the two issues and have two different votes, one for each revenue generator. This combining of the two taxes into a single up or down vote was a false choice pushed by then-City Manager Glenn Southard, who almost certainly conceived the strategy in order to ensure that the LLD would survive and so that Southard and the city could say that it had been approved by voters.

In the early 1990's, Claremont, like a lot of cities during those recessionary times, was experiencing extreme financial distress. The LLD was falsely sold as a temporary fix in 1990 until the city could lift itself into the black, and the utility tax came in a few years later. But where did the idea for a utility tax come from in the first place?

According to our reader,

Back in 1992 Claremont was orchestrating the utility tax, though we didn't know it at the time. I attended one of the "town hall" community meetings referred to by Mayor Wright in her first letter. We grouped at large round tables and, with a city staff person as a recorder, compiled lists of funding sources and program cuts on large flip-pads on easels. Towards the end of the meeting, each group presented its results. Not one group presented a utility tax as a solution.

I remember at the very end someone shouting from the back of the room, "What about a utility tax?" and the staff person hurriedly writing that down. I thought it odd at the time, and I don't think I ever knew who shouted it out. It was very similar to "The Music Man" where Robert Preston attends the town meeting and keeps shouting "pool table" and "what about a pool table in your community?", to get the town fired up over the "problem" of a pool table in River City.

Well, friends, ya' got trouble.

When you at the Claremont Insider refer to these meetings as "dog and pony" shows, you are on the money. They are held merely to provide the appearance of public input in a process that is fore-ordained. Judy Wright says so herself when she refers to the LLD in her letter of July 21: "The early decision-making was done in 1989 before the finance committee met..."

In Claremont, we got taxes with a capital "T" and that rhymes with "D" and that stands for Deny, Dissemble and Dis(re)member, the three corners of the Claremont 400's Pyramid of Success.