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Nothing Propinks Like Propinquity

Columnist: Bob Andrews
September, 2014 Issue
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Bob Andrews
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The more direct access you have to someone powerful, the greater your power, no matter what your title is.

 
I first encountered the phrase “Nothing propinks like propinquity” while reading Ian Fleming’s 1956 James Bond novel, Diamonds Are Forever. It means that the more direct access you have to someone powerful, the greater your power, no matter what your title is. These days, I think of propinquity while marveling at the enormous influence of Santa Rosa’s police and fire unions over politics—and thus money—in Santa Rosa. The unions help elect City Council members, including one of their own currently and maybe two of their own after the next election. The unions help put hugely self-beneficial measures on the ballot, measures that have cost Santa Rosa hundreds of millions of dollars in higher pay and supersized pension benefits. The unions squelch meaningful reform. Propinquity means never having to back the financial truck up.
 
Consider 1996’s Measure A, which imposed binding arbitration on Santa Rosa with respect to its police and fire personnel. The measure, as summarized on the ballot, was only 56 words long. The full measure (buried in the voter’s pamphlet) was more than 1,000 words long and included language (not included on the ballot description) that essentially took away Santa Rosa’s power to negotiate. The result has been soaring pay, benefits and pension costs. How many voters ever saw the other 944 words with the real fiscal impact?
 
I was on Santa Rosa’s pension reform committee, which, I thought, should logically make a recommendation to the City Council that Measure A be repealed. Chairman (and now mayor) Scott Bartley deftly avoided that possibility.
 
Then, I was on Santa Rosa’s charter review committee, which, I thought, should logically make a recommendation to the City Council that Measure A be repealed. It didn’t happen. Opposition to any meaningful changes to Measure A was highly organized and successful. I couldn’t even get a key Santa Rosa official—who’s about to retire—to state publicly, as she’d done privately to me, that Measure A limited the city’s ability to negotiate and resulted in artificially higher wages.
 
As of this writing (July), city councils and Sonoma County supervisors are deciding which tax measures to put on the November ballot. In keeping with the strong tax-and-spend approach prevalent in the North Bay, virtually every city (and the county itself) will do so—primarily sales tax increases and utility taxes, including new utility taxes on cell phones.
 
But there’s been a debate in Santa Rosa’s City Council about whether the November ballot should also include changes to Measure O, the 2004 sales tax increase (for police and fire services), which includes an almost-mandatory, 20-year escalator of police and fire budgets. The measure requires that minimum funding for police and fire budgets must be at the 2004 to 2005 fiscal year level, adjusted annually for inflation—unless six out of seven City Council members vote to skip the inflation adjustment for a particular year. We might call this the “Full Employment for Police and Firefighters” provision.
 
The issue came up when, on a split vote, the council recently added $1.4 million to the police department’s budget. Opponents asked: Why allocate so much more to the police department when crime is near historic lows and when other departments are desperate for funding? In support of the allocation, Mayor Scott Bartley said, “If we can fund at baseline, which is what the voters specifically wanted, why wouldn’t we?”
 
Did I mention propinquity, and perhaps clever political obfuscation? Let’s be clear: The 65-word Measure O summary on voter ballots didn’t include a single word about baseline budgets or inflation adjustments. Here’s what voters saw: “Santa Rosa Police, Fire and Neighborhood Safety Measure. To improve and expand Santa Rosa fire, police and paramedic services, combat gang violence and expand crime prevention and after-school youth programs, shall Santa Rosa voters approve a one-quarter cent public safety sales tax, expiring in 20 years, with annual public reports by a citizen oversight committee assuring that funds are only expended for these purposes?”
 
To find out about budgets and inflation, a voter needed to dig through 3,300 words of the full measure, printed in the voter’s pamphlet. Clever, yes? Bury the real financial impact so deep that few voters will see or understand it. And don’t you love the description of the tax as “one-quarter cent”? The tax is actually a one-quarter of 1 percent increase, but, for those drafting the measure, “one-quarter cent” seems like a lot less than “one quarter of 1 percent.”
 
Do repeated inflation adjustments have a big financial impact? Yes, they do. If you start with a budget of $30 million and increase it 3 percent each year for 20 years, it will be $54 million—up 80 percent—after 20 years. Did the police and fire unions understand this when they helped draft Measure O? I think so. Did voters, most of whom never read the full language of Measure O, “specifically want” that fiscal result? I think not.

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