First – What to do with that Petition?

Many neighbors got a pre-filled in petition in the mail in mid-April.  The confusing design made it appear to be a ballot.  It is not, it is only a petition.  You may toss it as there is no protesting a petition.

Note: that petitions for assessment districts are a matter of public record and are disclosable records.

If balloting should begin (if petitions representing 30% of the property assessments are returned), you must return any ballot marked as such back to the department of elections within 45 days to protest the formation of the assessment district.


The organizers should be “thanked” for their sincere commitment and dedicated efforts to make their neighborhood better.  The passion and hard work of citizen volunteers is so often under appreciated and under thanked.  We will also add that we are disappointed in the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office and the San Francisco Parks Alliance, which appear to have misled the Formation Committee (FC) in the feasibility of getting a GBD established to solve their specific behavior related issues.

Bottom Line

This effort to create a Public Realm Landscaping, Improvement and Maintenance Assessment District is a huge waste of OEWD money, and a lot of time, hard work and dedicated energy by the organizers.  One unintended side effect is that it is turning some neighbors against other neighbors, something we certainly do not need. 

The Formation Committee was led to the wrong solution to their problems by former Supervisor Sheehy who got them a ~$130,000 grant from the OEWD to establish this assessment district. The City Attorney’s office isn’t helping much by what appears to be improper guidance and inadequate review and critique of the Management Plan, and by mandating excessive boundaries that will make it a challenge for the FC to collect the petitions from the property owners who pay 30% of the total assessments required to proceed to the next step.

Is opposition about property owners not wanting to pay more taxes?

NO.  The neighborhood has wholeheartedly supported an assessment district in the past (see previous history below).  For property owners who have educated themselves about this proposed district benefits and costs, opposition is because many property owners cannot see any added benefits.  Most see this as money going for:

1.  Services that we are already paying for,
2.  Services which will not result in any change regardless of how much more money is spent,
3.  Services which will not proportionally benefit most residential parcels (not compliant with CA constitution), specifically to provide services to the Valencia corridor/18th Street businesses which alone could not easily support their own business improvement district.  

Previous history:  This neighborhood has already undergone a very successful petitioning campaign to establish an assessment district.  Gathering 50% of the responsible property owners to establish the Dolores Heights Underground Utility Assessment District (DHUUAD) was not at all challenging.  Many of the proposed parcel assessments for the DHUUAD were much higher than the proposed ten-year total MD-GBD assessments.  But in this case, property owners had a clear vision that their assessments would add positive value to the neighborhood.   (Note that after the petitioning requirements were met to establish the DHUUAD, the Board of Supervisors allocated funds to cover the costs of the construction, the assessment district never went into effect.)

What is a Public Realm Landscaping, Improvement and Maintenance Assessment District?

Passed by the Board of Supervisors in 2014 by ordinance 14-14, Article 15A of the San Francisco Business & Tax Code Regulations (SFB&TCR) allows the Board of Supervisors to “establish property and business improvement districts that focus on landscaping, improvements and maintenance in Public Realm areas.” Examples provided in the law include ecological systems, water and energy systems, pedestrian and bicycle amenities, and recreational improvements.  Recreation improvements is further defined as improvements that will encourage use by improving current conditions such as “repairing a grass soccer field.  Ecological systems are defined as  “systems of living organisms and the physical environment those organisms inhabit. An ecological system includes elements such as soil, geology, wildlife, vegetation, and watersheds.”

The ordinance authorizes the Board of Supervisors to initiate proceedings to establish a property and business improvement district upon receipt of a petition signed by property owners in the proposed district who will pay at least 30 percent of the assessments to be levied, lowering the state threshold from 50%.

Problems with the Proposed MD-GBD

The proposed Assessment District is not a “Public Realm Landscaping, Improvement and Maintenance Assessment District” as defined by the law.  It very much is a Business Improvement District which is formed under SFB&TCR Article 15 (and per §36600 et seq of the CA Streets and Highways Code), which may use funds for (1) crime reduction (2) job creation (3) business attraction (4) business retention (5) economic growth (6) new Investments.  

 The Management Plan provides for reasons for creating the Green Benefits District:

• Address issues with dirty sidewalks, liter, graffiti and antisocial street behaviors.
• Advocate for District Priorities.
• Community Engagement.
• Invest In Neighborhood Beautification

Of these, only the last, which implies investing in the neighborhood, is a valid reason for creating a GBD.  Addressing issues of bad behavior, the real root of why the neighbors approached then Supervisor Sheehy, does not meet the definition of “maintenance and operation expenses of a public improvement” per Article XIII D of the California Constitution.

Of the 10 “immediate actions and long-range goals” in the management plan, only two, #5 (invest in parks and open spaces, beyond Dolores Park, including but not limited to Mission Pool and Playground, the Dolores and Guerrero medians, the Dolores Heights stairways, and the J-Church Muni right-of-way, to reflect neighborhood needs and priorities) & #6 (Install and maintain new and existing trees, planters and sidewalk gardens) are focused on landscaping and improvements to the public realm.  

The management plan only discusses conceptual improvements. There is not a single specific “green” public realm landscaping, improvement or maintenance project identified in the Management Plan. 

Per the management plan, the special benefits to the 4,262 parcels in the assessment district, including 3,963 residential parcels, each parcel in the district will specially benefit from:

• Cleaner sidewalks, streets and common areas;
• Real and perceived public safety improvements;
• Greater local capacity and enhanced neighborhood identity;
• Improved community quality of life;
• New business and investments; and
• Well-managed GBD programs and services.

Commercial and Mixed use zoned parcels on the Valencia and the 18th Street commercial corridors are assessed at twice the residential rate, so they will specially benefit from enhanced litter removal and service such as sidewalk pressure washing. 

