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More of the Same

Columnist: Bob Andrews
December, 2013 Issue
Columnist

Bob Andrews
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“The more things change, the more they stay the same” is a common translation of an epigram by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, a French critic, journalist and novelist who lived in the 19th century. The more modern version of this sentiment might be Yogi Berra’s “It’s like déjà vu all over again.” And it’s so applicable locally.
 
Another Santa Rosa Police Chief retires. Before police pension benefits were massively enhanced, retroactive to date of hire and allowing full benefits at age 50, Santa Rosa police chiefs were in the job a long time: Dutch Flohr was chief for 34 years (1940 to 1974) and Sal Rosano for 22 years (1974 to 1996). But after the pension boost in 2003, the average tenure of chiefs has shrunk to 4.5 years. Current Chief Tom Schwedhelm will retire this month at age 53, having maxed out his retirement calculation with a lifetime pension that might be more than $180,000 per year. He could easily make more in retirement than he earned in his entire police career.
 
City and county building departments fiddle while the public burns. The city of Santa Rosa and the county of Sonoma regularly talk about “streamlining” building permit and project reviews, and about making the process more “user-friendly” and “transparent.” At the same time, Santa Rosa just completed a lengthy study of the “actual cost” of doing plan reviews and inspections—with a view toward possibly raising fees! I asked a prominent local civil engineer for his opinion about this.
 
“Fees should all come down,” he said. “There are inefficiencies in the review process. As to ‘actual costs,’ it’s rumored that the budget for Santa Rosa’s Community Development Department is padded with costs passed through from the city manager, fire department and police department. And the data just reviewed by the city come from an unusual, cyclical period of recession, during which Community Development had more people with less to do, thus spending more time and charging more for project reviews than necessary. The truth is, it can cost more to review plans than I charge to design them. I billed $6,000 for a recent project design and the review cost was $11,000. Why are these types of inefficiencies not addressed?”
 
I asked: So what’s the biggest obstacle for you at the city and county? His response: “It’s government at every level. It’s business as usual in a heavily regulated environment. It’s hard to get both respect and efficiency. I submitted two lot line adjustments to the county at the same time. One took eight weeks to be approved, the other 16 weeks by a different reviewer. There are also personality issues: Why do you have to go to the top every time to get something resolved? There are obstacles I must understand and allow for when I bid on a project. What we really need—and don’t have—is predictability. And environmental regulations just compound the problem.”
 
Indian-owned casinos: Marin County, 0; Napa County, 0; Sonoma County, 2. The Graton Resort & Casino in Rohnert Park, the largest in the Bay Area, will be open by the time you read this. A report to Sonoma County warns there might be an increase of 40,000 vehicle trips per day on Highway 101, enough to gridlock the freeway from Rohnert Park to Petaluma. More than a few motorists think traffic can already be quite bad in that corridor. It must be fair to ask a few questions: Why does Sonoma County have two casinos, while Marin and Napa Counties have none? Is there just a whiff of second-class status for Sonoma County? Is the lack of casinos in Marin and Napa just another part of the NIMBY mindset there? What political process reactivated the Graton Rancheria, found new land for it in Rohnert Park, brought that land into trust and eliminated the initial prohibition against the Rancheria having a casino? Will the same political process result in a third casino on land owned by the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians south of Petaluma?
 
Trains: bait and switch. Check out the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) train website and you’ll see “Creating 1,200 jobs in 2012.” There are only two problems. First, we’re now in (almost out of) 2013. Second, SMART didn’t create anywhere near 1,200 jobs, now or then. It’s an inflated claim. Speaking of which, weren’t voters promised service from San Rafael to Cloverdale?
 
Instead, SMART is working on just the section from San Rafael (maybe Larkspur) to Santa Rosa, about half of the original proposal. Why is this reduction so important? First, we aren’t getting what we voted for.  Second, SMART’s ridership projections counted on the heaviest level of commuters traveling between Healdsburg/Windsor and Santa Rosa. That won’t happen, meaning SMART’s other claims about lower greenhouse gases and carbon emissions are inflated. In fact, no ridership at all will occur until 2016, eight years into the sales tax increase. When the trains finally run, one analyst estimates taxpayers will need to subsidize each rider to the tune of thousands of dollars per year. If that estimate is true, it’s easy to see why SMART actually has an incentive to delay service and, as a result, delay public awareness of the true costs of this small rail system.
 
On a statewide basis, look at the same bait-and-switch with the high-speed rail project, which is now very, very far from what voters approved in 2008. The estimated cost has ballooned from $45 billion to $68 billion and, if the Bay Bridge project cost overruns are a guide, why not $180 billion instead? Estimated ticket prices have soared and ridership projections have fallen precipitously. A judge in Sacramento ruled recently that the project failed to comply with key requirements of the 2008 ballot measure. This is not a surprise.
 
Next month: Where else in local government do we get that same sinking feeling?

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