Libertarians At The Gates
A man with an obvious grudge and a strident ideology threatens the city of Salinas.
Thursday, August 8, 2002
Photos by Randy Tunnell. Clockwise from top left: The Bean Counter-Brett Landon is the finance man behind the Salinas utility tax repeal campaign. He thinks the tax can be cut with little impact on city services; The Idea Guy-Mark Dierolf heads the Monterey County Libertarian Party. He wants to save Salinas residents from the $10-a-month utility tax; The Target-city Manager Dave Mora and his salary are lightning rods for the utility tax debate in Salinas. Tax repeal proponents say if Mora and other administrators took salary cuts, the utility tax would not be necessary; The Defender of the Tax-businesswoman Brigid McGrath Massie is chairing the Save Our Services campaign. She thinks voters have too much common sense to repeal the utility tax; The Tax Man-Gary Karnes is managing the campaign to save the utility tax. He calls Dierolf''s and Landon''s plan to cut city employee salaries "basically bolshevism."
Mark Dierolf sips a cappuccino at Borders Café and explains how easy it is for him to rally support for his cause-the repeal of Salinas'' utility tax.
"All you have to do is walk into any business and talk to them about their PG&E bill," he says. This move often leads to hand-wringing and lamenting by the business-owner. Dierolf then asks: "Well, what do you think about the city''s tax on that?"
The answer is obvious. No one likes taxes.
Dierolf insists that he is crusading for the common citizen. Gas and electricity prices are already too high, he says. Poor residents starve while the city gets fat.
Dierolf says he''s talked to countless seniors living on fixed incomes who can''t afford their prescription drugs-let alone a tax on electricity, water, cable TV and the like.
"It''s an unfair tax," he says, his face reddening, either from the caffeine or emotion, as he continues. "There''s a cost to it.
"I realize there''s a lot of seniors out there who are hurting, and the one thing that can be done is to cut the tax. Especially when the tax doesn''t even go for the utilities."
On average, the tax costs Salinas residents around $10 per month.
Should voters heed Dierolf and eliminate the utility tax, the Salinas City Council and City Manager Dave Mora have said they will be forced to axe $8 million in jobs and programs-many of which benefit senior citizens and other lower-income residents. Some of them will hold Dierolf personally responsible for closing city parks, senior centers and after-school hangouts.
"That''s not true," he says, shaking his head. "I fight for the parks. Hey, I''ll tell you what, I fight for our services, too. I not only fight for the taxpayer; I fight for our services."
Then he says something telling.
"I''m certainly not going to let Dave Mora ruin our city."
Listening to him, it sometimes seems that Dierolf truly believes he''s helping the little guy. But it doesn''t take much prodding to get him to reveal his ulterior motives.
I ask him if he''s spoken to the seniors who play cards, knit blankets and eat a free lunch every day at the recreation centers in East Salinas. If voters agree with Dierolf''s ballot measure, these old folks won''t have any place to go.
"Dave Mora and the City Council-those are the ones who they should hold responsible," he answers. "The majority of the council and the mayor is up for reelection, so here''s an opportunity for people to choose. Do they want to vote for somebody who''s responsible for responsible and good government? Do they want to vote for somebody who says they don''t care about their services? So people can get a choice.
"By the way," he says, as if recognizing that his diatribe has taken a turn, "I''m not running."
Dierolf has, in the recent past, tried his hand at electoral politics. In 1979, he ran unsuccessfully for County Treasurer. Years later, he followed the advice of a fortune cookie, he says, and gave public service another shot. Salinas voters elected Dierolf to the Hartnell College Board of Trustees in ''93, and again in ''97. In 1998, Dierolf tried a second time to move into county politics. Again trying for a post that would give him control of the County''s coffers, he ran for County Assessor and lost.
So back to the Hartnell Trustees he went, most recently winning the 2001 race.
As a board member, he led a battle to prevent the City of Salinas from giving Central Park to Hartnell. Although charged to look out for the best interests of the college, he believed none other than Dave Mora was behind the deal, and so the college did not get the land.
Dierolf says public officials can''t be trusted to manage money. But he insists that it is concern for the poor, not animosity for bureaucrats, that fuels his tax-cutting passion.
"Especially in my district, we have a lot of field workers-the most predominantly Latino district," he says, recoun- ting stories he says he has heard while walking precincts. "They''re telling me, ''Hey, we''re not making any more money. We''re making less. Every dollar counts.'' They''re not getting any breaks."
But won''t these same people be hurt the most if voters repeal the utility tax?
"That''s not true," Dierolf says, over blaring piano jazz and grinding coffee beans.
