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Where Our Tax Dollars Go

by Dennis Green

If you’re a senior citizen, a geezer like me, living on a limited retirement income, you wonder where your tax dollars go. Even in a city of some 73,000 souls like Alameda, many millions are collected each year in sales tax, property tax, parcel taxes, income from parking fees and traffic tickets, building permits, various fines, and so forth.

Some time ago I was startled to learn that, (before a recent round of layoffs), nearly 70 city employees earn more than $200K/year in salaries and benefits. Now it has come to my attention that in the name of “economic development,” the city also subsidizes all four business associations rather than letting them succeed or fail on income from membership dues, events and fund-raising.

As the City of Alameda faces some $6 million in lost funding from the State of California, it reconsiders the many grants it hands out to various groups claiming to promote “economic development” under the watchful eye of Development Services Director Leslie Little. WABA receives some $101,146 for ’08-09, PSBA $111,446, GABA around $12,000, and the Chamber of Commerce is asking for $40,000 this year just to stay alive.

geezervilleChamber membership has become stagnant, or dropped over the last ten years, and most recently a number of events have been cancelled due to rising expenses. The Chamber office complex costs the organization $4,000/month in rent, and salaries total well over $100K. It all begins to add up.

So what are the City’s spending priorities? First is “safety,” that is, fire and police services adequate to the task of actually protecting and saving lives. Next comes “health,” provided by Alameda Hospital and the many outpatient clinical services provided by various physician and community groups, such as Kaiser Permanente and the Mastick Senior Center. Finally, it’s infrastructure, the streets and roads and bridges and traffic signals and parklands we all need and use.

So why are these business organizations, dedicated to promoting the interests of local entrepreneurs, getting so much money? What is the payback, and what do they actually contribute? “Economic Development” remains one of the most ambiguous and unmeasured services the City has ever funded.

Leslie Little is handsomely paid, and has more power than many other department heads. She is responsible for not only “Business Retention,” and “Business Attraction,” but also the health and well-being of existing businesses in the City of Alameda. Her efforts, supposedly, are enhanced by the work of those civic organizations — WABA, GABA, PSBA and the Chamber of Commerce.

But all too often, those organizations serve simply to enrich and ennoble their staff members. PSBA, for example, headed by Rob Ratto, has succeeded in the renovation of the Alameda Theater, the construction of its attendant parking garage, renovations along Park Street sidewalks, including curb extensions that make parking difficult and landscaping.

PSBA also sponsors the Park Street Food & Wine Fair, the Classic Car Show, and other events designed to attract off-island visitors who will, it is hoped, spend some coins at the businesses along the street as well as in the booths in the actual street fair, owned and operated mostly by off-island artisans and brewers. But just how many coins?

WABA, does the same for Webster merchants and the West End in general, challenged heavily by the Base Closure. Besides various events, including the “Webster Street Jam” and the Farmers’ Market, they do their best to keep the bars and Ricky’s Tattoo Parlor alive, to which I owe my own fine ink body art.

And GABA, the “Greater Alameda Business Association”..? Well, they advertise. They attempt to take up the slack left over by PSBA and WABA and the Chamber. But like all the others, their value to economic development is questionable. Immeasurable. Or at least unmeasured. And that’s the problem.

In such tight economic times, with the City coffers already suffering a deficit, layoffs and cutbacks in services, and another $6 million loss looming, those dollars handed out to the business and merchant organizations begin to take a serious toll.

If they can’t subsist on their membership dues and contributions, isn’t that alone a perfect measure of the involvement of their member businesses and the need? Doesn’t it tell us how those members value the events and activities of their leadership? And why should we, the taxpayers, have to make up the difference…to the tune of $100K, $40K or even $12K per year?

If the Chamber claims that it is entering into a ‘public/ private partnership’ with the city, producing a ‘Buy Alameda’ campaign web site, to justify it’s taking your tax dollars, ask yourself how meaningful such a partnership really is.

We already subsidize a library few of us use, a hospital few of us use, a bicycle draw-bridge few of us use. It’s time for ALL of us to re-assess the necessities, the essentials, to question the spending priorities of the City leaders and especially “economic development. Ms. Little, please mount a scoreboard where we all can see it, posting “Businesses Retained,” “Businesses Lost,” “New Businesses Attracted” as well as a running total of the costs required to accomplish all this.

[Dennis Green is a long-time resident of Alameda, writer and nut-job who may be reached at lazgreen (at) alamedanet (dot) net]

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