Your Turn: 'Clean water' effort taking taxpayers to the cleaners

By Ken Hambrick
Your Turn Contra Costa Times
© Copyright 2011, Bay Area News Group

Even before the board of supervisors had voted to put the so-called clean water tax on the ballot, I received a slick promotional brochure in the mail. A Bay Area News Group editorial put it succinctly: "The brochure stated that it was 'provided as a public service from the Contra Costa Clean Water Program.'

"Really? It looks more like a slick campaign piece promoting just one side of the issue. There was no mention of the amount of the fees, nor specifically what they would fund, and, of course, there were no opposition views."

Everyone wants clean water. By and large, we already have it.

After all, we already pay nearly $400 annually per residence in existing sewer and stormwater charges. And there's already a new $11.4 billion "clean water" bond on November's statewide ballot.

But the Contra Costa Clean Water Program, a subdivision of the county's Public Works Department, wants to collect another $8.7 million in new taxes anyway.

Tom Barnidge's column on the same day as the editorial asked, "Why $8.7 million?"

The response he got from Don Freitas of the CCCWP was: "The 19 cities, the county and flood control district determined how much it would take to be in compliance."

Barnidge goes on to say, "How exactly those 21 parties made those determinations is a mystery, but that goes for much of this project, including how to verify 40 percent litter reduction." There were no answers.

Not surprisingly, CCCWP's polling outfit predicted difficulty in passing a parcel tax, requiring two-thirds approval in a regular election.

So a "benefit assessment fee" was recommended instead, with voting conducted among property owners only, exclusively by mail, with tabulation handled by another company instead of the Elections Office, and with just a bare majority required for passage.

SCI Consulting, which boasts of "Creating New Resources for Public Agencies," was handed a $1.55 million taxpayer-funded contract to manage the "fee" campaign and election.

Three mailings have been arranged prior to the ballot package itself, supposedly to provide "information only," since public agencies "cannot use public resources to advocate for or against the measure."

CCCWP apparently cares little about illegal advocacy restrictions.

It reported that: "Program staff and representatives of O'Rorke (a contractor) along with representatives from Tramutola (a consultant), who are conducting the education and outreach for the funding initiative (with a $500,000 budget of taxpayer money), have met and are reviewing opportunities to coordinate messaging," and "how to take advantage of those parallels to promote" the "Clean Water Initiative."

Meanwhile, CCCWP's small bureaucracy budgets $329,834 this year for salaries, another $250,674 for benefits (a 76 percent add-on cost), and $296,059 (51 percent of salary plus benefits) for "administrative overhead."

Within the huge 76 percent benefit supplement, pension funding alone accounts for a 48 percent addition. The same percentage formulas are apparently replicated throughout the 260-employee Public Works Department.

This is clearly an illegal scam, funded by our tax dollars. It is a mystery proposal with no specific goals or plan of how the money will be used.

Were a new clean water tax actually needed, genuine benefit and pension reform by the county could readily fund that and many other purposes -- without additional taxpayer dollars.

So when ballots arrive this week, sensible property owners will reject the murky "clean water" shell game.

Ken Hambrick, a former Civil Grand Jury member, chairs the Alliance of Contra Costa Taxpayers.