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DanvilleSanRamon.com

Cover Story - September 26, 2008

A voice in their future

Voters in Alamo to decide on incorporation

by Geoff Gillette

Alamo is one step closer to leaving the ranks of a "census designated place" and into full fledged cityhood. Nearly 100 residents of the community turned out at Creekside Community Church for the Sept. 18 meeting of the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO). After nearly five hours of presentations and resident testimony, members of LAFCO voted 4-1 in favor of putting the incorporation question on the ballot in spring 2009.

But it was not without a few twists and turns - an emotional rollercoaster ride for all of those in attendance.

Incorporation efforts are not new in Alamo. Since 1956, Alamo has been involved in seven attempts to incorporate. In some cases, Alamo would have been part of a larger valley-wide city. The last attempt by Alamo residents to become a town was in 1983, but the issue never made it to the ballot.

September 2007 brought a resurgence of incorporation fervor and the Alamo Incorporation Movement (AIM) began seeking petitions to have the necessary studies done through LAFCO. After two months, the petitions had more than 3,000 signatures and were turned in to LAFCO.

As part of the process of evaluating whether Alamo has the necessary income and infrastructure to become a town, LAFCO officials brought in the firm of Winzler and Kelly to perform a Comprehensive Fiscal Analysis. That analysis, according to company spokesman Gary Thompson, shows that there is a sound financial basis for Alamo to incorporate. Thompson said the town has, "A well diversified revenue stream. This doesn't rely entirely on sales tax. Mostly on property taxes."

Figures in the study indicate that Alamo could afford to have a town government, contract out for the services currently being provided by Contra Costa County, and still maintain a surplus at the end of each year. Thompson said the CFA shows that after 10 years, the town would have a surplus of $5.8 million.

Of that surplus, $3 million would need to be paid to Contra Costa County as part of a negotiated revenue neutrality agreement. The agreement would allow the county to recoup revenues lost by the incorporation of Alamo.

LAFCO Commissioner David Piepho asked what would happen if Alamo did not pay the revenue neutrality cost. "Can the county sue? Unincorporate them?" he asked.

Thompson said that in the event the town did not pay the expected amount, the county could conceivably withhold property tax revenues to make up the difference.

Defining Alamo's borders

One change outlined in the staff report showed that the sphere of influence for both Danville and Walnut Creek would be impacted by the incorporation of Alamo. Danville would lose 8 acres and Walnut Creek, 101 acres. The report indicated that the towns receive no revenue from these areas so changing the boundary to allow them to be incorporated would provide no hardship to either Danville or Walnut Creek.

In summary, staff members showed that the incorporation would be feasible financially, provide no significant environmental challenge and be consistent with state and local laws. The staff recommended placing the incorporation question on the ballot for the March 3 special election.

LAFCO members discussed the plan briefly before opening up the meeting to public comment. Of the nearly 100 people in attendance, 47 signed up to speak. Each was allotted three minutes to address the commission.

Opponents question analysis

Many of the assumptions made in the CFA were challenged at the Sept. 18 meeting by residents who feel the incorporation of Alamo is not financially feasible.

Many expressed concerns that the town would end up facing the same sorts of fiscal hardships that neighboring towns like Orinda have seen. Orinda is plagued by severe road problems, and the estimated price tag for repairing them would be $100 million.

Residents Linda and Ed Best each addressed the commission on the issue of finances. The Bests presented a number of issues where they felt the CFA's projections would fall far short. Ed Best pointed to the city manager position as one area in particular.

"The CFA established $132,000 as the salary for an Alamo city manager. However, we note that in 2007 the lowest salary for a city manager in Contra Costa was $160,000, in the city of Moraga," Best said.

He said he felt that it was extremely important to have an experienced city manager who has a background in setting up a new city. "We won't get that for $132,000," he explained.

Former Policeman Larry Rodrigue, one of a group of residents opposed to incorporation, pointed to what he claimed were fallacies in the projected expenditures for police services.

The CFA would have a total of 12.3 officers working for the town of Alamo. Rodrigue said that will not be sufficient. "To get the level of service we're getting now, they would have to go on what's called the 'enhanced plan.' That would put a total of 19 officers for an extra $1.2 million a year. After 10 years that's 12 million bucks. Minus the $3 million surplus, which is a pipe dream, and we're still going to be $9 million in the hole."

Resident Bob Myhre called on the commission to seek out more up-to-date fiscal data on which to base predictions. Myhre said much has changed in the last year since the study was done. "I'm spending more on gas for my wife's and my car than we do on groceries."

Proponents say, 'Let us decide'

Proponents say they believe the CFA is on target and it contains the answers to opponents' questions.

Rather than argue the merits of the fiscal analysis, though, many of those in favor asked the commission to trust the work of its staff and allow those in Alamo to make the decision for themselves.

