Misuse of Measure R Dollars
November 1, 2022
One of the main objections to Measure R, beyond those who just don’t want to pay more taxes, was that while the tax was “sold” as wildfire prevention tax, there was no security, other than the creation of an oversight commission (the SSTOC, Supplemental Sales Tax Oversight Commission), that the tax would in-fact be used for wildfire prevention. Those fears were voiced in letters to the editor and in postings on NextDoor.
Unfortunately, those fears have come to pass.
By July 2022, the tax had generated $4.5 million in revenue but only $600,000 had been spent on wildfire prevention projects.
At the July 19, 2022 Orinda City Council meeting the city staff recommended that $3.6 million of Measure R money be used for the City’s annual pavement maintenance program (on top of $2.6 million from other sources). And the City Council approved $2.4 million despite the fact a year earlier Mayor Amy Worth told the SSTOC “that the bulk of the sales tax measure funds for the next several years is expected to be devoted to the development and implementation of fire prevention and disaster preparedness plans.”
Why hadn’t the SSTOC objected to this misuse of Measure R funds? They were not asked to opine on the use. The City Manager and the Director of Public Works “informed” them of the recommendation to Council six days prior to the council meeting. They were not asked to discuss and were not provided with a staff report justifying it. And the Council did not ask what the SSTOC thought of it. So much for oversight.
The next month, August 2022, the SSTOC voted to recommend that the City fund $600,000 for the creation of a wildfire prevention plan proposed by UC’s Center for Catastrophic Risk Management (CCRM), headed by Orinda resident John Radke. Staff opposed the recommendation, again not discussing this with the commission nor giving a reason, presenting the opposition to the Council at their October 11 meeting. The reasons given the Council were:
1) “We question the value of funding what is pure research”. No one on the staff is a wildfire prevention expert nor, 2.5 years after the residents told the city wildfire prevention was their #1 priority, has staff contracted with any wildfire prevention expert(s). Staff is not qualified to determine value nor whether the CCRM proposal was “pure research” (which it is not).
2) “The proposal relies extensively on crowdsourcing of data and we are uncertain if sufficient numbers of residents would participate to make the effort worthwhile.” The proposal envisions using crowdsourcing of data but does not “rely extensively” on it. Staff’s “assumption” that not a “sufficient numbers of residents would participate” is based on no facts and is an assumption that, again, staff is not qualified to make. They are “shooting from the hip”. It also indicates a low regard of Orindans and possibly their sense of self-preservation.
3) “The Moraga Orinda Fire District Chief (Dave Winnacker) has stated multiple times that the modeling needed is in place to guide “our” efforts already.” We put the word “our” in quotes because the “our” refers to MOFD, not Orinda. MOFD’s modeling efforts are to support MOFD’s plan which is to inspect for code violations, period. Their modeling efforts are not designed to show residents the fire danger to their properties and their neighborhood which could then encourage residents to clean up their properties, especially if there were match funding grants to further grease the skids. In other words, staff “warped” or misunderstood, what Chief Winnacker said.
4) The “proposal seems too uncertain and too costly to staff that it will have
practical applicability as well.” Again, staff has no expertise in wildfire prevention and has not availed itself of any experts in the field (other than Chief Winnacker who has his own agenda and has never been quoted as saying the CCRM proposal was not worth the $600,000 cost).
5) “As an individual city with limited resources … we have many competing priorities for use of Measure R funds.” This is two months after staff recommended spending $3.6 million of Measure R funds, 97% of the total collected in fiscal year 21/22, on road maintenance. This is one thing staff does have expertise in, maintaining roads. Orinda roads are some of the best in the Bay Area, far above the level that the CIOC and the Council determined was appropriate (PCI 50) for years. So we are to sacrifice wildfire safety for gold-plated roads.
So, as some feared before Measure R was passed, the money is not being used as the voters thought it would be, wildfire prevention. Part of the reason being that there is no long-range plan for providing that prevention which is targeted vegetation removal. And Council, marching to the staff’s drummer, will not even spend Measure R money on the only plan submitted to date; a plan that was reviewed and approved by the oversight committee.