Follow Pleasanton's lead: disband redevelopment agenciesWith the current still-sluggish economy and the city's concern over unfunded pension liabilities, Pleasanton can be glad it never got into the redevelopment agency (RDA) business. Others have, including neighboring Livermore, which is continuing to finance its millions of dollars in downtown improvements through its redevelopment agency. But that could end abruptly. Gov. Jerry Brown wants to disband the 400 or so redevelopment agencies statewide, including Livermore's, sending the funds they collect to school districts, counties and the state.
Since Brown's announcement, city officials around the state have been protesting any plan that wipes out the RDAs, saying it would stop affordable housing projects, the planned development of new parks, libraries, community centers or, in Livermore's case, more downtown developments and possibly a long-planned performing arts center. Some projects might have to be scrapped in mid-construction, since these cities can ill afford to pick up the costs with their dwindling General Funds.
But that's what Pleasanton decided to do. Back in the mid-1980s, the City Council proposed setting up a redevelopment agency to handle downtown improvements, including the replacement of an aging sewer system unable to carry off heavy rains. A large swath of the downtown area was mapped out, and voters were asked to support the plan. But a key word -- "blight" -- somehow made its way into language used to explain to voters why the RDA was needed. That infuriated property owners of downtown businesses and homes who disputed the term. With scant publicity and poor promotion, the measure was voted down with only 11% of registered voters bothering to cast ballots, most of them the downtown area property owners.
From then on, Pleasanton used its General Fund to pay for capital improvements, methodically setting up a Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) segment in the budget, identifying and prioritizing those projects each January, funding the CIP with as much money as tax revenues would allow, and then building the projects. The Main Street sewers, new parks, Bernal Community Park baseball fields and, most recently, the $10 million Firehouse Arts Center were all financed this way. Each project also was part of a public process that gave everyone a chance to look at the plans and sound off if they had objections.
The RDAs, on the other hand, are fundamentally undemocratic agencies. Writer Randy Shaw, in an article entitled "How Redevelopment Agencies Subvert Democracy," reported that his research shows that RDAs operate as private fiefdoms outside the general control of elected officials. Once elected officials approve a redevelopment area, unelected and politically unaccountable officials typically gain control of hundreds of millions of dollars for the next 30 years. If these RDA controllers share passions for affordable housing beyond what a city may be required to have, financing is provided for more subsidizes and affordable homes. If those in charge of the RDA are persuaded to finance a huge performing arts center even though similar projects have failed in nearby cities, the RDA makes the appropriation.
Though little understood by the public, the state's 400 active redevelopment agencies run on about $5 billion each year in property taxes generated in the project areas for economic development -- money that would otherwise go to schools and counties. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger grabbed $2 billion over the last two years from the RDAs just to balance the budget. Although Prop. 22, a city-backed measure passed last November, prohibited such raids in the future, no one apparently saw Brown as the governor who would actually seek to abolish the RDAs altogether. It's a move that makes fiscal sense in a state that can no longer afford redevelopment agencies and their grandiose projects.