Inverness tax leaves big questions

02/03/2021

Everyone can agree with the frightening opening to the Inverness Foundation’s solicitation for the adoption of another Inverness Public Utility District tax: “We don’t want Inverness to be like Paradise…ravaged by…fire.” 

Alarmed Inverness residents are then presented with a property tax proposition authored by Seahaven residents rather than our utility district. This tax, they claim, will provide funds to alleviate the wildfire threat and Inverness’s water problems—essentially leaks and inadequate storage capacity. Yet combining wildfire danger with IPUD’s water issues creates a scattershot approach to two separate and complex situations. And a cursory analysis of the proposal’s enormous ambitions reveals that its expenditures will clearly exceed its generated income.

Inverness exists within a wildfire zone. Fighting the Woodward Fire required pooled resources of the federal, state and county governments. Yet the Inverness Foundation claims its tax could diminish the likelihood of wildfire by providing “sufficient funds to pay for ALL the costs of fuel control and ecological restoration on lands adjacent to Inverness in Tomales Bay State Park and Point Reyes National Seashore.”

Does the foundation think that our small community has adequate resources to do this—and should be responsible for managing state and federal lands that millions of people utilize every year? Can IPUD obtain the necessary federal and state permits to provide this level of management? Has a wildfire expert designed or verified the potential effectiveness of the proposal, or did the idea originate with Seahaven residents who hope to maintain a firebreak on public lands adjacent to their homes, using all Inverness residents’ tax money to do it?   

The utility district would manage the tax revenue, but would its use of the income be pre-determined by the proposition? Can the Seahaven firebreak be eliminated if the district determines this is neither a priority nor an effective approach to community safety from wildfires?

The portion of the proposition dealing with wildfire presents a placebo, not a solution, for collective fear. Creating defensible space around houses and within a neighborhood is a reasonable goal but cannot provide safety from wildfire. Inverness lies within a vast, forested parkland. As individuals, we can accept this reality or move.  

As for our water problems, if IPUD needs increased revenue, it should propose an additional property tax—one developed from a reliable budget analysis and targeted toward specified needs and uses. 

When I asked the Inverness Foundation what input IPUD had in the development of the tax, I received this response from Jerry Meral: “[A]n I.F.-sponsored measure would need a majority to pass. An IPUD-sponsored measure would need 2/3…. IPUD can only take a position once the text is final. To preserve the majority vote option, we cannot work closely with IPUD on an official basis…. IPUD cannot be officially involved if we want to preserve the majority vote option.”

If an Inverness Foundation proposition reaches the ballot, it needs to receive only a simple majority rather than the 67 percent majority that IPUD, a government body, would need to pass a new tax. The proposition will have been generated and shaped by a few unnamed citizens who were able to receive Inverness Foundation sponsorship without a vote or even a public discussion of its merits by the Inverness Association’s own general membership. 

This tax proposal should propel our town into a community discussion of wildfire threat, water supply and the variety of solutions that exist. It elicits many questions. Is a new property tax Inverness’s only choice? Has IPUD exhausted all other avenues, such as alternative sources for funding, fines for excessive use, targeted education and incentives for conservation? Should property owners who have assumed their individual and community responsibility by spending thousands of dollars to create defensible space around their homes receive a tax break if IPUD uses tax funds to create defensible space around neighborhoods or homes? Should residents who own water-efficient appliances or who very carefully use our precious supply receive water rate cuts, or a tax break? And, finally, if a new property tax is necessary to fund IPUD, shouldn’t IPUD generate it and determine how it be used? 

Jerry Meral will present the Inverness Foundation’s tax proposal at IPUD’s next board meeting, on Feb. 24. The community can attend this meeting on Zoom. Sending letters to board members, the Light, and the Inverness Foundation is another way to participate in this dialogue.

 

Francine Allen lives in Inverness.