Voters in the Oakland hills must make an important decision

Wildfire in California, 2008.  BLM photo.
Wildfire in California, 2008. BLM photo.

Residents in the Oakland hills will soon have an opportunity to vote for (or against) a renewal of funding for the Wildfire Prevention Assessment District (WPAD). A map of the Wildfire Prevention District (WPD) is available here.  The Hills Conservation Network has described the WPAD in its latest newsletter and is asking some excellent questions about how the revenue has been spent over the past 10 years and why the special tax on parcels within the WPD is necessary. 

The Hills Conservation Network is a non-profit organization of residents in the East Bay Hills, many of whom are survivors of the wildfire of 1991.  They are deeply concerned about fire safety, but they are opposed to vegetation management that does not reduce fire hazards.  They produce a very informative newsletter which is available on their website (here).  We are reprinting their article about the Wildfire Prevention Assessment District with their permission.


Will You Vote “NO” or “Yes” for a Special Tax to Fund WPD?

That is the question Oakland residents registered to vote within the boundaries of the Wildfire Prevention District (aka Community Facilities District No. 2013-1-CFD-Wildfire District) must answer. The ballot measure will be mailed at the beginning of November. Voter information and sample ballots will be mailed in October.  If the ballot measure gets a “yes” vote from 2/3 of all registered voters (renters and property owners) within the WPD-CFD, a Special Tax will be levied for 10 years (until 2023-2024) on each taxable parcel of private property. Parcel owners will pay the $78 annual tax.  Condo parcels, multi-family parcels and undeveloped parcels will be taxed at lower rates.

Public and non-profit properties (such as those owned by EBRPD, UC, and Oakland), currently included in the WPAD, will be exempt from the Special Tax. The $78 Special Tax is an increase of $13.00 (20%) over the $65.00 per parcel that has been the WPAD annual assessment over the past 10 years.

That $65 per parcel doesn’t sound like much money, but it added up to approximately $1,700,000 each year, $17 million over the past 10 years. With the increase to $78.00 annually for each parcel in the WPD-CFD, if the Special Tax passes, the WPD will take in about $20 million over the next 10 years.

What will taxpayers get for that money? This is from info promoting the Special Tax: “Since the establishment of the Wildfire Prevention Assessment District, Oakland has not had a significant devastating fire in the hills, while other communities that do not have a dedicated service district have experienced large fires.”

Everyone who lives in the hills worries about fire. Although some properties are obviously not in compliance with Oakland’s Fire code, most property owners do their best to maintain defensible space. But it does no one any good to stoke fear of fire in an effort to renew a tax.

In fact, none of the communities surrounding Oakland (Berkeley, Albany, El Cerrito, San Leandro) have had a major fire since the tragic 1991 fire. Most of these communities are similar to Oakland in having wildland/urban hillsides.  None has a WPAD that takes credit for preventing a major fire during the past 22 years.  One might even consider the WPAD’s boast an insult to Oakland’s Fire Department [OFD], which is made up of skilled, professional firefighters.

Certainly the lack of a WPAD had little to do with whether there was a major hills fire before 2003. It’s more certain that narrow roads choked with parked cars, lack of water supply, extreme drought conditions, dry brush, and Diablo wind gusts exceeding 65 mph caused the 1991 fire to spread out of control.

Over the past 22 years, OFD’s performance has improved. Some examples: increased wildland training, mutual response area agreements, better communication with other fire agencies in the region, and annual response drills. We have new fire stations in the hills and annual inspections of residences and landscaping to make sure they comply with fire codes. OFD has a new fire chief from whom we can expect more improvements in fire fighting and prevention.

If the ballot measure to fund WPD passes, WPD services would be similar to WPAD services, including, but not limited to the following:

  • Goat grazing program on city property to clear weeds within district boundaries
  • Property owner incentives such as providing chipping and disposal of yard waste
  • Vegetation management to control weeds on city property; roadside mowing along major public roads; maintaining fire breaks
  • Roving fire patrols on red flag days
  • Public outreach; creating and distributing information and tips on fire prevention

In the year ending June 30, 2013, the WPAD spent $1,600,855. It’s difficult to find out from nontransparent WPAD records where the money went, that is, what your parcel tax pays for. Out of the $1.6 million+ , we know that about $357,600 paid for the goat grazing, and about $213,500 went to other activities. The lion’s share of the money (∼$1.1 million) went to “vegetation management.” We have asked for details of this $1.1 million expense, but at this point we have not received the information.

We believe that the OFD does the roving patrols and the housing inspections. We don’t know who does the roadside mowing; we assume it is done by Public Works.

Before you vote on the Special Tax, you might want to seek answers to these questions:

  1. If the inspections, roving patrols and roadside mowing are done by OFD and PW personnel already on the clock, why are we being asked to pay again for these services?
  2. Why are heavily wooded, brush laden nonprofit properties exempt from the Special Tax?
  3. Why should parcel owners pay the Special Tax when it will be used almost exclusively to clear City of Oakland land? We already pay taxes to maintain city property such as parks. Why should we be taxed again?
  4. Why should a Citizens Advisory Committee [CAC] have the power to direct OFD professional firefighters in programs (such as protecting native plants, even flammable ones) that the CAC (and its supporters) consider important, even if they do nothing to reduce fire risk?  Did you know that the WPAD/WPD wants to hire someone just to identify native plants?
  5. Why can’t the Special Tax funds be used to supplement OFD services in ways that might really prevent fires? Wouldn’t the money be better spent to hire more firefighters so there will be no need to have three “brownout” days each month when fire houses throughout Oakland—even in the WPD—are left empty and neighborhoods are unprotected? Wouldn’t the money be better spent to upgrade emergency communications, or buy emergency vehicles, or find a way to get more water for hills fires, help neighborhoods underground utility wires, or create a viable emergency plan for Oakland?
  6. The OFD has the experience, training and responsibility to prevent and fight fires. They stand ready to risk their lives for us. Why do we need another tax for services, such as residence inspections, roadside mowing, roving fire patrols, even the goat grazing program, that the OFD, PW or contractors could do without a WPD? Why should WPD money be spent on programs that have nothing to do with preventing fire, but instead promote agendas such as the dogma that native plants and trees resist fire? What will we really be getting for that $20 million?

Update:  Voters in the Wildfire Prevention Assessment District narrowly defeated the ballot measure to renew the tax that funds WPAD.  Thanks to those who participated in the effort to defeat this measure and especially to CFROG for organizing that effort.  Here is the article in the Oakland Tribune announcing the outcome:

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