Measure R Sales Tax
* And yet, over the next five years the City plans to spend ten times as much on roads and storm drains as on wildfire fuel reduction.
* And after four years, the City has yet to employ a program for determining wildfire risk in each neighborhood, even though the means exist.
In 2020 the City asked residents to support a 20-year, 1 percent sales tax to replace the existing half cent tax which would expire in 2022. The tax was originally conceived to support infrastructure (roads and storm drains) but before the tax was put to a vote, the City conducted a survey which included a section on spending priorities. To the surprise of the City, the residents' number one priorities were wildfire prevention and emergency preparedness, twice as important as roads and storm drains.
So, the tax was titled an Essential Services Measure, including wildfire prevention and emergency preparedness, in addition to road and storm drain repair and maintenance.
The tax measure, a general tax which could be used for anything, and while written to include roads and storm drains, was advertised as a fire prevention tax.
The measure passed in November 2020 and went into effect in April 2021.
In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2020 the tax generated $786,000 over three months and over the next full year (ending June 30, 2021) it generated $3.7 million; over $300,000 a month; $4.5 million since its inception.
How was the money spent? Most of it was not spent. Why not? Because the commission created to oversee the spending of Measure R funds (the SSTOC - Supplemental Sales Tax Oversight Commission), was charged by the City Council to focus on wildfire prevention (leaving the city staff to deal with roads and storm drains), but no one on the commission had any experience in wildfire prevention, so they attempted to educate themselves.
Normally, when the city requires services it does not have in-house expertise in, it hires an outside consultant. Not in this case.
In April 2022, a year after Measure R went into effect, the SSTOC received a presentation from wildfire prevention and modeling expert Dr. John Radke, a professor at UC Berkeley and 30 year Orinda resident. He explained wildfire modeling and prevention science to the commission. They asked him for a wildfire prevention proposal. In July, Radke presented a proposal prepared by UC's Center for Catastrophic Risk Management (CCRM), of which he was a member. The proposal was to develop a plan over two years at a cost of $600,000. (At this time, Measure R was generating over $300,000 a month and had generated $4.5 million to date.) The commission accepted the proposal and said they would submit questions for CCRM.
The questions were submitted and Radke addressed them at the SSTOC's August meeting. The commission then voted to recommend the proposal to the City Council. However, City Manager David Biggs told the commission that he would recommend that the Council reject the proposal, not telling the commission why.
At the October 10, 2022 City Council meeting, the CCRM proposal was presented to the Council by the chair of the SSTOC. One member of the SSTOC had personally submitted a written comment supporting the proposal as had several members of the public. The only opposition was from the City Manager who stated that the City had other priorities (for the $600,000) plus other reservations which were questionable or that the City Manager was not qualified to opine on, including the claim that the proposal was "pure research", which it was not. The modeling the proposal was based on used models that had been first implemented in 2006.
At the same time the City Manager was denigrating the proposal, he reported that the City had applied for a grant to fund the proposal with the US Forrest Service. So on one hand he was saying the proposal would not produce results; but on the other hand he was offering to co-fund it. The grant proposal, submitted by the City without consulting CCRM, but using CCRM language from their plan proposal which was copyrighted, extolled the virtue of the plan. The Council deferred judgement on accepting or rejecting the plan, waiting to hear back about the grant. Ultimately, the grant was rejected but neither the Council nor the SSTOC reintroduced the plan proposal. No one was willing to promote something they knew the City Manager would oppose.
What were the City's "other priorities" for Measure R funds which the City Manager used to convince the Council to reject a proposal for a wildfire prevention plan for Orinda? Road and storm drain maintenance, which the Measure R survey showed the residents thought was a much lower priority than wildfire prevention.
At the July 2022 SSTOC meeting, the meeting CCRM made its wildfire prevention proposal, the Director of Public Works "informed" (did not discuss with) the commission that staff would request that the City spend $3.4 million of Measure R revenue on the coming year's road maintenance program. The SSTOC had been told by the council to focus on wildfire prevention so they had little knowledge of road maintenance needs. They were blindsided by the announcement that all of the Measure R net assets would be spent on roads, given no advance warning in the form of a staff report, so there was little to no discussion. Six days later, the staff DID propose the expenditure to the Council and the Council agreed that $2.4 million of Measure R money would be spent on road maintenance. At the time, this was the largest expenditure of Measure R funds by far, with only $800,000 having been spent on fuel mitigation and $300,000 spent on fund administration and community awareness of fire prevention actions property owners should take. At this point in time, $4.5 million collected, $3.5 million spent or budgeted, 70% for roads.
