Measure R Funds: Are They Being Spent as Voters Intended?


    Nearly three years since Orindans voted to approve a supplemental sales tax, some residents are raising concerns about how Measure R funds are being allocated.
    The Nov. 3, 2020 ballot measure proposed a 20-year, one-half cent sales tax increase to fund essential services, including wildfire risk reduction, preparation for emergencies and disasters, repair of public storm drains and public street maintenance.
    Campaign efforts for the measure prominently featured wildfire-related messaging. The measure’s requirements to create a supplemental sales tax oversight commission (SSTOC), which formed in early 2021, reassured voters’ funds would be spent 
    “In 2020, we were led to believe the funds would primarily be used for wildfire prevention,” said longtime Orinda resident, Steve Cohn.
    Then-Mayor Amy Worth underscored that belief.
    “As you know, when you pass a sales tax, it goes into the general fund and can be spent on anything,” she said at the first SSTOC meeting in March, 2021. She noted the Orinda community had identified their priorities for allocating Measure R funds.
    “We anticipate that the grand bulk of the first part of the life of this sales tax measure will be devoted to fire, fire prevention and fire preparedness,” Worth said, adding implementation is as important as planning and programming.
    Although clearly stated in the measure, some voters may not have realized the estimated $2.4 million dollars in revenue generated from the Measure R tax increase is a general tax. As such, it is deposited into the general fund and can be used for any municipal governmental purpose.

How are funds being spent?
    Measure R expenditures are complex and have included a mix of staffing, legal, finance, community outreach and infrastructure to date. Spending details for the 2023 fiscal year, including expanded wildfire risk reduction projects, will be made available this fall, at which time The Orinda News will report them.
    One use of Measure R funds was the hiring of James Duff as Wildfire Education and Outreach Coordinator late last year. Duff previously worked for the Austin, Texas, Fire Department in a similar capacity. He is one of fewer than 80 national fire prevention association certified wildfire mitigation specialists in the United States.
    Before Duff’s hiring, multiple fire safety efforts using Measure R funds were initiated, including the free chipper program and an incentive program to clear brush from properties.
    “We have put tools in place to make it as easy as we possibly can for people to clear vegetation on their properties,” said Melanie Light, chair of the SSTOC. “ People are busy. The fire department nor the city can go onto people’s property and do the work for them.” Editor’s note: See accompanying story detailing the success of new and ongoing programs addressing wildfire risk reduction.

Are fire safety and infrastructure inseparable?
    Evacuation routes are critical to safety efforts during wildfire or other emergency conditions as was seen watching the people of Lahaina, HI desperately fleeing the August wildfires.
    In the July 12 SSTOC meeting, City Manager David Biggs suggested the possibility that some Measure R funding could apply to aspects of the city’s safety element. This work might include adjustments to roads and medians, allowing traffic to move more efficiently in the event of evacuation. Biggs also mentioned suggestions of expanding or adding fire roads to aid firefighting crews and evacuation 
    Police Chief Ryan Sullivan addressed the commission about applying some of the tax revenue to help revamp the city’s emergency operations center (EOC). Among necessary upgrades is replacing obsolete 3G phones with new radios using an appropriate frequency for use by public works and police during emergency or evacuation situations.
    “It has been challenging for the SSTOC to find ways to spend money both efficiently and effectively that will have a meaningful impact on wildfire reduction risk,” said Brad Barber, an SSTOC commissioner. Barber, a 35-year resident of Orinda, previously served on the board of the Moraga Orinda Fire Department.
    He supports storm drain and sewer repair along with some ongoing road improvement.
    “I want to make it abundantly clear that I am not accusing anyone of acting in bad faith,” added Barber.

