Save your old phone bills – the city may be doling out refunds of illegally taken cell phone taxes

28 Nov

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I been busy hanging laundry these last fine days, anticipating the wet stuff. Kris Kuyper has predicted, today the honeymoon ends, and we’re going to get a little taste of Winter. About five days of it, apparently. Well, speak of the Devil – it just started pouring down as I sat here typing.

So yesterday I mounted old Myrt, my old Raleigh Superbe,  and we headed out through the park about 7:45 to a Finance Committee meeting Downtown.  Wow, what a morning it was, I didn’t even need a extra pair of skivvies. There was a mist along the ground. The leaves were still clinging to the trees, and that far-away sunlight was filtering down through all the light greens and tones of gold, it was like some magical forest. Right up til you get to the freeway where they’ve slaughtered every living thing. Oh well – did you think we could go along like a nice little town after Schwab and her friends permitted Meriam Park – “a city within a city.” The freeway widening as well as the upcoming widening of Hwy 32 were necessitated by Meriam Park and a couple of other subdivisions permitted by this “sustainable” council of ours. Tom Varga stood up and told us, gridlock will get worse, air quality will get worse, we will have all the trimmings of a city before you know it. I choose to get out there and enjoy what’s left of Old Chico before the developers bury it in a pile of shitopia.

If you’ve been watching meetings lately you’ve seen, we have to come up with matching funds for those projects. Business as usual Downtown.

At yesterday’s Finance Committee meeting, chaired by Scott Gruendl, they were busily giving away more of the taxpayer’s money. Gruendl really seems to believe that’s his job. The first two items on the agenda were approval of two mortgage subsidy deferrals. The mortgage subsidy program is intended for low-income first time home buyers, a low-interest loan that is supposed to be paid off or refinanced in five years.  Yesterday, on the recommendation of staffer Sherri Morgado and city manager Brian Nakamura,  Gruendl and Mark Sorensen voted to extend the loans of an individual and a couple who have moved out of their city-subsidized houses but “can’t” sell them and want us to go on footing the bill for their life styles. The first woman has had her loan out for 10 years, and has already got one extension. Now she’s coming forward for her second extension, even though she owns a second home. The other couple says they had to relocate to the Bay Area for their jobs.

Frankly, I don’t believe either of the buyers would qualify under the income requirements, but Morgado didn’t present all the documents. She argued that the city would lose if they force these folks to sell now. I don’t agree – the city could easily recoup their money by foreclosing. None of these people are threatened with homelessness, they just don’t want to lose on their investment, like families all over town. So they expect us to subsidize their bad judgement. Morgado is the one to blame – she is loaning money to people that banks won’t touch.

So both of their houses are being rented below market here in town, competing with landlords like me who run our businesses properly. I also believe they could be lying about the actual rent they collect, but there’s no way to know.  I find that kind of mismanagement of a fund that is supposed to help low-income people buy houses pretty disgusting. But, Mark Sorensen and Scott Gruendl went ahead and gave them the extensions. That matter was settled by 8:05, when Mary Flynn walked in the door with wet hair and a startled look on her face. She had already missed the first two agenda items. She looked surprised, as if she expected them to wait for her.

Flynn’s attendance at meetings has been so shoddy, a few months ago council had to vote as to whether to kick her off or not. They let her slide.   I’ve heard she’s pondering quitting, even before her term’s up. But that’s just gossip, we’ll have to wait and see what she does.

She made it to the meeting just in time for the quickie financial report from Finance Director  Jennifer Hennessy. This consisted of charts and doodah made up by consulting firm HdL Coren and Cone – “2013 Property tax Summary” and “City of Chico Sales Tax Update” – five pages in  total. I’ll ask – why do we need a consulting firm to do these reports? To do our everyday bookkeeping? We have not only Jennifer Hennessy (salary over $133,000/yr, benefits over $60,000) but her staff of thirteen accountants, account clerks, senior account clerks, accounting technicians, accounting manager, financial planning manager – as Yul Brynner would say, “Et-CET-era, Et-CET-era, Et-CET-era!” God only knows what their salaries and benefits add up to, I only have the management salaries from 2010. 

I asked Jennifer what we pay for HdL, Coren and Cone, she answered, very nicely I might add – “$4200 a year, for the Property Tax Summary.” I asked her what it cost for the sales tax report, but she didn’t have that figure. 

Well, I’ll say, it was three pages long and with all kinds of groovy colors and little pie charts and bar graphs and all that stuff you always wondered if you’d ever use beyond 9th grade math. It gets confusing. All  it represents to me  is $4200 (just for the prop tax report)  that should have gone toward flood mitigation on Big Chico Creek. 

While it might make a good read for the dentist’s office, it’s really just the same old stuff, gleaned from the Butte County  records, analyses of various statistics regarding the housing market, comparisons between prop tax revenues over the last few years, “real estate trends,” yadda yadda. It’s a great illustration of how they can use figures to say whatever they want, as long as they leave out a lot of pertinent information. For example, “Home sales have begun to rebound…The reported median price of an existing, single family detached home in California during July 2012 was $281,000. This was an 11.5 percent increase from $252,-000 in July 2011.” That sounds great, as long as you don’t include the fact that the same house was going for more than $500,000 just four or five years ago. That’s a loss of almost 50 percent. Bad, bad, bad!

