CO$T’s Most Impactful Year
Tees Up Big 2023 Plans
2022 was CO$T’s most successful year by far, further building our credibility and positioning us to be even more effective governance watchdogs and taxpayer advocates in 2023 and beyond. This letter fills you in on our recent accomplishments (some of which you likely don’t know about), unveils our future plans, and asks that you please dig deep for a contribution that will enable us to expand CO$T’s activities that benefit so many Marin residents.
Why we need your donation now more than ever. In 2022, instead of encouraging you to support CO$T directly, we urged donations to the campaigns of three impressive new CO$T-endorsed candidates for Marin Municipal Water District Board – Ranjiv Khush, Matt Samson and Jed Smith – each of whom won in a landslide. Simultaneously, we engaged a part-time digital marketing aide who helped us improve the quality and frequency of our communications to you. This professional assistance made a big difference and we’ve gotten good feedback on our communications. But we spent considerably more than we took in during this period. We hope that your year end donations will replenish our $15,000 net outflow and provide the funding to do even more good work for Marin.
2022 Highlights: Fire, Water, Fairness
- Marin Municipal Water District Board – Mission accomplished! 3 new Directors elected.
- CO$T’s MMWD Lawsuit inches forward – Rate fairness and transparency are at stake.
- More funding for Open Space Wildfire prevention, thanks to CO$T.
- Forever taxes – CO$T’s new crusade for forthright wording and accountability
- Ballot language watchdog. We found key errors and got them mitigated.
- CO$T’s Spotswood-moderated candidate forums hugely popular
- Marin’s Watchdog: Constantly monitoring. Serve on many Oversight committees
- Wildly popular public service: Tax/fee exemption and discount information
- Stellar new additions to our board, “Brain Trust” and supporter group strengthen our organization.
Highlights of Coming Activities
- MMWD water rates: Advocating for a fairer charge structure when rates jump July 1.
- New focus: Preserving hybrid access to public meetings as a disability, equity, and free speech right.
- Expand our high impact activities: watchdog, oversight, tax fairness advocacy, voter and ratepayer education.
- CO$T 2.0 Brand update: We’ve evolved! Our public facing presence will too!
****Keep reading to learn more about our accomplishments and plans****
Strategic Focus: Water, Fire, Fairness, Education
MMWD Board Election: Home Run – CO$T’s top priority for 2022 was to help elect three exceptionally qualified new Directors to the board of the Marin Municipal Water District. Each of the three CO$T candidates endorsed by CO$T won over 60% of the vote, revolutionizing a board dominated by long-entrenched incumbents. We’re optimistic this will result in a more secure water supply and fairer rates. The Marin IJ’s political columnist Dick Spotswood credits CO$T’s “decisive” role in this sea change, including being “involved early in recruiting” new candidates “who will aggressively advocate for innovative new water sources at a reasonable price.” Kudos to the many of you who were part of this major achievement, supporting the candidates with donations, knocking on doors, letters to the editor, social media posts, lawn signs, and, of course, your vote.
Open Space Wildfire Prevention: Half a Loaf – CO$T was instrumental in securing a commitment for substantially more money to remove fire-prone vegetation from county open space. We accomplished this through public advocacy and extensive collaboration with county staff, fire chiefs and elected officials in the lead up to the renewal of the Measure A Parks and Open Space sales tax measure. Candidly, we were disappointed that the county gave in to pressure from wealthy agricultural interests insistent on keeping 20% of the funding. The additional wildfire prevention dollars ended up less than we’d hoped but considerably more than previously allocated.
New Crusade Against Forever (and other Bad) Taxes – CO$T has declared war on forever taxes, ones with no set expiration date. The ballot language typically gives voters a false impression that they have control over the tax because it’s described as in effect “until repealed by voters.” In fact, it’s nearly impossible for citizens to gather enough signatures and money to repeal a tax. Worse yet, most of these too-long taxes go into the general fund and can be spent on anything (including retiree benefits), while purporting to be dedicated to specific purposes that poll well. CO$T was successful in working with San Anselmo to change a planned general fund forever sales tax measure into one with a 9-year term. CO$T opposed and helped defeat Measure D, a 30-year property transfer tax in Belvedere that also would have gone into the general fund while being marketed as disaster preparedness. We opposed Larkspur’s new forever tax Measure G (1/4 cent general fund sales tax ) billed as “Disaster Preparedness” and even persuaded the Marin IJ’s Editorial Board to oppose it. However, despite these efforts, voters passed the sales tax.
Challenged Problematic Ballot Language – CO$T found errors in two ballot measures and worked to get them addressed. The draft of San Anselmo’s sales tax measure J had summary ballot language that referred to the sales tax as a renewal, neglecting to mention that it included a ½ cent increase; we caught this omission early enough to work with council to fix the language. Larkspur’s Voter Guide information received by residents included an actual error, understating what the full sales tax rate would be if voters approved Measure G. It was too late to fix the Voter Guide, but we prevailed in getting Larkspur to email voters a clarification.
Hosted More Voter and Issue Education Forums – CO$T is filling a valuable need for impartial election and hot-button issue webinar forums. Moderated by the Marin IJ”s highly regarded Dick Spotswood, CO$T’s election forums this year – two for supervisor races, and one each for Assembly, MMWD, and San Anselmo Council – were very well attended and the videos then quickly posted on our website were viewed by many. We hope to meet the demand for a larger number of forums in the next election cycle. Last year’s housing policy forum featured key players in the local control battle and hundreds of people attended. These events are part of the educational mission of the CO$T Foundation, which you can support with a tax deductible donation.
