Genesis and Marketing of Measure R Sales Tax
Orinda’s 20-year, one percent, Measure R sales tax, approved by the voters in November 2020 ballot, had been planned since 2012.
In 2012 the City created its first Road and Drainage Repairs Plan. This plan envisioned four taxes to repair and then maintain Orinda’s sub-standard road system. First a 10-year sales tax, supplemented by two bond measures to bring the roads up to reasonable standards, followed up by a long-term sales tax for maintenance. The plan was updated in 2014 (when the first bond was approved) and again in 2016 (when the second bond was approved). In both updates the long-term sales tax renewal was planned.
By 2019 most of the deferred maintenance of the roads had been completed or had funding in place; the economy was strong; so, the City began planning for the phase-4 road funding, an extension of the sales tax for ongoing road and storm drain maintenance funding. The planning process included a survey of residents to determine how strongly a new/continued infrastructure maintenance tax would be supported.
This survey was conducted in February 2020. In addition to asking if people would support a tax (a 60% majority would), the survey asked how people prioritized use of the new tax, giving them 22 options, including 9 different options for infrastructure (road and storm drain) maintenance (the survey was obviously pushing infrastructure maintenance). About 30% of respondents listed the infrastructure options as extremely important. But 55% said wildfire prevention was extremely important, the top “vote getter”. And so, Measure R was transformed from an Infrastructure Tax (roads and storm drains, which was the primary purpose of the expiring 2012 sales tax) to an Essential Services Tax (wildfire prevention, emergency preparedness plus roads and storm drains [in 3rd and 4th place]). And it was placed on the November ballot as such
The City is prohibited from spending money “marketing” measures it puts on the ballot. But City Council Members can support issues as individuals. And all five Council Members did.
A support PAC was created by former council member Sue Severson. This PAC took $12,000 left over from selling the 2016 road bond and renamed the road bond PAC (Fix Orinda Roads Now), Safer Orinda. Four of the five council members contributed an aggregate $1,300 to this “new” PAC and all five members were prominently displayed as endorsers of Measure R in the PAC’s ads. The ads “mentioned” all four elements the tax was “supposed to” support, including roads and storm drains, but the graphics screamed FIRE!!! (“Supposed to” refers to the fact that the tax was a “general” tax which the city could technically use for any purpose it wanted to, even though the “pledge” was to use it for the four essential services.) The PAC raised $29,000, in addition to the $12,000 “seed money” from Fix Orinda Roads, and spent $37,000 in newspaper ads and mailers, focused on fire prevention.
In addition to Safer Orinda promoting Measure R, Orinda Firewise also placed ads in the Orinda News and the Lamorinda Weekly supporting Measure R with the graphic of a burnt building.
Letters to the editor supporting the tax and blogs on social media, like NextDoor, confirmed that people considered the tax essentially a fire prevention tax, while detractors pointed out that it could, and would, be used for infrastructure maintenance.
The detractors’ “fears” were confirmed when the Director of Public Works presented a 20-year projection of uses for the tax to the CIOC (Citizens Infrastructure Oversight Commission). 76% was for roads and storm drains; 9% for emergency preparedness; only 15% for wildfire prevention.
Measure R was conceived as an infrastructure tax, sold as a wildfire prevention tax, and will probably be used as an infrastructure tax. A classic bait-and-switch by the City of Orinda against its residents and taxpayers.