I don’t suppose you guys have been following this whole undergrounding controversy in Piedmont?
I have more than enough on my plate trying to keep up with what’s going on in Oakland, so I have to admit, I don’t pay a ton of attention to what goes on in our wealthier neighboring cities where nobody lives. But a few months ago, as I was paging through a very large folder of feeds, a post in Piedmont Neighborhood News caught my eye. It began with a big, bold quote from their City Administrator from a recent Council meeting:
Such an extraordinary, such an unpleasant, such a difficult recommendation. The recommendation is mine and I am responsible for it.
How’s that for melodramatic? You understand why I had couldn’t help but click through and read the whole thing.
Anyway, so it turns out that this incredibly difficult decision that the City Administrator had to make was about whether or not Piedmont should spend one third of its general fund to subsidize the undergrounding of utility lines in front of 144 houses in the fancy part of Piedmont. No, I am not making that up. And yes, his recommendation was to go for it.
So ever since then, I have just not been able to get enough of this ridiculous controversy. Basically, what happened was that this neighborhood, “Piedmont Hills,” decided they wanted their power lines undergrounded. So they made an assessment district to pay for their undergrounding, and the project went out to bid. The bids that came back ranged from $1.5 million to $2.5 million. I am sure it will not surprise to learn that the $1.5 million bid was choosen.
So this company got to work on the undergrounding, and were shocked when they started digging and discovered that the ground there is actually rock. Um, yeah.
So then, this company is all “Oh, it’s going to cost another million dollars to dig through all this rock” and the people of Piedmont Hills were all like “Yeah, we don’t want to pay a million dollars” and went out and raised $30,000 instead. So the City Administrator was like well we have to finish it (PDF) one way or another. They would find the money from their General Fund reserve.
OMG, I am so sorry!
I bet that last line totally confused the hell out of a lot of you Oaklanders out there. My bad. You see, a reserve is this neat-o thing that some cities have where they take some of the money they get and instead of spending it, they put it away somewhere else.
Yeah, I know it’s confusing. Go back and try reading it again slowly.
No, you don’t spend it on something else. You put it somewhere else.
No, not even if there’s something you really want to spend it on. You just put it away and let it sit there. Then, if something terrible happens, like, oh, I don’t know, if say revenues were to suddenly plummet or you unexpectedly had to bail out some beautification project in a ritzy neighborhood, then you would have money sitting there that you could use to deal with the problem. So you could take care of the issue without having to like, lay off half your park maintenance staff or whatever.
Think of it sort of like a savings account, but for the City. It sounds crazy, I know. But trust me when I say it actually is fairly common practice in other places.
Piedmont’s undergrounding problems
Anyway, so Piedmont had $3 million in their General Fund reserve. That probably doesn’t sound like a lot, but you have to remember that Piedmont is super tiny, so it is actually quite a bit of money per person. Good for them.
Anyway, so back in December, the Council approved this emergency resolution to spend a third of their reserve to bail out this underground project. But it doesn’t end there. It turns out that the project had even more problems (PDF) than they had realized in December, and to get it finished was going to cost another $1.15 million. Oops! People were seriously pissed.
Underground Utilities in Oakland
I am sure you are all wondering right about now why on earth I am talking about Piedmont’s undergrounding controversy. Mostly, because I find the story pretty entertaining (in a oh-god-government-is-so-depressing way, of course), and figured that since I was writing about undergrounding anyway, it would be fun to mention it.
And why am I writing about undergrounding at all, you ask? Why, because the Public Works Committee was talking about it earlier this week, of course.
You guys know what underground is, right? It’s when you take the power lines and other wires on poles in a neighborhood and you put them underground. We had underground utilities in the town where I went to high school. It was nice. Power lines are really unsightly. Also, they get knocked down in storms and your power goes out, and having your power out sucks. Plus, downed electrical lines are like, you know, extremely dangerous and a fire hazard.
