October 24, 2006 > Sleight of hand - municipal prestidigitation
Sleight of hand - municipal prestidigitation
Do you remember when the Fremont Redevelopment Agency was formed and why? Unless you have been around for 20 - 30 years, the answer is probably 'no.' The agency had a specific purpose and a time limit linked to a spending cap to do its work. The idea was relatively simple. Other public agencies would share some of their income to help eliminate blight and, in Fremont's case, also stimulate economic growth through ambitious transportation projects. From those optimistic days in the late 1970s and early 1980s, an agency was formed to help Niles, Centerville, Irvington and the Fremont Industrial area. All of these separate projects were subsequently financially merged to take advantage of the growth potential of the industrial area. The idea seemed reasonable and a separate staff was formed to administer the projects.
Through a succession of directors and specialists, agency personnel have been somewhat impervious to setbacks - some might term them debacles - in Irvington, Centerville and Niles. For example, some might remember the great Ralph's sign controversy for the Centerville development that never was. Although there are a few successes sprinkled throughout the city, the question of cost versus results should, yet rarely is addressed. There also seems to be an imbalance between housing priorities and the relief of retail blight. Is the amount of money spent on staff, studies and planning a good trade for the accomplishments of the agency? Is process the major goal or are results the proper mark of success? Sometimes the two can be confused especially when bureaucrats draw healthy paychecks whether there are concrete outcomes or not.
Prior to hiring Housing and Redevelopment Agency Director Elisa Tierney, who was apparently quietly promoted from "Interim RDA Director" during the summer months, Laura Gonzalez-Escoto who vacated the role of director at the end of 2005, spoke of the limited life of the agency in her final interview with TCV, published on December 27, 2005.
Previously, she had spoken to the city council in open session about her plans to find ways to extend the agency. She never returned with specifics. During the interview, Ms. Gonzalez-Escoto did note that the spending cap determined by property taxes would probably be reached somewhere between 2010 and 2012. She also said that, "Theoretically, redevelopment is supposed to have a beginning and end. By the end, you should see a significant difference in the community. When you reach the cap, the agency should pay off any outstanding debts and then property taxes revert back to traditional taxing entities."
In an interview with Ms. Tierney in July of this year, TCV asked about the spending cap and was told, "We're assuming that [the agency] will continue and we're working with the taxing entities to raise our cap. Our limitation is one of money, not time. We currently have a spending cap of $400 million. In the scenario of reaching our spending cap, we would reduce staff depending upon agency reporting and project needs. Funds have been set aside in our budget to see if it is feasible to raise the cap." She went on to say, "At this point, we have been focusing on day-to-day issues and not thinking out five years, but we need to start doing that. We do have a five year implementation plan and are two and a half years into it. When that is coming to an end, and we are looking at another implementation plan, we will be formally asking questions about the future of the agency."
Well, in the finest of bureaucratic traditions, this agency is not letting any spending cap or lack of results hamper its cash flow. Why not put something on the consent calendar - quietly - and just forget those pesky limitations. Why open a debate to uncomfortable questions of results? This agency has had an extensive run that has been relatively long on costs and short on results. The feeding trough has been full for years. Why ruin a good thing?
The agenda for the regular meeting of the city council on October 24 includes item 2.4 of the consent agenda to "Eliminate Specified Debt Incurrence Time Limits Pursuant to Health and Safety Code Section 33333.6(e)(2)(B) in Accordance with Senate Bill 211" for Irvington, Niles and the Industrial Redevelopment areas. This means we will simply forget previous promises of a "Debt Incurrence Time Limit" (note: what happened to Centerville? Has that area already slipped through or is it destined for another consent agenda?).
Why is something of this nature put on the consent calendar? The items listed here are, according to the printed agenda, "...considered to be routine by the Council and will be enacted by one motion and one vote. There will be no separate discussion of these items unless a Councilmember or citizen so requests, in which event the item will be removed from the Consent Calendar and considered separately." After going through $400 million, doesn't anyone think this item deserves a bit more than a cursory glance on a consent agenda? Maybe this is the way Fremont intends to do business - by quietly slipping things through without much comment or consideration until someone catches the move and asks questions. In that case, what function does the council serve? This type of move does not instill confidence in our local government, especially when they are currently asking for a "yes" vote on a local tax.