Monday, April 11, 2016

Free Phone Service via the Internet

One of my arguments against the Utility User Tax is that it burdens neighbors disproportionately for the same privilege of accessing city services simply based on the choices one makes regarding utilities.

I, for example, pay very little toward this tax, but I avail myself of the same city services as those who pay considerably more. I drive on the same roads, visit the same library, call upon the same police and paramedic services.

The reason I don't pay much toward the UUT is because I happen to utilize technology that can't effectively be taxed.

For TV and video I use an over the air antenna and an Internet connection. For mobile phone service I use a no-contract, wi-fi capable, cell phone that allows me to make and receive free voice over Internet calls.

For my home phone and office phone I use voice over Internet calling exclusively. Specifically, I use Google Voice in conjunction with Obihai products. This allows me to use normal phones in a way that is every bit as good or better than traditional land line service. The best part, of course, is that it doesn't cost me anything more than the cost of Internet access and equipment. It's basically free and can't be taxed (after all, 5.5% of nothing is nothing).

I coincidentally started using Google Voice around the time the UUT was enacted in 2009. There were a few hiccups early on, but it has definitely proven itself to be an incredible service and a huge money saver. I've saved well over a thousand dollars for phone service over the past 7-years.

Now some who are reading this might actually be paying for voice over Internet service as part of their AT&T or Comcast bundle of services. If this is what you're doing, allow me to suggest that you're doing it wrong.

If you've been coaxed into paying for VoIP service as part of a bundle to reduce your Internet access cost, you should reconsider your plan. Surrendering the package deal, in favor of just Internet access and utilizing a service such as Google Voice, is almost guaranteed to save you a ton of money.

OBi200 VoIp phone adapter
There may be other alternatives to Google Voice that might be just as good or better, but I can only recommend what I know. And I'm recommending Google Voice at this time, because I've become aware that Amazon will be having a lightning deal on the OBi200 VoIP phone adapter starting at 8 am tomorrow, Tuesday April 12th. You should be able to save over 25-percent off the regular price.

These deals happen occasionally, but not too frequently. So you might want to check it out.

And just in case you're wondering, no, I don't have any marketing affiliation with either Google or Obihai. I receive no benefit from recommending the service or product.

If you think I'm overly enthusiastic about this technology, check out the customer reviews on Amazon. There's big money to be saved.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

A walk in the park... in Hayward

The East Bay Regional Park District has created a webpage recommending numerous short walking trails throughout its vast system of parks. These trails are described as relatively non-strenuous pathways suitable for senior citizens, parents with small children, or for anyone not ready for demanding hikes through the wilderness.

Three of the recommended trails are located right here in Hayward:

Hayward Shoreline: Cogswell Marsh Loop 
Route: (shown in red) From the parking area, head south and continue out into Cogswell Marsh. This a “lollipop” loop and you will soon be walking the head of the lollipop. Do not turn south when you reach the footbridge at Johnson’s Landing. Instead, pass the footbridge and go north to complete the lollipop loop and return to the parking area. Description: The Cogswell Marsh Loop provides users with an intimate bay experience. Thanks to an ever-present bay breeze and buffer from the city, it’s easy to forget that you’re at the center of a great megalopolis. Keep an eye out for least terns, and be sure to read the information signs that tell the interesting history of this marshland restoration. Trail type: dirt and gravel. Trail condition: good. Amenities at trailhead: parking, information, restrooms. Amenities on trail: information, benches. 2.75 miles. Elevation gain: 0 feet. Maximum grade: 0%.

Garin: Jordan Pond Loop 
Route: (shown in red below) Begin from the Garin Barn Visitor Center and head south towards Jordan Pond. Take the trail around the pond and back to the parking area. Description: This quick loop around Jordan Pond takes you past popular picnic and lawn areas. You’ll see the historic Visitor Center, with artifacts from the ranching and farming history of the Hayward area inside, and a variety of antique farm equipment on display outside. As you make your way around the lake, you may see squirrels, raptors, and lizards, as well as a variety of wildflowers in the spring and early summer. Trail type: natural, fire road and narrow. Trail condition: smooth. Amenities at trailhead: Visitor Center, restrooms, benches, trash cans, recycling, information, phone, drinking water, parking, horseshoes, picnic tables. Amenities on trail: picnic areas, trash cans, benches, restrooms, fishing. .75 miles. Elevation gain: 50 feet. Maximum grade: 8%.

