All You Need to Know - No Pleasant Hill Tax - the "No on Measure T" campaign
What Pleasant Hill Voters Need to Know About Measure T

by Wendy Lack on October 14, 2010

Measure T is a Pleasant Hill ballot measure to increase and expand the City’s current utility tax. If approved by voters, the current 1% tax on phones will increase to 1.5%, and apply to virtually all utility charges, including all telecommunications (all phones and cell phone services), gas, electricity, water, cable TV/internet and sewer charges. The City estimates that Measure T will raise $1.2 million each year to supplement the City’s operating budget (General Fund).

Pleasant Hill is a quiet, family-friendly bedroom community (pop. 33,000) characterized by strong community spirit and a long history of supporting funding for local schools, the Rec & Park District, and City government. However this year, a new and uncharacteristic anti-tax sentiment has emerged.

Some say last year’s Measure C – the Mt. Diablo School District bond measure that was sold to voters with misleading, incomplete information – has left residents feeling betrayed and cautious of new spending proposals. Others attribute the change to the national fervor for smaller government as evidenced by the “Taxed Enough Already” so-called tea party movement. Still others attribute the change in voter attitudes to continuing high unemployment and foreclosure rates in the Bay Area, combined with countless media reports of pension abuses and pay scandals among local government agencies across the state.

Whatever the reasons for these new voter attitudes, there’s little doubt that it’s now a whole new ballgame when it comes to selling voters on tax increases. And this makes the game of predicting election outcomes that much more fun for those (like me) who enjoy prognosticating about politics.

Take, for example, the slick the Yes on T campaign mailer that was received in Pleasant Hill mailboxes in early October. It’s an attractive, large full-color piece with the requisite photos of police, road repair crews and cute little children reading books. Voters typically eat this stuff up. And it says that the Chief of Police and the City Council support Measure T, to boot! In an ordinary election year, the public would swallow all of this whole. In years past, photos of a police cruiser and adorable tots would suffice to gain most voters’ support for a new tax. But this year, Pleasant Hill voters are seeing past the rhetoric and bureaucratese and making radical moves like, well, asking questions.

It appears that the 2010 voter is more thoughtful and a tad bit more cynical about politicians’ promises – which is a good thing. This may be why most Pleasant Hill voters now see Measure T for what it is: A new way to fund City employee pay, pension and other benefits in order to maintain current compensation and perks.

As a result of the Measure T campaign, voters know that Pleasant Hill employees contribute nothing towards their CalPERS defined benefit pension plan, while the City foots 100% of the cost totaling $2.8 million last year alone.

Voters also know that Pleasant Hill employees contribute only $55 towards coverage through the City’s group health insurance plan (which can cost up to $2000 per month for family coverage) which amounts to a mere 4% of the City’s cost of about $1.6 million annually.

Voters employed in the private sector sure as heck know that they don’t enjoy benefits like this and wonder why they should pay for someone who does!

Importantly, voters now realize that City compensation for Pleasant Hill employees – including its City Manager whose pay exceeds that of the State Governor – is out of proportion for a City its size and won’t change unless elected officials are left with no other choice.

Elected officials generally like to stay on the good side of labor groups, particularly the public employee unions. After all, elected Councilmembers and Board members work with agency staff daily and naturally develop relationships and rely on them. This makes it tough for well-intended policymakers to set parameters on labor negotiations, particularly when all local agencies in the surrounding area are playing the same “ratcheting up” games with employee compensation.

No employer wants to risk placing itself at a competitive disadvantage by walking the plank first – so the cycle continues and public employees come to believe they are entitled to benefits and pay consistent with the historical practice, instead of based upon the realities of a dynamic labor market.

Voters have figured out that giving government more money doesn’t solve the problem of public employee excessive compensation. In fact, the Pleasant Hill voters have figured out that giving less money to government may be the only way to bring fiscal discipline to City Hall.

During the past year voters have heard about numerous public employee benefit abuses and stories of excessive pay. These reports quickly became conventional wisdom, so that now public agencies at all levels — from schools and cities and counties, to special districts, to the state and federal government – are playing defense, and rightly so. City of Pleasant Hill employees are no different, which is why many are supporting the Yes on Measure T campaign. In fact, recent campaign finance reports reveal that one of Pleasant Hill’s bargaining groups contributed $2,500 to the Yes on T campaign — big bucks for a little local race, but probably a clever move when defending one’s nest egg.

Several Pleasant Hill City Councilmembers have stated repeatedly that they “trust the voters” – and I do, too. On November 2nd the vote count will effectively take the pulse of the community. Then we’ll find out if voter attitudes have changed as much as it seems. If Measure T and other tax hikes on the ballot are defeated, it may mean that local government’s efforts to raise taxes have awakened a slumbering giant by raising broad awareness about what’s really going on down at City Hall. In that case, perhaps we’ll have the City of Bell to thank. Stay tuned.

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