"You know what?" he asks, again turning his attention to Mora and his colleagues in City Hall. "I did not think asking for a little help for these people, for the people who are being treated unfairly ... was going to be opposed by them so strongly. I thought they would have some compassion and at least care to give them a break. But they didn''t. They''re just fighting any attempts to give them any kind of a break whatsoever. But you know, I finish what I start, I went through this process and I will see it through. Wow, this is good cappuccino."
Dierolf downplays the fact that he is a committed and ardent member of the Libertarian Party. He never brings up the fact that he is, in fact, the head of the Monterey County Libertarian Party.
He insists it doesn''t have anything to do with his current politics.
"I consider myself a Libertarian with a small ''l''," he says.
What does that mean?
"It means I really see myself as an independent. I don''t see myself as a party person. I brought this issue up. Libertarians I know never even knew about the utility tax. The first people to contact me [about repealing the tax] was Santa Cruz County, and they did, and it''s over."
Apparently, Dierolf does not want Salinas voters to know that ''big-L'' Libertarians across the state have fought similar campaigns. Utility tax repeals have become the party issue, although Dierolf says otherwise.
Hartnell Board President Darlene Dunham says Dierolf''s politics influence his every move.
"Mark is very political," she says. "He has an agenda, and his agenda is that he''s a Libertarian. Everything is viewed through the lens of his Libertarianism. It''s my personal opinion that Mark doesn''t get up in the morning deciding to win friends and influence people. I think what drives Mark is his politics."
Dunham is admittedly pro-utility tax. "Because our students use the libraries and put their children in day care," she says. "Marks seems unaware of that. Where everything I do is seen through the lens of Hartnell College, and what is best for Hartnell College, that often doesn''t seem to be the case with Mark."
Just as Dierolf maintains that his party affiliation has nothing to do with his anti-tax stance, he also denies that he has a vendetta. But he does not hide his contempt for the people who run Salinas-especially his nemesis, Mora.
"Mr. Mora is definitely overpaid," Dierolf says. "He''s not looking out for the taxpayers; he''s just looking out for himself. This last five years, we''ve had a significant increase in city revenue and yet not one tax cut, not any kind of reduction, and all we get is more and more fees, more and more taxes. Someone explained it once to me, it''s kind of like a frog that gets in the water when it''s lukewarm and it''s getting warmer and warmer-we''re being cooked. Sooner or later you''re going to turn down the heat or you''re going to be cooked."
As the music in the cafe seems to get louder, chairs scrape across the floor and the milk steamer screams. Dierolf repeats his mantra-city politicians are lying. They are trying to scare people into keeping the utility tax.
"That''s not true that the tax is paying for that [city services]," he says. "The money is not earmarked for anything. It can just as easily go for Dave Mora''s salary."
In Dierolf''s utopia, Salinas'' voters can have it all-less taxes and more city-funded programs. A projected $8 million shortfall stemming from the demise of the utility tax appears to say otherwise.
On July 16, the City Council approved a proposal that Mora presented, which showed where cuts would have to be made if voters eliminate the utility tax. At the meeting, a Salinas police office likened the tax to paying 34 cents a day-pennies to keep 44 police officers in the city.
"And that''s in addition to the other [city-wide] cuts," says Officer Chris Swinscoe. "Personally, I feel that''s a darn good deal for 34 cents."
Dierolf wasn''t at the council meeting. Earlier that day, he and his anti-tax colleagues had promised to release some numbers of their own. Dierolf said they would show how the city would be able to maintain and even add new services and programs. Their proposal, he assured, wouldn''t cut any jobs.
However some employees, especially managers, may have to accept pay cuts.
Dierolf routinely directs all specific financial questions to Brett Landon, a perennial candidate and City Hall critic.
"[The City Council] has $8 million to choose from, and they chose that worst $8 million that human beings could chose. They went right for the throats," Landon says, ticking off the city services on Mora''s hit list. "Literacy programs, graffiti abatement; here''s one that really ticks me off: crossing guards. Let''s kill a few kids."
But at press time, two weeks after their promise, Dierolf and Landon produced a list of Salinas Top 40 paid bureaucrats. They didn''t call it a hit list and did not come right out and say the city should fire all the managers, but they repeatedly pointed out how much money these employees cost the city.
"It basically implied that if you fired all the top 40 managers in the city, you''d have an extra $6 million dollars," says political consultant Gary Karnes, who''s managing the utility tax supporter''s campaign. "That''s basically bolshevism. It may be a popular idea after three beers, but it''s not the way you run an institution. Kill everybody that makes over $50,000. Like I said, it sounds good after three beers, but it''s not a wise, thoughtful thing to do."
Not wise, perhaps, but easy.
Staging an anti-utility tax revolt is, in fact, as easy as visiting the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association [HJTA] Web site, an online anti-tax clearinghouse named for one of the authors of the granddaddy of the anti-tax movement, California''s Proposition 13.