First Come, First Served
So, if neighborhoods in Oakland want their utilities undergrounded, the way it happens is they ask they City for undergrounding and then they get on a list. Then the wait. Usually for a very long time. Then, once they get to the top of the list, the City goes and looks to see if that neighborhood meets one of the four eligibility requirements set by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) for undergrounding. (If you don’t meet any of the criteria, you can still have undergrounding if you really want it, but you have to pay for it yourself. You can’t use money from this undergrounding fund that we get from PG&E). Anyway, the CPUC’s eligibility requirements are as follows:
heavy overhead electric facilities
heavy volume of auto and pedestrian traffic
civic area or public recreation area
arterial street or major collector
There are 23 neighborhoods on the list right now. 23 probably doesn’t sound like a lot, but undergrounding is expensive. Most of it gets paid for out of this pot of undergrounding money we get from PG&E every year, but also the property owners in the neighborhood pay some too. Right now we get like $3.6 million a year from PG&E, and for the neighborhoods that get the undergrounding, the cost to the property owners is like $15,000 each. Based on the current funding, all the neighborhoods on the list will get their utilities undergrounded within the next 40 years.
We’ve been doing it that way since 1968.
Priorities for Undergrounding
So, the City Council’s Public Works Committee got a report about this undergrounding list (PDF) back in September, and they were like “Maybe just giving this to whoever asked first isn’t the smartest way to do it. Maybe we should have, like, criteria or something to decide who gets undergrounding.” So they asked staff to come back with another report about how other cities decide what neighborhoods get undergrounding, and that happened on Tuesday.
As it turns out, like, nobody else makes this decision based on who asked first. Crazy, I know.
Instead, they look at factors like (PDF):
Whether the area is has other projects going on, like major street construction
Whether there is a safety issue related to the overhead wires
Whether the undergrounding would be near major public facilities (schools, parks, rec centers, commercial corridors, etc.)
Cost/benefit analysis of doing undergrounding in the area
Whether the undergrounding would happen on a major street
Seems reasonable, right? After all, if it’s going to take 40 years before we get all these projects done, it seems logical to do them in some sort of, you know, rational order, based on where undergrounding is more needed.
So, there weren’t very many speakers on this on Tuesday, but the ones who did show up said that whether overhead utilities is a safety issue should be the number one criteria. The meeting in September had more speakers, and they were also really adamant that safety issues should be the top criteria.
Here’s former Oakland City Councilmember Dick Spees making the case for safety at that meeting back in September:
It’s kind of hard to argue with. District 6 Councilmember Desley Brooks said she was supportive of safety as a criteria, but made sure to note that overhead utilities are not a safety issue exclusively in the hills. She is unhappy with the fact that most of the undergrounding gets done in ritzy neighborhoods.
District 2 Councilmember Pat Kernighan said it wasn’t quite so simple as all that, noting that the next neighborhood on the current list is in her District, and that they really really want their undergrounding, and that it isn’t fair for them if we just go and change the rules after they have been waiting for like 30 years and if we do they will get really angry.
I definitely feel bad for people who have been waiting a long time for something and don’t get it. But what’s more important? Being fair? Or a fire? Fair? Fire? Fair? Fire? Kinda seems like a no brainer to me.
You can watch the whole discussion here:
If you have some time, you should watch it. It’s interesting. I’ll try to upload the September discussion later.
What do you think?
The report on Tuesday was just an information item, so nothing happened then. But the Committee did schedule the undergrounding issue to come back on May 11th, this time as an action item. That means they might actually adopt new criteria, not just talk about maybe doing it. If you have feelings about what the criteria should be, you should contact them about it.
The contact information for the Public Works Committee is as follows:
District 2 Councilmember Pat Kernighan
Phone: (510) 238-7002
District 3 Councilmember Nancy Nadel
Phone: (510) 238-7003
District 6 Councilmember Desley Brooks
Phone: (510) 238-7006
At-large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan
Phone: (510) 238-7008