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Are Green Benefit Districts really worth the money?

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Green Benefit Districts, like the one that exists in the Dogpatch, allow property owners in a given areas to finance capital improvements and maintenance through an addition to their property taxes. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

A new City program — Green Benefit Districts — may not be as great an idea as it initially sounds, especially in established neighborhoods with primarily single-family homes, like the Inner Sunset.

The idea: property owners — including homeowners — agree to pay an added assessment to their property taxes to finance maintenance and capital improvements to sidewalks, parks, and open spaces in their neighborhood.

Critics worry that the process is inherently unfair. Rich neighborhoods can pay for — and get — enhanced services, while poorer neighborhoods languish with inferior ones.

There are also concerns that GBDs could encourage development. Large developments will be able to pay the increased assessments — and generate good PR while doing so — while homeowners may not be able to afford the added expense.

It all starts when a few people decide they want a Green Benefit District. They could be unhappy with conditions in their neighborhood, or they could simply want to control what takes place there.

The Department of Public Works will then work with the organizers to facilitate neighborhood approval of the District, including giving grants to consultants working with neighbors to help establish a GBD.

In the Inner Sunset, a small group of community activists used this seed money (totaling $120,000) and more to develop a plan for street cleaning, sidewalk landscaping, and pedestrian lighting (although with no details of specific projects).

Critics argue that many of these are already being done by City Departments, paid for by current property taxes. In theory, a GBD only pays for enhancements of existing services. But the City has not provided opponents with an accounting of the existing level of services in the Inner Sunset. Without knowing that baseline, critics worry the new assessments will fund existing services, not enhancements.

A nonprofit must be created to administer the GBD assessment. This creates an added level of bureaucracy in the neighborhood.

In the Inner Sunset, GBD proponents proposed a budget that calls for an assessment of $250 each year for a small, single-family home. Larger properties would have larger assessments. The district would raise nearly $1 million the first year.

But nearly a third of the proposed budget goes to administrative management (including hiring an executive director), “advocacy,” (i.e., lobbying City Hall), and promotion, not capital projects.

The creation of a Green Benefit District requires a two-step voting process of property owners — a petition to demonstrate support for the district and an election in which every property owner in the proposed district can vote. However, the normal protections of a municipal election — secret ballots, security to prevent fraud– aren’t there. The voting — and the ballots — is under the complete control of GBD proponents.

It’s not one owner, one vote. Each vote is weighted according to the property’s square footage, with large property owners’ votes counting proportionally more than that of an individual homeowner.

For example, a single vote from the owner of the large Andronico’s grocery store in the Inner Sunset counts as much as the votes from 55 single-family homes combined.

Because of this weighting, Green Benefit District proponents have an incentive to focus their outreach efforts on the largest property owners, not homeowners, as happened initially in the Inner Sunset.

A simple majority vote of those who respond in the election (but not of the total number of property owners) is all that’s needed to create the GBD. At that point, all property owners within the district will have to pay the assessment.

Apparently, City and state agencies that own property in the proposed district can vote in the election. Because their properties tend to be large, their votes could carry significant weight. Critics worry that City agencies therefore, can play a (potentially) large role in the decision to increase GBD residents’ property taxes.

So far, only one Green Benefit District has been created — in Dogpatch. But the City is currently pushing five new districts — Inner Sunset, Buena Vista, Bayview, Marina, and Sunnyside. If those Districts go through, you can expect more.

A Green Benefit District might work in a neighborhood like Dogpatch that historically had fewer services and is now undergoing a development boom. But it is not a good fit for an established neighborhood like the Inner Sunset.

The Inner Sunset proposal is currently on hold. Lack of money and community opposition paused it. But there’s no time limit. It could resume at any time.

A Green Benefit District has been proposed in the Inner Sunset neighborhood. (InnersunsetGBD.org)

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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