More Dark Days for TAMC’s Sales Tax

Only a few days ago, we pointed out how the Transportation Agency of Monterey County (TAMC) is driving their campaign bandwagon off course and why their chances of actually passing a transportation sales tax measure in November are diminishing.

We noted that transportation sales tax measures too heavily focused on road projects are failing at the polls and deplored TAMC’s short-sightedness in deleting rail funding from their measure at the ill-considered request of the Farm Bureau.

Now, a new battle over linking a regional development impact fee to the passage of the measure threatens to send TAMC’s plans completely into the ditch. Getting a two-thirds vote, as required for passage of a transportation sales tax, requires maximum consensus and minimum controversy. With TAMC’s board, the cities and stakeholders all fighting over an issue as lame as this one, the measure’s prospects appear dimmer than ever.

So what is the regional development impact fee?

Well, in TAMC’s own words:

The proposed Regional Development Impact Fee program is being developed to provide a mechanism through which “growth pays for growth” and the county’s projected transportation needs can be met.

Transportation impacts of new development are currently analyzed and addressed on a piecemeal, project-by-project basis through the CEQA environmental review process. Projects are analyzed individually by each of the county’s 13 land use jurisdictions and regional traffic mitigation’s assessed on an ad hoc basis, making this process time consuming, expensive and inconsistent.

In other words, one of the reasons our roads are so crowded is that the fees charged to developers through the current “ad hoc” system are insufficient to pay for the regional transportation infrastructure needed to serve new development. The new regional fee is carefully designed to recover an amount more closely reflecting actual impact.

While developers are obviously not happy at the prospect of their fees going up, development impact fees are hard to fight since any argument against them is essentially an argument that lucrative private developments should receive significant public subsidies. Hence the beauty of the stratagem currently playing out before the TAMC Board.

Rather than engaging in a losing argument against the logic of the impact fee, developers are demanding that implementation of the fee be linked to passage of the sales tax measure. As passage of the sales tax is looking increasingly unlikely, this linkage could be a very convenient way of killing the development impact fee without having to actually make a case against it.

We’ve heard developers say that implementing the impact fee without passing the sales tax would be unfair because it would leave them paying for everything. This is nonsense since, by law, they cannot be charged more than the actual costs created by their projects. This was the kind of lame argument TAMC rejected back in January on a puzzlingly close 9-7 vote.

Fortunately for the developers, that was not the end of the story, and even more fortunately for the developers, they don’t have to run around making silly arguments like that anymore. The developers are off the hook because the City of Salinas has emerged as the new champion of linking the impact fee to the success of the sales tax measure.

At the February 27 TAMC meeting, Supervisor Armenta (who represents a Salinas District) together with the Salinas representative to the TAMC board, called for the issue to be reopened. Armenta said he’d been confused when he voted against the linkage in January. With the City of Salinas demanding a weighted vote (giving themselves an advantage due to their large population), the TAMC board voted to reopen the issue, but the subsequent motion to link the impact fee to the sales tax measure (which was not subject to a weighted vote) failed.

The City of Salinas claims to be worried that developers will be discouraged from building in Salinas if the impact fee is implemented, but the sales tax hike is not. This is a curious argument, since the impact fee will be the same whether the sales tax hike is implemented or not – but regardless of how pathetic the rationalizations may be, the issue is still very much alive and we won’t be at all surprised if the developers end up achieving the linkage they want.

By the time they do, the continuing battle will probably have driven the final nail into the sales tax measure’s coffin. There will be no sales tax or regional development impact fee revenue supporting transportation and, as Monterey County lacks any real controls on development, the roads will continue to deteriorate and congestion will continue to worsen. The economy will suffer. Quality of life will suffer … and so on.

Yet there is another way. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a TAMC open minded enough to take a lesson from Marin County and propose a sales tax measure focused primarily on alternative modes of transportation. Suspend disbelief even further and visualize the hospitality and agriculture industries grasping the fact that they could actually gain the votes they need to achieve the projects they want the most by going in this direction. And, finally, stand reality completely on its head by imagining Monterey County becoming a leader in the movement to build a sane transportation system.

While you’re at it, why not just go ahead and imagine a state legislature with the political courage to implement a progressive tax structure sufficient to support essential services and infrastructure. Now you’re really dreaming!


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