The Radke Proposal
    Other programs suggested include a proposal from John Radke, an Orinda resident, UC Berkeley professor of Geographic Information Science (GIS) and founding member of the University’s Center for Catastrophic Risk Management (CCRM). He is also a licensed pilot and a certified firefighter.
   “I have been researching climate change, flooding and wildfires and their impact on infrastructure for more than 30 years,” Radke said.
    His proposal recommends that his research teams develop fire models analyzing areas of burn risk. The project would cost approximately $587,000 over two to three years’ time and includes Radke and two professors donating their time at no cost. His teams include global experts in GIS and fire modeling.
    “We’re not talking pixels per tree, but pixels per pixel,” he said.
    The imagery and related technology will calculate the biomass of vegetation. Results demonstrate how much heat each type of plant life gives off under various fire scenarios. Public and private landowners will then have tangible knowledge to prioritize vegetation removal.
    The SSTOC recommended the city council accept Radke’s proposal.
    “It seemed logical to me that if the project could show the degree of risk faced on each property, then that would be more of an incentive to the property owner than any other effort we’re doing now,” said Barber, one of six commission members who voted to recommend Radke’s proposal.
    City staff recommended against adopting the proposal.The council took no action, in part because of staff concerns about spending for research when other priorities compete for the funds and the potentially unrealistic public buy-in required to see the project to fruition.
    Instead, staff is researching grants to fund the project. If appropriate grants are awarded with matching contingencies, Measure R funds could provide matching amounts.
    SSTOC Commissioners are Melanie Light, Chair, Brad Barber, Chris Decareau, Jud Hammon, Rachelle Latimer, Yasaman Lee, Paula Reinman and Alex Weinstein.
    The Orinda News is continuing to follow Measure R revenue and its expenditures.
    Coming next is, Facts and Figures: How Measure R Funds Have Been Spent to Date.

Cameron Sullivan can be reached at

Measuring Some Measure R Projects

    The Orinda News is following the wildfire-safety programs funded by Measure R revenue. The information below covers a small selection of wildfire-prevention projects tied to Measure R funds. It is not a comprehensive description of all projects related to Measure R expenditures .

Free chipper: Micki Cronin, senior management analyst with the city, manages the free chipper program and explained a survey of residents who used the service in 2023 revealed more than 87% of respondents were extremely satisfied with the program. For more than 78%, the free program was the incentive to remove vegetation and more than 56% completed their entire task.
    Cronin said the chipper and truck have collected over 2,264 cubic yards of vegetation so far this year. The city integrated a new software program for efficient scheduling. Reservations may be made at t
    “The Wildland employees, who operate the truck, do an amazing job,” said Cronin. “It’s expensive to take out the truck and the chipper. We hope to encourage residents to schedule the service when they have large piles and to use their green waste bins for the smaller piles.”
Vegetation removal incentive: With appropriate documentation, residents and businesses paying $600 or more for vegetation removal on their properties can receive $600 from the city.
    Because many properties require thousands of dollars of work, the incentive has not yet garnered the degree of interest the city hoped for.
    Eligible properties include those on fire apparatus roads, which is any city road or lane on developed property that can be accessed by fire apparatus, which likely includes most if not all developed properties — if they meet any of the following criteria: 1) are in a current Firewise community; 2) have had a Fire Adapted Community Assessment completed no more than 90 days prior to doing the work; or 3) received notice from MOFD the property is not in compliance.

Public Information and Education: Social media, website content and a trifold brochure are most direct forms of outreach about wildfire risk reduction projects. The most-viewed social media posts in recent months include resources related to emergency preparedness and wildfire prevention.
    Fire mitigation expert James Duff, Orinda’s wildfire education and outreach coordinator, actively collaborates with city, regional, state and national organizations. Among recent undertakings is active monitoring of Pacific Veg Map. A partnership with CAL FIRE, Pacific Veg Map provides detail about fine-scale vegetation, topographic, wildland fuels and other mapping for seven Bay Area Counties. To ensure appropriate mapping, staff is monitoring their current Alameda/Contra Costa mapping efforts, which are expected to be complete in 2025.

Grants: In its July 2023 annual presentation, California Consulting listed several grant applications submitted for various projects, including fire fuel reduction and storm drain upgrades. An application for generators has been accepted and is moving forward. City staff are exploring grants to fund a wildfire-prevention research proposal.

    Many other projects are in consideration.

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