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Moments of Clarity

Columnist: Bob Andrews
November, 2014 Issue

Bob Andrews
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The only person authorized to answer questions from the press was the general manager of SMART. More than two years later, I’m still waiting for a return call.

This column of “Open Trench” is the next-to-last in a four-year series. Writing for NorthBay biz has been a great honor and very satisfying. But now I need a break.
Looking back, I reviewed the research I did on topics of government waste, overspending, redundancy, inefficiency, excessive regulation and lack of transparency. I found that the research often produced moments that can only be described as, “Say what?” or even “What the hell?” Let’s revisit some of them.
More than two years ago, I tried to get some information from SMART, the train that still isn’t running. I dug deep in SMART board minutes and found a consultant contract paying about $1.5 million to a group of corporate psychologists in Santa Rosa. Say what? I knew SMART was legally prohibited from using taxpayer money to fund a political campaign for a sales tax increase. It looked to me as if SMART put the psychologists’ work in the category of “education outreach” and then turned them loose to design campaign materials, especially those print and TV ads showing congestion on the 101 freeway—this despite the fact that SMART’s own research showed that the train would have virtually no impact on 101 congestion. It looked like a clever way to use taxpayer money to get more taxpayer money.
I telephoned SMART to get more information about the consultant contract. That’s when I learned that the only person authorized to answer questions from the press was the general manager of SMART. Say what? I left a message for him. More than two years later, I’m still waiting for a return call.
More recently, I began researching the bond payments that bulk up my property tax bill. The tax bill is required to list a telephone number next to each “extra” tax, for taxpayer inquiries. One such number rang at the Sonoma County Water Agency for questions about a Warm Springs Dam bond. I left two messages over the last two months and am still waiting for a return call.
At Santa Rosa Junior College, I left another message, asking for information about the 2002 ballot measure taking on $251 million of new debt. Two days later, a woman returned my call, but she couldn’t answer my questions. She transferred me to a more-senior official, who wasn’t in his office. I left a message a month ago and am still waiting for a return call. Three years ago, I was directed to a very high-ranking SRJC official who was reportedly the only person who could answer my questions about cutbacks at the JC. She, too, never returned my call. These aren’t so much “say what?” moments as they are “say nothing” moments.
More than three years ago, I researched the cost in various North Bay cities for a permit to build a single-family home. For Santa Rosa, the answer was easy to find online: $47,000 to $57,000 for one permit. But I had trouble reaching anyone in the building department of Rohnert Park. When I finally spoke to a person rather than voicemail, I was staggered to learn that no building permits for single-family homes had been issued in Rohnert Park during the previous six years. Further, only nine new homes were built in Rohnert Park in a 10-year period! Say what?
I never did get the full picture of permit costs in San Rafael, despite repeated telephone calls and Internet research. My “say what?” moment came when a man in the building department finally admitted, “San Rafael is built out. There aren’t any lots on which to build a new, single-family home.”
My “What the hell?” moment with Sonoma County’s pitiful road conditions came in 2012 at Wolf Ridge, a few miles south of Sebastopol. As I drove by, I saw two official road signs. One proclaimed: “Primitive Road—Caution—Use At Your Own Risk—This Surface Is Not Regularly Maintained.” The other read: “Earth Fissures Possible.” Do you think the county keeps a supply of “Earth Fissures Possible” signs?
I’ve written columns about myriad regulations that strangle North Bay businesses. One story came from a gentleman who wanted to convert an existing machine shop in Sonoma County to a winery. The zoning was right, so how hard could it be? Very hard, of course, and very expensive and very time-consuming—four years—when you need permits from multiple county, state and federal entities. Should I mention the required archeological survey or fire hydrant? A crushing blow came when the county told the property owner he must have a State Water Quality Control Board sign-off on his septic system, and the state, citing understaffing, said there’d be a two-year delay. Say what?
And I found a classic “Say what?” on the true cost of regulations when I researched the state agency (OEHHA) that identifies environmental health hazards. This sprang from Prop 65, the so-called “Clean Water” initiative of 1986. The ballot estimate was that Prop 65 would cost $500,000 in 1987 and perhaps $1 million per year in later years. Fast-forward: What was OEHHA’s budget for 2011 to 2012? $19.4 million.
Next month: “Open Trench” swan song. I’ll announce that there’s no longer a financial crisis with public employee pensions. Not.



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