Youth tax initiative doesn’t get the message
By R.E. Graswich
Never underestimate the arrogance of politicians, even at the local level. They know better than you and me. And they won’t take no for an answer.
This summer, the City Council considered a November ballot initiative to steal about $10 million annually from cannabis taxes. The money would flow to private organizations. In theory, they will spend it on kids. Or so they say.
If this sounds familiar, it should. Voters rejected two similar schemes, Measure Y in 2016 and Measure G in 2020.
Sacramento spends millions on youth programs—$9 million this year. Organizations in the youth services industry, eager to expand their budgets, say children need more. Of course they do.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg and several City Council colleagues cooked up the newest initiative idea. They based their plans on cannabis taxes, hoping the weed connection might make voters think the money is dirty and in need of cleansing.
There’s nothing tainted about the city’s weed tax revenue. The money goes straight into the general fund. City Council spends it on parks and swimming pools and other amenities for young people—without mandates to support the youth services industry.
Eager to put a face on why the city needs perpetual funding for youth programs, advocates singled out the Roberts Family Development Center as a stellar example. What a curious choice.
The Roberts center is a North Sacramento outfit run by Derrell Roberts, a guy I’ve known for 30 years. I like Roberts, admire his enthusiasm, salesmanship and boundless self-confidence. Would I vote to give him a nickel of public money? No.
Every City Council member knows about Roberts and the problems he’s had keeping tax dollars straight.
In 2014, Roberts was given $1.4 million in state funds to operate several farmworker housing facilities in San Joaquin County. Apparently, that was more dough than Roberts could handle.
When much of the cash disappeared, Xavier Becerra, then California attorney general, filed a civil lawsuit against Roberts and his organization. Becerra figured about $650,000 vanished.
Authorities tried to discuss the matter with Roberts, but he “repeatedly used excuses to stall and repeatedly asked for more time to respond,” the suit said.
Where did the money go? Personal credit card payments, restaurants, hotels in Los Angeles and Yosemite, and “unidentified items,” the attorney general said.
In 2019, Roberts agreed to pay back $400,000. When I asked about the scandal, Roberts said it was old news. Maybe, but his final restitution payment is due in December.
In 2020, city auditor Jorge Oseguera decided to examine the bookkeeping practices at the Roberts Family Development Center. Given the farmworker mess, why not?
Roberts was receiving serious city cash to run various programs—$1.2 million between 2016 and 2019. To no one’s surprise, Oseguera discovered “significant material weaknesses” in Roberts’ books.
“We found their record keeping was disorganized and contained significant errors,” the auditor told City Council.
Among other things, Oseguera said “revenues and expenses are not adequately tracked,” and loans were made “in violation of the California Corporations Code.”
The auditor learned transactions with the city “were incorrectly recorded.” City grant funds were “commingled” with other funds. Bank reconciliations “in some instances were not completed at all.”
When Oseguera realized the depth of trouble at Roberts Family Development Center, the auditor concluded Roberts “may be struggling to meet financial obligations.”
To keep the city spigot open, Roberts farmed out his money management chores. City Council rewarded him with $450,000 to remodel his meeting hall.
If Steinberg and friends have their way, millions of future tax dollars will escape the general fund and disappear into the youth services industry.
The only obstacle is you—the voter, for the third time.
In recent weeks, advocates for the youth services industry worked local media to build support for the ballot measure. Among the advocates was Monica Mares. Oblivious or indifferent to history, she named one remarkable organization that would benefit from a pipeline of city tax dollars:
“The Roberts Family Development Center,” she said.
R.E. Graswich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.