"As part of its TRUE [Tax Relief for Users of Electricity] Project, HJTA has put together a do-it-yourself package to help citizens place an initiative measure on their local municipal ballot," the site reads.
Click a button and you, too, can wreak havoc on your local jurisdiction.
Start by downloading an 11-step document titled "Process for Reducing or Repealing a City Utility Tax by Initiative."
Then, copy the sample ballot measure. "Do not merely copy the sample," warns step No. 1. "The Text of your initiative must be tailored to reflect (1) your city''s tax ordinance, and (2) your objectives."
Next, collect ballot signatures.
"Good luck!" reads step No. 11.
And in case luck''s not enough, Howard Jarvis doles out legal and technical support, Dierolf says.
The taxpayer association recruited Dierolf last year.
"I think they sent out a mailer, right when they started their TRUE program," Dierolf says. "I found out about the help they provide for helping people-I wasn''t the first person they helped recruit, they helped someone in Long Beach, too. Long Beach was the first. Since the Energy Crisis, I was one of the first ones they actually worked with. When it comes to actual legal help, their kit up there [on the Web] is basically everything you need to know."
According to the HJTA, the 169 cities and six counties in California levy utility taxes have been targeted. Libertarians have been sponsoring similar repeals across the state. Most have been successful.
Now that the Utility Tax Relief Initiative is on Salinas'' November ballot, Dierolf''s onto the next Howard-Jarvis sponsored project.
"Tax relief for homeowners," he says. "They''re circulating an initiative right now. I haven''t got one right yet, but they''re sending it to everyone else. I called ''em up and said, ''Hey, don''t leave me out. Send me one.'' It''s a statewide initiative so I can circulate it to everyone."
Brigid McGrath Massie, a local business consultant, sits in her Salinas office, surrounded by framed inspirational posters with pictures of water and sunsets and words like "Believe, Succeed and Imagine."
Massie, a speaker who''s authored two books, What Do They Say When You Leave the Room? and Selling for People Who Hate to Sell, is the chair of Save Our Services, or S.O.S, a citizen''s committee that has pledged to raise $100,000 to fight the utility tax repeal.
The S.O.S roster doesn''t read like any other coalition in town. There are police officers, big business owners and labor union members, shippers and growers, and groups that represent Latino farm workers. These aren''t typical play-buddies.
Even the campaign manager, Democrat Gary Karnes, and the campaign fundraiser, Republican Angel Garcia, are an odd match. Garcia, whose Salinas-based Bear Associates Consulting firm represents state and local politicians, recently helped Lou Calcagno win another term on the County Board of Supervisors. Garcia''s never run a campaign with a Democrat campaign manager, he says.
Karnes, on the other hand, specializes in Monterey County school bond measures. He says he''s run about 40 local campaigns-primarily bond measures, with a candidate''s campaign here and there-over the last two decades.
Massie admits that seeing the mix of Salinas residents championing the utility tax is a heartwarming sight.
"To see young Latino youth with the firefighters handing out flyers together," she says, "it doesn''t get any better than that."
And she says she''s not worried by the results of a recent poll showing that 52 percent of Salinas voters said they were likely to vote to phase out the utility user''s fee. Of that 52 percent, 29 percent said they would vote "definitely yes," and 23 percent said they would vote "probably yes."
"It''s so easy," she says. "You say, ''Do you want to cut your taxes?'' And if they''re sober, they''re going to say yes. But people just aren''t that stupid. They''ve got common sense-this isn''t Fantasy Island. The city''s got to pay people. You can''t cut revenue and not loose services.
"Look at Santa Cruz. The affects were significant and immediate."
A week after Santa Cruz County''s utility tax was repealed at the polls, the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported that county hiring had all but stopped. The vote cost the county $10 million. The county''s 300 job vacancies will only be filled under special circumstances and by approval from the county administrative officer. This means 70 health department vacancies and nine sheriff''s officer positions may be unfilled. Santa Cruz County officials have said that other jobs and programs will be cut.
In Monterey County, the anti-tax fervor has spread to other cities. Several other Monterey County groups are sponsoring ballot measures to abolish or lower utility taxes, including King City, Pacific Grove, Seaside and Greenfield. Dierolf says he''s directed interested parties to the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association for legal advice and sample ballot measures.
"It''s just too simple," Massie explains. "It''s just, ''How might we lower our taxes?'' And they saw this as an opportunity."
Landon, who bills himself as a city finance expert, promises to show how Salinas officials can cut the utility tax and keep programs by Aug. 20. At that City Council meeting, Landon says, he and Dierolf will present four alternatives to Mora''s $8 million cuts.
"There''s a lot of deception in here," he says pointing to Mora''s report. "You''ve got to call it what it is. I''m a mechanical engineer by trade. I work with numbers, I can get through them and understand what''s going on."