Advancing Lawsuit Challenging MMWD’s Rate Structure. CO$T’s 2019 suit on behalf of MMWD ratepayers asserts that new, huge fixed fees on customers’ bills tied to incoming pipe (meter) size are arbitrary, unfair, and illegal. The district now spends $200,000 annually in legal fees simply to block disclosure (discovery) of documents that we believe would show that the fee structure arbitrarily overcharges many customers. What have they got to hide? If, as they assert, the fixed fees are fairly apportioned among customers, why fight so hard to prevent us from seeing their records? Our efforts to compel discovery are now at the appeals court level and, if not resolved, may proceed to CA’s Supreme Court. MMWD should stop wasting ratepayer money defending unfair rates and fighting transparency.
Highly popular public service: tax & fee exemption and discount information. Every year we send notification to tens of thousands of Marin taxpayers alerting and reminding them to file for an array of local tax and fee exemptions and discounts for which they may qualify. Most of these waivers and discounts must be reapplied for annually. We tell recipients how and when to apply. Benefiting from our alerts are seniors, low and moderate income families, people with disabilities and certain medical conditions, and low water users. We receive many thanks each year. This educational activity is funded by the CO$T Foundation, donations to which are tax-deductible.
Oversight committees and related watchdog work. CO$T’s Directors and Brain Trust members serve on many Citizen Oversight Committees. Currently we help provide independent oversight for financial and other activities at the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority, Transportation Authority of Marin, San Rafael Schools, and Mill Valley Schools. We plan to participate in other oversight boards to fulfill increasing demand for this activity. Also every year we receive multiple tips from residents and whistleblowers concerned about local government actions they view as inappropriate, some of which merit our follow up.
CO$T growing stronger organizationally and in numbers. In 2022 to date, our supporter group grew 16% and the engagement is exceptional. Our emails are now consistently read by well over 50% of CO$T’s supporter recipients, reflecting a strong interest in our activities and what we have to say. Demands for CO$T’s work expand significantly each year as the scope and regard for our work increases. Our Board of Directors is a set of individuals with exceptional expertise and commitment to our endeavor. This year we were saddened by the passing of Paul Premo, one of our founders and a pillar of our financial analysis team. We are grateful to Charles Friede, who has significant corporate financial experience, for joining us as CO$T Director, Treasurer, and lead financial analyst. We are also in the final stages of assembling our Brain Trust roster, a group of advisors who each have a specific expertise or passion that is vital to CO$T’s activities. Keep an eye on our Brain Trust webpage and stay tuned.
2023 AND BEYOND
Seeking Fairness in MMWD’s Upcoming Big Rate Hikes. MMWD is headed for a huge rate jump July 1, 2023, with further increases in the subsequent three years. The district is in bad shape financially with drought-related declines in water sales, high fixed costs, falling reserves, and a number of unplanned large expenditures as the district grappled with the possibility of running out of water by mid-2022. Additionally, MMWD must advance a capital spending plan to move us toward a drought-ready 4-year water supply. While rate increases are inevitable, continuing the current rate-structure unfairness shouldn’t be. Much of your current bill is tied to the size of your meter – an arbitrary metric. Two identical homes using the same amount of water may be billed significantly different amounts simply because of the difference in the diameter of their incoming pipe. Some fairer options include tying most of your bill to water usage; tying fixed charges to customer class (e.g., residential, commercial, multifamily, government) rather than meter size; dynamic pricing (rates move up or down each year depending on water conservation’s impact on the district’s revenues); and adding more tiers of usage. MMWD should use the rate development process to fix the unfairness of the current rate structure.
Preserving hybrid access to public meetings – Defending rights of free speech, equity, disabled and seniors. California law requires public agencies to resume holding in person meetings in March 2023. Those meetings are permitted to be hybrid: i.e, continue to provide for full remote participation by the public, so that anyone can offer public comment and react to the proceedings in real time. However, Tamalpais Union High School District – which just started planning for a major multi-campus renovation and bond measure – recently decided to terminate full remote participation via Zoom. We are concerned other boards and councils will do so too. Among the reasons provided is that people are more civil in person (i.e., the board doesn’t like what people say or how they say it, which is a free speech issue). Turning off the remote option for FULL participation also rolls back disability and social equity rights that many citizens now enjoy. It disenfranchises people who are immune compromised, disabled, elderly (don’t drive at night), disabled, or with modest income (e.g., single parents who can’t leave children alone). We are pressing TUHSD to revisit their unfortunate decision soon. A top priority for CO$T in 2023 is preserving the right for people to fully participate in local government meetings from remote locations in real time.
Expanding popular educational activities. We’ll be hosting a greater number of topical webinars and exploring opportunities to coordinate with other organizations.
CO$T 2023 Reboot Coming! Last on this list, but first on our 2023 agenda! Over the six years since our founding, CO$T has grown and evolved. A top 2023 priority is re-imagining who we are so that the public has a greater appreciation of the watchdog, oversight, advocacy, and educational activities that consume most of our time. In 2016, our main focus was ensuring that local taxes and fees were as affordable as possible. We developed our Sensible Tax Criteria, our discipline for judging whether new taxes are necessary, fair and affordable. Over time some tax proposals have been designed – or altered when faced with our potential opposition – to meet those criteria, thanks to our successful advocacy and negotiation with local agencies. For example, we were instrumental in altering, and then helping to pass, the countywide wildfire prevention parcel tax Measure C – while continuing to stand up against unfair, unnecessary or misleading local taxes and government actions. Today, we are not a pro-tax or anti-tax organization. We’re working FOR fairness, transparency, and respect for the law by our local governments and the taxes and fees they seek. We work with local agencies to proactively resolve issues, while being ready to sound the alarm and lead the opposition when cooperation fails. We look forward to telling you more about New CO$T in the coming year, and hope that you will support our ground-breaking approach with your donations.
Donate Now to Support CO$T’s 2023 Activities
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