Per the FC, the City Attorney’s office directed no gaps of parcels between assessment districts.  Hence, the MD-GBD assessment area is contiguous with the Castro Upper Market Community Benefits District (C/CBD).  Consequently the MG-GBD is spread over 90 city blocks, many very distant to Dolores Park, the source of the problems which the GBD is trying to solve.  Two issues with the logic of forcing boundaries to be contiguous:

(a) The law requires that the special services provided in an assessment district to individual parcel owners are proportional to their assessments.  Having only two zones (regular assessments for the residential parcels and enhanced for the commercial and mixed use parcels), it isn’t reasonable to assume that the special benefits to property owners can be at all equitable when the district is so widespread over 90 city blocks.  

(b) The concept of “leave no parcel unassessed” confirms the City Attorney’s mistake convoluting the purposes of Business Improvement Districts formed under article 15 and the purposes Green Benefit Districts formed under Article 15A of the SFB&TRC. These are distinctly two different purposes for districts that are neither mutually exclusive nor required in absence of the other.  This confusion is similar to drawing transit rich neighborhoods mutually exclusive to neighborhood subject to liquefaction. There is no sensical connection.

The City Attorney’s position (per the FC) was that if the districts were not contiguous, that parcels in between would benefit from the assessments paid by those surrounding property owners who were within assessment districts. 

The proposed area is too large to be effectively managed, covering 4,262 parcels on 90 city blocks.  Compare this to the 270 parcels on far fewer city blocks of the C/CBD).  

By expanding the area boundaries to be contiguous to the C/CBD, the FC is challenged to meet the 30% threshold for petitioning, as the blocks further away from Dolores Park cannot relate to the issues the assessment district will affect.  

Who is in favor?

NONE the other established neighborhood groups have taken positions of support:

DHIC – fully contained inside the proposed assessment district – has taken the position of “No Position – members should educate themselves and act accordingly.”  This is an interesting stance, as DHIC borders Dolores Park, at least one DHIC Board member is on the FC.

MDNA – fully contained inside the proposed assessment district – adamantly opposed with two board members on the FC.

LHNA – partially contained within the proposed boundaries (4 of their 6 double-block area) – after briefing in February by the FC, most of their members were against the idea, although the LHNA has not yet taken an official position. There was also the feeling that the businesses on the Valencia Corridor and 18th Street were trying to get services and have the residences contribute to the costs.

Where we are

Pre-printed petitions were mailed out on or about 12 April by the San Francisco Parks Alliance to the 4,262 property owners within the proposed assessment area.  

If the FC is able to collect petitions from property owners who represent 30% of the total assessments, the Board of Supervisors may initiate the next step of the proceedings, a balloting of all 4,262 property owners.  

Issues with the petitions

The petitions are very misleading by providing each individual with their “Parcel Assessment” labeled “Total $” but the amounts listed were not the total, but only the first year payments.  It does state that assessments would be collected for the first ten years (with dates mis-calculated) but not that the number represented below was only the first two payments.  

By design or by negligence, the petition sent to property owners had the appearance of being a ballot, as it contained check boxes for “yes” and “no.”   Neighbors have been confused as to what they are voting for.  

Next steps for the Assessment District

If the FC is able to gather petition signatures from property owners who represent 30% ($318,675) of the assessment district’s first year total assessment ($1,062,250), then the Board of Supervisors can authorize a balloting.  This can happen as soon as early May 2019.  

The Balloting Procedure is specified in the Government Code §53753.  THIS IS NOT A SECRET BALLOT.

Ballots will be sent to all 4,262 parcel owners.  Information on each ballot will include the total amount of the full ten-year assessment, the number of years of the assessment and number of payments.  

Ballots are weighted based on each parcel owner’s share of the total assessment.  The easiest simile is that each of the 4,262 parcel owners will get one vote for each dollar of their first year assessment.

The votes are tallied after 45 days.  If the number of protest votes is 50% or more of the total votes cast, then the assessment district will not be formed.  

Property owners may change their vote a up until the tally.  How each property owner votes is a matter of public record subject to disclosure after the tally is complete. 

Knowns, unknowns and possible unintended consequences

Can a GBD manager manage a district that covers 4,262 parcels over 90 city blocks?

Who are we going to call?  Selling points of the GBD include reduced crime, faster graffiti removal, cleaner streets.  People are just now getting used to calling 311 to take care of these issues.  But the GBD brings another agency into the mix.  You see a crime, do you call the police or the GBD?  You want a new street tree, do you call FUF or the GBD?  Sidewalks damaged from tree roots do you call BSUM or the GBD?  When there are hypodermic needles left in your front yard, do you call 311 or the GBD?  

Even if this were a “business improvement district” formed under Article 15, many of the property owners are already satisfied with the base level of city services that are already supposed to be provided by the city.  

If the assessment district is formed, when the property owners recognize that this is a bad idea, it is effectively impossible to terminate the assessment district for the ten year life of the district.  There is a petitioning window each year when property owners representing 50% of the total assessments may petition the Board of Supervisors to terminate the district.  But this threshold is 67% higher than the threshold to establish the district.  The District also can be terminated by a super-majority of the Board of Supervisors.

Other notes

There is an appearance that the formation of the assessment district is being rushed without adequate community outreach and review.  Rushing is also apparent by the errors in the management plan approved by the City Atty’s office that any proofreader should have caught.  The petition sent to the property owners had similar errors with incorrectly calculated dates.  Some of the calculated assessments in the assessment roll were incorrectly calculated, particularly lots which had been split into condominium parcels.

In addition to the ~$130,000 grant from the OEWD to get the assessment district formed, the formation committee can take an additional $80,000 out of the taxpayer’s assessments to recover additional costs incurred to get the assessment district formed.