Elk Grove's shadow government: or How I learned to stop worrying and love me a proverbial free lunch

By Michael Monasky | I've always had trouble understanding how my government works. Recently, I found the key. And I got a ...

By Michael Monasky |

I've always had trouble understanding how my government works. Recently, I found the key. And I got a free meal to boot.

The trick is to lose focus and gaze from the periphery. It's like looking at a Degas or Monet impressionist painting while squinting, from far away---very far away. Which is where the city staff wants the housing advocates to stand. Let me explain.

The Elk Grove City Council formed an Affordable Housing Loan Committee. It consists of the city finance director, the local building industry association representative, and is chaired by the Mutual Housing executive director. Mutual Housing supervises affordable units in Yolo and Sacramento counties, so the chair represents affordable housing advocates.

The problem is that the housing advocate was extremely busy and was notified late Friday, January 25, 2013 by the city planning staff for a Monday, January 28 morning meeting. The city's notice narrowly fulfilled the requirements of the Brown open meeting act. The city planning director told me that the chair was notified, but that the overall meeting, sponsored by the city's Development Industry Working Group, emphasized the needs of developers, builders, and city planners. The city planning website ironically declared that anyone needing accommodations for disability should do so 48 hours before the meeting.

Take a close look and you'll see some of the faces of the boys club that runs our city. There is some surprise on their faces. And there was a hush but no objection when the city planning director announced that the meeting was being recorded. http://www.radio4all.net/index.php/program/66487
The picture and recording didn't seem to faze the participants; they're the usual suspects in our city's shadow government. Since the meeting ran from 11 am to 1 pm, lunch was served on the taxpayers' dime.

The public portion of the meeting was placed late on the agenda, but affordable housing was not the only open meeting topic for the builders' group. The Cosumnes Community Services District (CCSD), which oversees parks and fire suppression, is proposing that the lighting and landscaping fee for new development be replaced by a Community Facilities District Special Tax. The new tax will give flexibility to the district for rate changes commensurate with alterations in levels of service. The level of service for the new assessment would slightly reduce neighborhood park space (from 2.15 to 2 acres per 1,000 residents), and make a significant increase in space for sports parks (from 2.22 to 3 acres per 1,000 residents). Recreation centers would have a 450% increase from 0.45 to 2 square feet per residence, and aquatics centers would increase slightly from 0.9 to 1 square foot per residence.

Jim Gillum was most outspoken. He is a developer from Folsom whose father, Ed, used to make presentations before the Elk Grove Community Planning Advisory Council (EGCPAC) just before the city's incorporation in 2000. His comments covered all developers' fees (which total about $70,000 per parcel) that he said should be “zero”. For proper disclosure, I was the secretary of EGCPAC at the tail end of its county tenure. But the bulk of the cost burden from the CCSD special tax would be born by residents. A 2,000 square foot home would pay $590, while a 2,000 square foot retail establishment would pay $82.

A subsequent phone message from the AHLC chair indicated that two meetings were arranged by the planning department: one with the developers and builders, a second meeting three weeks later, Wednesday, February 13, 2013 with the advocates for affordable housing. This is akin to splitting the partisan factions of the city council. Imagine holding separate city council meetings for Democrats Davis and Cooper from Republicans Hume and Detrick. The rationale is that less conflict occurs while opposing sides hold a more thorough hearing.

At the advocates' meeting on February 13, no lunch was served. The meeting went from 1 pm to 2:30 pm, and was adjourned by the chair because she hadn't eaten. The tenor of the meeting was very different. Since the chair had not attended the last meeting of the AHLC on January 28, there was no quorum to approve the minutes. The BIA representative was absent at this second meeting. http://www.radio4all.net/index.php/program/66490

The committee proposed to ask the city council that evening to reduce the amount of fees in the affordable housing fund, required to trigger a request for proposals (RFP), from $5M to $2M. The city council was obliging. The committee seemed anxious to submit an RFP to builders and developers for building more affordable housing, since the demand seems high and “homelessness is growing,” according to chair Rachel Iskow. During the housing boom, the per unit fees rose and drove the $5M fund balance requirement. The Federal government subsidizes a 4% and a 9% tax credit for affordable housing. During the city's ten years of funding affordable housing, $62M was loaned to build 1,500 units. That's over $40,000 to build each unit, which averages about 600 square feet.

But with a building slowdown due to the persistent jobs recession, there's less money in the fees fund. The housing advocates preferred that maximum fees be imposed, but that the fee increases be phased in over a multi-year period. Fees will be discussed in the Housing Element of the city's General Plan. A workshop is scheduled for March 4, 2013. We'll see who appears for this round of talks.

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Amused in Festival City said...

Democracy in Action: Do you want fries with that?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this informative article Mr. Monasky. Many of us wonder how things really work at City Hall and this provides one tidbit.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting that blog Mr. Monasky. Many of us wonder how City Hall operates, and your article provides some insight on this.

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