Still Concerned About Undergrounding

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I have recently been asked (repeatedly) as to why I am still concerned about the undergrounding of the utilities process even though I am not currently threatened: AD114B was carved out of AD118 – neighbors with whom I have vehemently fought (we thought successfully) against the AD118 undergrounding petition at a cost of over $10,000 and hundreds of volunteer hours.

Now my very same neighbors have been gerrymandered into so-called AD114B, proving what we have said all along: city staff is enabling a persistent and recurrent economic assault on the city’s homeowners by allowing another petition to go forward less than a year after it was defeated.

All Newport Beach taxpayers should be concerned about lowering the threshold because they will foot the bill out of the general fund if the ballot fails.

Why is City Staff once again so determined to push through a homeowner tax amounting to over $23,000 for aesthetic undergrounding of telephone wires?

Let’s look at the facts and just refer to the May 10 City Council meeting and agenda packet, and also to what was said at the meeting. (Agenda packet and meeting video available on City website.) When reviewing the evidence, it seems that important decisions have already been made by someone.

When undergrounding opponents presented the signatures of well over the mandated 40 percent of property owners necessary to block the pro-undergrounding petition in AD118 as well as AD114 to the Assistant City Engineer Michael Sinacori and Deputy Public Works Director Mark Vukojevic last year, no action was taken to confirm the signatures and halt the wasteful and time-consuming petition process.

However, on the other hand and for some unfathomable reason, despite the fact that the pro-undergrounding faction continues to be unsuccessful in achieving the long-agreed upon 60 percent threshold, the item not only magically appears on the Consent Calendar (allowing approval with no Council discussion or public comment) but formal resolutions have already been drafted accepting the AD114 and AD114B petitions with an already lowered 50 percent threshold in the wording of the formal resolution.

Not only that, but a Budget Amendment was already drafted on May 4, 2016 authorizing the expenditure of $115,000, already signed by the Finance Director and the City Manager, just for the estimate. 

Further, a 24-page Professional Services Agreement with Harris and Associates for engineering services was produced and already signed by City Attorney Aaron Harp on April 29, 2016. $68,780 (of the $115,000) is to be spent before the ballot, just for the Consultant’s rough estimate of the total cost of the project – rough estimate as evidenced by Agreement wording on page 8 that Harris & Associates “does not guarantee the accuracy of such opinions.”

Also in the PSA, it notes that Harris & Associates is in charge of not only preparing the ballots, but also tabulating the results. Undergrounding opponents have requested to review the already ‘verified’ signatures (that had been verified despite reaching the threshold). 

They have been stonewalled by city staff, and told that the list wasn’t ready and would be presented at the May 24 meeting, thus denying any property owner the opportunity to publicly confirm the accuracy of the list.

By the way, these signatures were ‘verified’ by Harris & Associates. Isn’t this like the fox guarding the henhouse?

In addition, Michael Sinacori produced a five-page staff report about the petition certification. In it, he states that the undergrounding proponents failed to reach the agreed upon threshold. Why, then, have a staff report at all until they have reached the threshold? At whose direction was this report produced? 

In any case, he also states that Harris has ‘verified’ 54.21 percent, but in the meeting, Dennis Anderson representing Harris noted that there were 18 valid rescinded signatures bringing the percentage down to 51.23 percent.

Do Mr. Sinacori and Mr. Vukojevic simply ignore City Council guidelines at will? In the report, staff is taking it upon themselves to actually request approval of a Professional Services Agreement with Harris and Associates before the threshold is even reached or lowering the threshold is even discussed by anyone in public.

However, there is much to agree upon, as expressed at the May 10, 2016 City Council meeting (check the video on the City site.)

We agree with Mr.Petros that it is tearing the Heights apart and that the 60 percent threshold should stand.

We agree with Mr. Peotter that this is really a tax.

We agree with Mr. Vukojevic that the City Council guideline threshold is 60 percent and, as noted in his staff report “The 60 percent guideline reduces the financial risk to the City and further assures the City Council that the community favors the undergrounding and will vote positively in the future.”

We agree Harris & Associates that people commonly change their opinion in the ballot process (when they see what they actually have to pay). That’s the main rationale for the 60 percent threshold, to make sure that the City doesn’t waste almost $70,000 in the feasibility process.

We agree with Mr. Duffy when he counted 20 (66 percent) undergrounding opponents and only nine in favor of undergrounding of those making comments at the meeting.

We agree with Mr. Hefner in all of his postings to the City (as listed in the agenda packet on the City website dating from 6/27/14) that the proponents and the City have repeatedly agreed to the 60 percent threshold.

We agree with the 17 (representing 44 property owners) online comments opposing undergrounding. In fact, 100 percent of the current online comments listed in the agenda packet were against undergrounding and against lowering the 60 perent threshold.

And finally, let’s not forget the additional financial burden to the property owner beyond the $23,000 tax. The property owner is financially responsible for all contracting work done on their property to hook up their home to the new system.

This significant, variable, and unknown expense (for bring their property up to code, hardscaping, landscaping, painting and other contractors) is entirely borne by the property owner and is not included in the tax (the “Assessment”).

City Council members who vote to lower the threshold are voting to gamble almost $70,000 of taxpayer money. It is a bad bet, with barely more chance of winning than placing it all on one roll of the dice at the craps table. And if the ballot passes, they will have voted to tax homeowners tens of thousand dollars and have their properties ripped apart for something that is not safer (by Edison’s own admission on the website) and has no particular benefits beyond aesthetics.

It is simply not fair to force others to pay significantly more than $23,000 (ironically, enough to pay for a sustainable solar installation and almost eliminate our monthly Edison Electric bills) and have their homes ripped up for the aesthetic whims of their neighbors.

The cumbersome and obviously unfair open-ended petition process needs to be changed. Detailed suggestions for improvement to this unwieldy process can be found in the Documents section at noundergrounding.com. Now that’s something worthwhile for the City Council and staff to consider.

 Portia Weiss / Newport Beach

 

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