Planning Commission Chair Pro Tem Gerda Newbold laid down the law.

After the commission forced developers of a proposed 285-room hotel at Seventh Street and Wilshire Boulevard into adopting wage/benefit levels for hotel workers a couple of weeks ago, she said, “It puts projects on notice that this will be required.”

Wait a minute. Since when is it in the purview of the planning commission to dictate wage packages for private businesses? Yeah, I know. Someone’s going to say “community benefits.”

If it’s a community benefit, it’s an extremely narrow one. The commission’s action makes it clear that employee wages and benefits are a major consideration in approval of new developments — especially hotels. I guess that a development’s attractiveness, neighborhood compatibility, traffic impacts, appropriateness and other traditional planning concerns are secondary as long as workers are paid what commissioners define as fair.

The proposed hotel in question is a massive, overly tall, butt-ugly, eight floor hotel addition to the landmark Professional Building at Seventh and Wilshire. Commissioners seem to have signed off on its 81 foot height (which exceeds present zoning code by a couple of floors) and its unattractiveness in return for acting as bargaining agent for Unite Here! Local 11 — the hotel and restaurant employees union.

By dictating wage levels, the Planning Commission forces developers over a barrel. Pay employees what we tell you to or your project is rejected. It’s nothing short of extortion, an egregious abuse of power and not in the general public’s interest.

What’s next? Setting rates for goods and services before approving a business’s development? Welcome to Soviet Monica. Literally.

We all know this is really all about political payoffs, not community benefits.

By acting as a union “negotiator,” Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights City Council members and their commission appointees know the union will return the favor through campaign donations, walking precincts and campaigning for “pro-union” candidates in upcoming elections.

This, my friends, is the “real community benefit:” Deeply flawed developments while selling out residents to stay in power.

No way, Jose

Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District School Board member Jose Escarce, MD, PhD took exception to my Feb. 13 column when I wrote that adding up to 300 nonresident, permit students to the district’s current 1,314 permit students in 2012-13 was a bad idea and, as it turns out, unpopular with the public.

Escarce’s guest commentary (Your Column Here, Feb. 17, 2012, Page 5, “The facts about permits”) was packed with conjecture about fixed and incremental costs; saving money by hiring lower salaried teachers and why the $5,300 in State Annual Daily Allowance (ADA) allotments each new permit student would generate was good for the SMMUSD.

Escarce’s case is woefully incomplete. He provides no facts to support his position and there’s no financial data in the staff recommendation to the school board. So far, there’s no basis for making a good decision. It’s another example of irresponsible procedure.

It’s obvious that with 11,365 students and a 2011-12 budget of around $111 million, the annual gross cost to educate a student is about $10,000. Escarce’s assertion is that by increasing the number of new permit students in 2012-13, the district could profit from the additional $5,300 ADA it receives per student.

Escarce suggests hiring younger teachers to serve the additional permit students because they’d only be paid $65,000 to $70,000. Escarce writes as if the only increased expense would be in hiring these additional younger teachers to serve new students.

By his thinking, after paying $70,000 per teacher for example, each permit student in a classroom of 25 students would actually generate $2,500 “profit" for the district. So, if adding nonresident students is such a financial windfall, why aren’t school districts across California poaching students from each other?

Escarce wrote, “A sizable portion of the school district’s costs are fixed … Therefore, they don’t vary when small numbers of students are added or subtracted.” He offers no quantification for this claim. And, with 86 percent of the district’s overhead in salaries, I say, “No way, Jose.”

Escarce totally omits additional costs for expanding enrollment such as insurance, overhead, special needs teachers, administrators, debt service, legal claims, etc. A line-by-line analysis would reveal these numbers and he hasn’t provided it so there’s not nearly enough information to make an intelligent judgment.

He also ignores the fact that the ADA only covers part of the income that pays student costs. Parcel taxes, sales taxes, municipal contributions and miscellaneous income supplement the ADA allotment. Non-resident permit families don’t pay the school parcel taxes or Santa Monica’s half cent sales tax surcharge residents pay. Their home municipal governments aren’t contributing millions of dollars in grants to the SMMUSD like our City Hall does.

The issue is whether the district will really receive more in revenue for permit students than it expends on them. We don’t know how much up to 300 new permit students will really cost the district or whether the maximum $1.59 million in ADA is sufficient to cover their expense.

“No way, Jose’s” comments appeared one day before a school board meeting where $2 million in cuts to next year’s budget may necessitate eliminating teachers, administrators and staff was discussed. Good timing, huh?

I’ve requested figures from the SMMUSD detailing the costs in adding additional students. Until we have solid financial data in hand, it’s all speculation. And, speculation is no way to run a school district.

Stay tuned.

Bill can be reached at mr.bilbau@gmail.com

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