Opinion: Vote no on Measure LL. We shouldn’t allow Berkeley to increase its spending

If voters are unhappy with the way the city is collecting or spending revenues, this is the chance to show disapproval with a no vote on GANN.

California’s GANN legislation limits municipal spending. Most cities in the state stay within the limits of GANN, never asking voters to raise their spending limit. However, the city of Berkeley asks the voters every four years to approve raising the constitutional limit, so that they may maintain their high level of spending. This is the context of the current Measure LL. Berkeley voters are generous, yet also expect their tax increases to result in better services and improvements to infrastructure. But this year, many residents feel that city services are inexplicably deteriorating even while their taxes are increasing.

The GANN spending limit applies to revenues from the library, parks and other taxes. These taxes are charged on the right side of the property tax bill and by ordinance are to be calculated according to the size of the dwelling unit. These have nothing to do with ad valorem value or Prop 13. For these taxes, only size of the dwelling unit matters, not when the owner bought or for what amount. However, the city’s arbitrary calculation method indiscriminately doubles some taxpayers’ assessments. A group of elderly residents has demonstrated the harm to them personally. Other homeowners are joining with them to publicly ask for relief. GANN constitutional spending limits were meant to protect all residents from runaway tax increases, including these elderly and any other family with limited means.

Voters are told they will be taxed equitably according to home size when ballot measures are advertised. But, this promise goes unkept for many because of the city’s dubious tax assessment practices. An elderly widow in a 1,700 square foot South Berkeley home is charged $4,250 in square footage taxes. A 5,800 square foot home in the hills is charged only $1,250 in square footage taxes. When the state-certified Alameda County Assessor says her home is 1,700 square feet, we can trust this fact. The Assessor records the hills home size as 5,800 square feet. She should pay $1,700 and they should pay $5,800. But, instead, she pays $2,600 too much and they pay $4,600 too little. As taxes increase and more taxes are approved, finances will only get more difficult for her. The lucky folks in the hills home will hardly notice a tax hike.

Clearly, the city is not collecting taxes responsibly. Berkeley for Assessment Tax Equity has documented this fact for hundreds of homes.

What about spending? Is the city spending carefully and wisely with the best interests of constituents in mind?

Last year’s financial report, page 39, showed a $28 million year over year spending increase, mainly attributable to salaries and benefits.  To make city staff happier, $120,000 was spent on carpeting for Civic Center during budget cuts this pandemic summer! Yet, infrastructure actual spending, like paving, continues to decrease year over year. The recent library tax audit, page 6, establishes the hazards of mismanagement, “There is some risk that voters may not re-authorize tax-funded expenditures if there are significant concerns about how the library manages public funds.” This is a risk the city takes every time they choose staff over residents when they spend.

This GANN Measure LL is the only real spending oversight opportunity voters will get for the next four years. If voters are unhappy with the way the city is collecting or spending revenues, this is the chance to show disapproval with a NO vote on GANN.

Lilana Spindler is a Berkeley taxpayer and a founder of Berkeley for Assessment Tax Equity,