He has yet to make his case.
Landon, a conservative Republican, is a member of the local watchdog group called City Watch. He previously ran two unsuccessful bids for City Council, and two failed mayoral campaigns. Most recently, he ran and lost to Mayor Anna Caballero in 2000. Landon campaigned for more cops on the streets and less "big-government" spending within the city. And a lower salary for Dave Mora.
Landon insists this latest attack has nothing to do with his own political aspirations-or with enemies he''s made in City Hall.
"Mark and I have nothing to gain or lose from this," he says. "We love our community. We just want to see it run a little more efficiently."
Sitting in a conference room at Landon''s office near the Salinas airport, Landon says he''s followed the city''s budgets for over a decade. "I realized how much fat there was 13 years ago, and it''s gotten tremendously worse."
Landon denies that Salinas is staring at an $8 million hit. He says he''ll be able to crunch the numbers to prove otherwise.
Landon promises not to propose any program, or "rank-and-file" position cuts. But some upper level managers-no more than 10-have got to go.
"It''s top-heavy," he says, pointing to the list he''d compiled of Salinas'' Top 40 Bureaucrats. "It''s been going on for decades. They suck up all the money we need for roads and sidewalks."
Landon says he hasn''t decided which bureaucrats to axe yet. He will by Aug. 20.
Dave Mora makes $144,408 annually. Compared to 15 other city managers in same-population communities (such as Hayward, Irvine and Santa Rosa), Mora''s salary is the lowest. Monterey, with only one-fifth as many residents as Salinas, pays its city manager $143,448. And Monterey County''s Chief Administrative Official-the county''s answer to a city manager-makes $158,232.
Landon also suggests extremely rosy revenue growth projections without the utility tax. For example, sales tax monies are one of the city''s top four revenue sources (property tax, motor vehicle and utility user''s fees are the other three). While Salinas has averaged just over 7 percent growth in sales tax revenue over the past 10 years, Landon''s shows a projected 10 percent growth over the next four years.
"In fact, our economy is coming back," he says. "When it does, our revenue numbers are going to increase."
Dave Mora calls Landon''s suggested growth rate "very aggressive and very unrealistic."
Landon, however, maintains that a citywide diet is in order.
"The reality is that these rich people cannot keep their salaries without the tax," he says. "A little tiny bit of belt-tightening is all that was required and they weren''t even willing to try it."
The city already operates on a lean budget, Mora says. Salinas'' per-capita spending represents about $431-meaning the city spends $431 per person on roads, police and fire, and other services. Comparatively, Monterey spends $1,443 and Watsonville spends $584.
Mora''s spent a lot of time-too much time, he says-fighting the folks who want to repeal the utility tax. As a result, the counter arguments are as clean and precise as the Power Point slide show he''s presented to city officials and the media on numerous occasions.
Slide One: Utility costs are not soaring. Cable, water and phone rates did not spike and PG&E rates are back to their old levels.
Slide Two: PG&E has a variety of discount programs for low-income residents, as does Pacific Bell.
Slide Three: This tax is in fact business-friendly. It''s capped at $2,000 per meter.
"I''ve even heard some people say the cap''s too low," he says.
"The question becomes, what''s Mr. Landon''s issue?" Mora asks. "He hasn''t proposed anything. His revenue growth assumptions are unrealistic. There is no way using the projections that we''ve put together that you can maintain all the services we have and add to it. So I think we''re all looking forward to August 20."
Dierolf has been notably absent from any public meetings addressing the utility tax repeal.
"He doesn''t like taxes-that''s okay" says Mora. "As long as you are willing to discuss the consequences of not having the tax base. But to cut taxes and say you''re not going to have a change in services? Someone needs to challenge that statement."
"The initiative is only about phasing out the utility users tax," Dierolf responds, in a later interview. "City collections of other taxes have also increased. A responsible city manager would handle the utility tax reductions without significant service reductions."
Dierolf says he stopped attending city council meetings when they turned into "pro-tax pep rallies."
"Just because it''s on the City Council agenda does not in any way obligate me to be there, especially at this point," he says. "It''s the voters who will decide the issue. At this point it''s the polling place that matters. What they''re having in the interim are just PR, pep rallies and press conferences."
Plus, they''re mean to him. The audience boos him and cheers pro-tax firemen and librarians.
"They''ve been attacking the initiative since the moment I filed, every meeting they attack it."
As he often does, Dierolf strays from The Message-that he''s fighting for lower taxes and crusading for the little guy here. Once again, the issue becomes personal and political. It''s about Dierolf''s vendettas and his ideology. He doesn''t like taxes and he doesn''t like the people who run Salinas. He''s a libertarian, with a Big L, and a grudge.