Over the next year (ending June 30, 2023), an additional $3.9 million in revenue was generated, $440,000 spent on fuel mitigation and another $440,000 on community wildfire prevention education and overhead.
But in June 2023, the long range (through 2028) Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) was adopted which scheduled $9.1 million of Measure R funds to be used for storm drain repairs while allocating $2.8 million for wildfire fuel mitigation over 5 years, and $1 million for community wildfire prevention education and Measure R administrative overhead. Again, this was presented to the City Council by staff with no prior discussion with the SSTOC.
And the CIP went further. Measure R is a "supplemental" essential services sales tax, supplementing other revenue for providing the essential services of wildfire prevention, road and storm drain maintenance. The CIP identified eight other revenue sources for essential services, budgeting an additional $18.1 million for essential services, all for roads and storm drains. In total, looking forward from 2024 through 2028, $27.2 million has been allocated to roads and storm drains with only $2.8 million to wildfire fuel mitigation and $1 million for community wildfire prevention education and Measure R administrative overhead. 90% for infrastructure and less than 10% for wildfire prevention over the first seven years of Measure R, when wildfire prevention was supposed to be Measure R's focus as it is the community's highest priority.
If the City is not spending much money on on wildfire prevention, what is it doing to address it?
It has not hired its own wildfire prevention expert claiming that MOFD controls wildfire prevention. MOFD should be our wildfire prevention manager but the reason Orindans agreed to tax themselves an additional $4 million a year for wildfire prevention, on top of the $22 million we are already paying MOFD, was that MOFD did not have a wildfire prevention plan.
So what is MOFD doing? It has created a fire code which specifies roadside fuel mitigation (to be performed by adjacent property owners, not MOFD nor the City) and defensible space around homes, again, by the homeowners with virtually no support from MOFD nor the City. It spends money on code enforcement but virtually nothing on fuel mitigation. It has a chipper service it runs for part of the year, but after Orinda installed its own chipper service, funded by Measure R, MOFD stopped serving Orinda. It attempts to enforce its code but only does so by visual inspection from the street. Most vegetation is "hidden from sight" behind homes which is where the greatest risk lies, as modelled by CCRM in their proposal.
There is no modeling of fuel risk, by neighborhood as proposed by CCRM, so there is no way of knowing if the wildfire fuel risk is decreasing or increasing as CCRM would have provided.
MOFD also has a "home hardening" program, providing gutter screening to prevent flammable debris in rain gutters but there is no report on how many Orinda homes have taken advantage of this program nor any way of quantifying the "value" of such upgrades (although it is a "best practice" to keep rain gutters clear of debris).
Orinda has hired a wildfire education manager. The impact of this hire is unknown as, again, Orinda has no way of measuring wildfire risk; either a base line or a periodic survey (again, as proposed by CCRM).
The SSTOC did attempt to create metrics to measure the impact of wildfire prevention efforts, creating a "Results Subcommittee" in August 2022, which was disbanded after a year. The only metric they came up with is measuring the volume of vegetation removed by Orinda's "chipper". In 2023, the total volume removed was an impressive 4,800 cubic yards. However, this averaged to only 18 cubic feet from each of Orinda's 7,000 homes; the equivalent of about two green cans which is the amount some homes normally generate in a week. It is helpful for people removing their own vegetation but is this service substantially reducing the risk or just removing new vegetation as it continues to grow or even keeping up with new growth? Again, with no way to measure risk, as CCRM had proposed, we have no way of knowing.
The SSTOC also recommended a fuel reduction grant program as an incentive to reduce vegetation on private property. In October 2022 the Council agreed to allocate $400,000 of Measure R money for grants. The grants ($599 maximum) were for removal of certain vegetation on certain properties adjacent to roads. Eight months later, by the end of the fiscal year (June 30, 2023), less than $10,000 in grants had been made. The program's restrictions were relaxed and six months later, by the end of calendar year 2023, the total grants had increased to $43,000. This still represents only about $6,000 / 12 grants per month across 7,000 properties which are generating $300,000 a month in Measure R revenue. The removal of a single pine or eucalyptus could be $2,000. Again, does this contribute any significant reduction in wildfire risk?
The bottom line is that while Measure R was sold to the taxpayers as a wildfire prevention tax, it is being used as an infrastructure tax. Most wildfire prevention efforts are being put back on the shoulders of the residents with, essentially, voluntary compliance because the one recommendation the SSTOC had to monitor wildfire risk in Orinda, the proposal by CCRM, was negated by the Orinda City Manager David Biggs (who tendered his resignation in January 2024, so maybe the City can move forward with a real wildfire prevention plan).