Hennessy had to admit, we’re in the red on prop taxes – declined 2.1% – because “our budget assumed there would be zero impact” on property tax revenues this year. She speaks as though it’s the budget’s fault.  That seems kind of dumb to me, but I’m no Financial Planning Manager.

The rosy report for sales tax was a 9.9 % increase – mainly due to “building and construction.” Yes, you’ve seen those low-income apartment projects going up all over town, as well as some new housing. And you’ve seen home improvement projects all around town, people are spending money.  While “Lumber/Building Materials” were up by 42%, “Plumbing/Electrical Supplies” were up by a whopping 139% .  Yes, mom and dad remodeled the bathroom alright! 

Department stores and electronics stores took a hit – down about 9% and 13% respectively.  But, people are apparently buying new cars – that was up about 17%.  Wait til she gets the Christmas receipts – even  my family bought stuff for Christmas. We’re glad to do our part. 

 As Hennessy concluded her report, I noticed, it wasn’t even 8:20. Things were rolling right along, even with my bitchy questions. Time for a “discussion of Measure J.”

There was no staff report for this item. There was really no discussion. Scott Gruendl described Measure J as though he was reading it cold from cue cards, having never heard of the measure before. He asked Laurie Barker, “What needs to be done around the failure of Measure J?” I thought this was a no-brainer, but Barker, whose  total salary and benefits cost the taxpayers almost $300,000/year, said the city’s next move needs to be discussed and approved by the full council, probably in December. 

They all seemed tongue-tied and hesitant to talk about Measure J. Sore losers? I tell you, the linguistic gymnastics these people go through just to avoid telling it like it is – “we’re trying to define what the loss will be, what adjustments to make…”  The proponents, including Gruendl, said in the election booklet, $900,000 a year, what happened to that figure? What “adjustments” to make? You mean, contact the providers, and tell them to stop collecting the tax?  Stop spending the money? No, that wasn’t all of it.

Barker added, “How will we deal with refund requests?”

Oh, there it is. That’s what they’re nervous about discussing – I wasn’t crazy – they may actually have to refund money! 

Now, hold my horses, you know how excited I get. Barker made it clear, you can only claim up to the past year. And, she’s not sure if they’ll have to refund anything at all. She wasn’t pouring forth with details, but I’m pretty certain she is watching for the outcome of that lawsuit in the San Diego Superior Court – Chula Vistans suing their city for refunds on the same tax. 

But Gruendl was concerned about refunds – he said, “I’ve been paying that tax for years!” Earlier he said he’d be glad to pay a tax to help the “community,” but now he’s talking about getting his refund, I just don’t know what to make of that man.

Jennifer Hennessy said the city would hold the receipts that continue to pour into the city’s coffers until “further determination on the legal front.” 

Brian Nakamura, our harried and peaked new city manager, spoke up, saying “this will go into the ‘unfunded liabilities’ conversation.” He went on to say that the city had already made cuts, “reduced contributions to certain funds.” I think what he actually meant was, they’ve laid off all the lower level employees that actually provided service, and funneled their $20 – 35,000/yr salaries into the funds that pay pensions and benefits contributions. 

He went on to repeat, almost word-for-word, what he told Channel 7 News: the money “lost” by the failure of Measure J “would have funded 7-8 positions at the police department or 2/3’s the cost of operating one fire station (for a year?)” He talked about cutting maintenance to  Bidwell Park, mentioning “our grandchildren” and making all the usual threats. What a petty little man we got for $212,000 a year, plus undisclosed benefits. 

At this point I asked, “What is the current figure the city pays for benefits and pensions?”  Hennessy quoted the pensions figure alone – just pensions – “close to $7 million…”  She didn’t have the benefits figure. 

Scuse me – 7 million dollars? Just for pensions?

Coincidentally, the next item on the agenda  was a continuation of the “unfunded liabilities” conversation from October 23 – but Nakamura didn’t have the report that was requested at that meeting, so there was no discussion. I’ll have to catch up with that one in the next blog. 

The last item was rescheduling the meeting that fell on Christmas Day – that will probably happen on December 26.  Then, during “business from the floor,” former city council candidate Dave Donnan started a quick discussion about the revenues that might possibly be had through garbage franchise districts, but Gruendl closed the meeting just before 8:35,  saying, “the stage is set to discuss ‘enterprise zones’ in the coming year.” That’s also another blog entirely. 

I was shocked what they managed to cover in less than 35 minutes. I think that’s because, Donnan and I were the only members of the public in attendance. More people need to show up at those meetings, ask more pointy questions – but like the checker at the grocery store told me when I told him about it, “that’s why they have those meetings at 8am, they know we can’t show up.” 

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