One of those was Vishwas More. More spoke passionately to the commission about giving Alamo voters the right to make their own decisions. "Washington doesn't do it, Sacramento doesn't do it, county doesn't do it. Let us do it ourselves." He added, "We have smart people in Alamo. Let us run our own house ourselves. We can do this."

Resident Tim Tinnes pointed to the fight over the Iron Horse trail and the combined effort it took to get the former Southern Pacific right of way removed from plans as a "light rail" use and into effect as a regional trail. "When we prevailed in these efforts with the Iron Horse Trail it was largely because we were able to get the full support of the towns of Danville and San Ramon. While it was Alamoans who had the drive and organization, it was by the power of the towns that we were able to succeed."

Vicki Koc, one of the three residents who spearheaded the initial request for incorporation, asked that the commission give the residents the right to choose for themselves. "Let us make the decisions that affect us. Let us have a voice. Let us be the 20th city in Contra Costa County."

Koc said she believes the CFA is sound and so must Contra Costa County, if it was willing to sign the revenue neutrality agreement. "I don't think the county would have signed off on the agreement if they didn't think we would have $9 million in the bank."

LAFCO shares thoughts

After nearly three hours of testimony, commissioners closed the public hearing and gave their thoughts on the issue prior to the vote.

Commissioner Martin McNair said he was concerned about the fiscal data and asked if it would be possible to get more updated economic data.

Consultant Gary Thompson said that getting that much data would take at least two months, and would mean recalculating a significant portion of the CFA.

Commissioner Piepho said he would be willing to hold off on making a decision until they could get some of these financial questions answered, while fellow Commissioner Helen Allen said she didn't think recalculating would convince her that the town would be economically feasible. "Based on the information I've seen and my budgeting experience, I think there's some pertinent questions being asked." She added, "My main concern is the underestimation of the costs of the services."

While Commissioner George H. Schmidt said he believes the question should be on the ballot, the remainder of the group seemed to be favoring a delay for further information.

LAFCO Executive Officer Lou Ann Texeira cautioned the commission that delaying could cost the incorporation effort a place on the ballot. "The timeline is extremely aggressive and calls for the Board of Supervisors to call for the election by Oct. 20 in order to hit the March 3 ballot."

Texeira and Thompson explained that the current CFA is based on the town being incorporated prior to June 30, 2009. This would allow the town to still receive Vehicle License Fees. The bill that allowed those fees will expire June 30.

Thompson said a bill is currently in Sacramento that would extend the deadline, but there is no word if the governor will sign the bill. Without those license fees, the CFA would have to be recalculated and the revenue neutrality agreement would need to be renegotiated. Texeira said delaying beyond Oct. 20 would put the incorporation plan at risk.

Additionally, Texeira explained that the commission's decision was subject to a 30-day reconsideration prior to the County Board of Supervisor's vote. Texeira said during the 30 days, information that was not available at the time of the vote can be presented. The cost of calling for a reconsideration is $2,500.

That information prompted commissioners to re-approach the issue and they agreed to vote to put it on the ballot.

Commissioner McNair expressed dismay that there would be no chance to at least check on the figures presented. "I don't want to delay the vote either, but that doesn't take away the questions and doubts." McNair asked for the commission to wait one week and then make their decision, but staff explained that would not be sufficient time to acquire any new data.

Incorporation is on the ballot

The vote was taken, with the five commissioners voting 3-2 in favor of putting incorporation on the ballot, with both Allen and McNair voting against.

At the vote, incorporation proponents erupted in cheers. Those cheers turned to groans seconds later when LAFCO legal counsel Silvano Marchesi announced that any incorporation or boundary change must be approved by a 4/5ths majority. Under normal circumstances there would be seven members present, but both Chairman Bob Schroder and Commissioner Federal Glover were unable to attend.

Before opponents could register the sudden turnaround, though, McNair quickly spoke into the microphone and "reluctantly" changed his vote to yes, allowing the proposal onto the ballot.

After the vote, Helen Allen said she could not support putting the issue on the ballot due to concerns raised during the meeting. "I'm worried about the threat that every year more money is being taken away from cities. There's money they think they're going to have that might not be there."

With the commission's approval, both sides now have six months to state their case regarding the incorporation of Alamo. Incorporation supporter Chris Kenber said the main hurdle they'll seek to overcome is the perceived flaws in the fiscal analysis. "There's an incredible lack of knowledge. I think it's important to get the information out there to the voters."

Ed Best said he doesn't think it's a lack of knowledge, but a disconnect between what is presented in the report and what they know will be actual costs of services. Best also said he felt that the fast timeline and the need to beat the June 30 deadline were the reasons the issue was passed. "The vote wasn't made because they were comfortable with the applicant. In our view the decision was made for the wrong reasons."

For the entire Comprehensive Fiscal Analysis, go to www.contracostalafco.org/

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