Our Budget Letter to the Town Council

This evening, the Town Council will be providing its initial feedback to staff on its proposed FY 2021-22 budget. Here are our observations and comments to the town council:


Honorable Mayor and Councilmembers, We write regarding the capital replacement and traffic safety items (combined or at least interrelated on tonight's agenda) and offer the following observations and suggestions: The town’s capital replacement and traffic safety (and CIP, for that matter) projects should be driven by what is needed. Discretionary spending on items of dubious value should be avoided, and projects pursued primarily because they have grant funding associated with them should receive extra scrutiny. The latter are the ones where we’re often told “they’re free”, when in reality the town incurs a portion of the expenses (of varying degrees) and nonetheless bears the entire cost of time that could otherwise be spent on endeavors of greater value to the town. In the context of this evening’s discussion, this mostly applies to the potential traffic safety endeavors. Sidewalks to improve safety near schools – where sidewalks currently don’t exist – quite clearly are a proper use of the town’s limited funds. Similarly, improving crosswalk visibility in areas where pedestrians frequently cross highly-traveled roads have immediate utility and a high ROI. Conversely, some items are beyond wishful thinking and instead are driven by wholly unrealistic, eyes-bigger-than-our-stomach plans (e.g. Bike|Walk, Livable Moraga Rd) developed as if Moraga wishes to become a Berkeley-style pedestrian and bicycle utopia (notwithstanding the fallacy that Berkeley is anything of the sort). Further, the paltry number of survey respondents and an apparent lack of representative community stakeholders call into question the validity of conclusions. They do look nice; they’re just wholly inappropriate, unrealistic, or both. Some items simply have very little utility and should be dispensed with as such. A Rheem Bl bike line to the town limits in Orinda will serve no one. Reflective traffic signals are totally unnecessary here, as we are not a visually chaotic/crowded urban city with signals that are difficult to discern. Anyone who believes better synchronization of traffic signals is of any necessity or value in Moraga needs to have their head examined. A bike lane from the Canyon Bridge to the staging area would be an absurd and wholly irresponsible expense when the protected EBMUD trail parallels the road just feet away. The creation of projects for the sole reason that grants may be available needs to end. Time is finite and staff spends time applying for and managing these grant-driven projects whose genesis is “some free money” rather than what the Town actually needs and could implement to good effect in short order and at relatively low cost. The continuing roundabout study madness persists as an embarrassing example; the council at least twice has indicated this project has no future, yet here it is again, active “because of the grant” despite everyone knowing the plug should have been pulled long ago. We note that the roundabout consulting firm continues to recommend roundabouts. While we do no question that the subject intersections could be improved, we also note that the City of Lafayette addressed similarly-challenging intersections on Reliez Station Rd with traffic signals for a small fraction of the cost of Moraga's envisioned roundabouts. Even if the roundabouts would be "more effective" it seems quite clear that the marginal utility is not commensurate with the significantly increased potential price tag. We know you know this, but communicating such would be helpful as this grant-driven pipe dream draws closer to its hopeful, near conclusion. With respect to the capital replacement plan and/or CIP activities, the ongoing/funded activities highlighted in Attachment C of the staff report generally appear reasonable, save any further discretionary time or expense associated with Livable Moraga Rd. We primarily note the nearly-million-dollars required for the Hacienda. The facility requires nearly $300,000 per year in operating subsidies along with an enormous amount of capital expenses. Acknowledging the town has (and presently is) seeking ways to reduce the losses incurred there, we believe there remains a need for the council to specifically and more clearly define the purpose of the Hacienda. Its intended purpose is unclear: if it is a wedding and meeting venue, it’s a terribly unprofitable one and begs the question why the town believes it should own a wedding and meeting venue. If it’s a historic landmark the council believes is worthy of unlimited expense, it should definitively say so. If it’s intended to be a public park, it absolutely fails since it is open only during business hours during weekdays. What we really have, at the moment, is a multi-million-dollar liability for which it is impossible either to gauge “success” or to make rational decisions on future investment because it really has no defined purpose against which spending and program decisions can be parsed. As with any other capital replacement and CIP activities, spending should be prioritized based on needs versus wants. Insofar as Attachment D associated with potential CIP activities, we offer the following specific observations: The proposed electricity generation study strikes us as broader than necessary. While it clearly makes sense to (1) assess needs and approaches for electrical service in the event of PG&E disruptions and (2) ascertain the potential cost savings and ROI from solar power, spending time or money on the former seems unnecessary for either the Hacienda or Library since neither facility is critical infrastructure that would either need to be - or even be beneficial to have - open during power disruptions. We also note that solar energy assessments and associated ROI are available at no cost from solar power installers. See our comment(s) on the continued level of spending at the Hacienda and our suggestion that a definitive "statement of purpose" is needed for that facility. We presume that any approval of the Moraga Wy to Sanders Dr component of complete streets study is limited to the $32k in 2021/22 and not the eye-popping, multi-million-dollar figure shown thereafter. Although, as was recently discussed in a council meeting, simple and inexpensive solutions for crosswalk improvements are fairly obvious on this particular stretch of roadway. The Moraga Rd/St Mary's streets study - along with any engineering or construction - strikes us as premature and possibly entirely wasteful. That intersection is subject to significant and wholesale modification if and when the MCSP is built. Further, it's entirely possible that costs associated with MCSP-related changes to half of that intersection would be borne in large part (if not entirely) by the developer. We also point out the apparent wastefulness and philosophical inconsistency of investing anything in an intersection (or new, discretionary sidewalks adjacent to it) that the town already knows will require a complete redesign when the MCSP is built. It strikes us as poor form and wasteful that the town would even consider spending money on sidewalks or anything else requiring MCSP-related demolition/removal while simultaneously asserting that harmless, temporary land use for a local-business-funded field (between Safeway's dumpsters and a junkyard, no less) ought to be strictly regulated because of an imminent MCSP build out. One costs the town time and thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of dollars while the other costs the town absolutely nothing. Thank you for your patience reviewing our lengthy comments!