Garin: Dry Creek Trail Out-and-Back 
Route: (shown in orange on the right) Begin from the Garin Barn Visitor Center and head south on Jordan Pond Loop towards Jordan Pond. Turn left onto the paved beginning of the Dry Creek Trail and follow it, bearing left at the first junction, and right at the second to avoid the rougher parts of the trail. Walk until you get to the gate at Meyers Ranch Trail and turn back for your return. Description: This longer walk provides opportunities to see wildlife, grasslands, and chaparral areas. Attentive walkers may see raptors soaring overhead, lizards and squirrels underfoot, and butterflies all around in season. Dry Creek Trail is mostly shaded as it courses along the canyon bottom. Trail type: natural and paved, fire road and narrow. Trail condition: rustic. Amenities at trailhead: Visitor Center, restrooms, benches, trash cans, recycling, information, phone, drinking water, parking, horseshoes, picnic tables. Amenities on trail: picnic areas, trash cans, benches, fishing. 2.2 miles. Elevation gain: 245 feet. Maximum grade: 10%.  

The maps and descriptions above are from the Park District website. For a printable brochure and more information on other nearby walking trails, visit their site at:

Monday, April 4, 2016

Argument against extending the Utility User Tax

NOTE: The following is my principle argument against Measure D. An abridged version will appear in the voter guide that is circulated around the end of April. 

In 2009, the City Council declared a fiscal emergency to justify a Utility User Tax (UUT). The purpose of this temporary, 10-year tax was to weather the effects of the recession (ie. the collapse of property values, home sales, and indiscriminate spendingor, more accurately, the municipal revenue derived from property tax assessments, the tax on real property transfers, and sales tax).

The 2009 city staff report on the subject predicted that " will take a number of years for valuations to return to current levels, in what could be a 7-10 year recovery for real estate values."

Now, 7-years later, property values have indeed recovered, and there are hundreds of residential units currently in the city's planning process. It might actually be said that the economy is doing rather well.

So from now until 2019, when the UUT is set to expire, the city should reap a windfall. It currently has restored revenue levels, the supplemental revenue of the UUT, and, of course, the added bonus of having new revenue from our elevated sales tax, which is now at 10%the highest in the state.

The bottomline is that an extension of the utility user tax should no longer be necessary. To suggest otherwise is an admission that the City is budgetarily inept, and that we’re perpetually stuck in a state of emergency.

Speaking of emergencies, instead of incessantly threatening to cut emergency services if we don't pass every tax measure it conceives, the City ought to be reining in the highest compensation levels of its emergency service personnel. Visit and count the number of Hayward firefighters receiving total annual compensation amounts of over $300,000. You’ll be shocked.

Regarding the UUT itself, most have no idea what they’re being taxed on or the specific amount they pay each year… Do you?

Some utilities are taxed; some aren’t. Electricity is taxed; water isn’t. Gas is taxed; sewer isn’t. Xfinity TV is taxed; Dish TV isn’t. Landline phone service is taxed; free VoIP phone service can't be. Cell phone service billed to a Hayward address is taxed; service invoiced elsewhere (such as a prepaid/no-contact account or a friends and family/employer plan) can't effectively be taxed either.

The tax is ridiculously confusing. The ordinance that defines it is 26-pages long. It's so complex that immediately following its passage the City hired a consultant to help manage it. Not long after, it was discovered that the City was in receipt of UUT money collected for providing Internet access. This is prohibited by the Federal Internet Tax Freedom Act. Subsequent refund requests were denied, and a costly lawsuit ensued (Sipple v. City of Hayward). In its decision, the appellate court stated the shamefully obvious: keeping the improper tax would leave the city "unjustly enriched at the expense of [the service provider's] customers."

But that wouldn't be the only injustice here. That's because there’s no logical correlation between this confusingly applied tax and an individual’s burden on city services. Individual neighbors requiring the same level of city services can be taxed significantly different amounts based on the manner of their utility consumption.

An individual having Dish TV, free VoIP home phone service, a no-contract mobile phone, and a solar array that can generate all needed power might not pay anything toward city services via this tax1. While someone who has Xfinity TV, a traditional landline phone, a cell phone billed to their Hayward address, and all PG&E provided power may be paying hundreds annually.

This is plainly unfair, and it shouldn't continue.

But that isn't the only reason.

The UUT, in conjunction with all of the other wonderful taxes, fees, and assessments that have been enacted lately, is killing the golden goose—our crucial business sector.

Despite a booming economy, our city is struggling to attract and retain good businesses. Consider Hayward’s largest for-profit employer, bus manufacturer Gillig. This celebrated company has given up on Hayward and is moving to Livermore—our nearby neighbor that has no utility tax, no emergency facilities tax, and a lower sales tax rate.

Do you think Tesla would remain in Fremont if that city were to impose taxes on the utilities upon which its highly automated factory depends—adding another 5.5% or so to production costs? Not likely.

These taxes have a huge impact on a business's bottomline. Neighboring Dublin understands this. It attracts new businesses, like IKEA, by trumpeting the fact that it doesn't have any utility taxes.

In conclusion, the UUT's purpose has been fulfilled. Extending it until 2039 simply relieves the city from budgetary constraints that demand efficient operations and tough decision making. Don't extend an unnecessary tax that is plainly unfair and bad for business.

Vote No on Measure D.

1It should be said that the UUT ordinance does attempt to tax just about every utility under the sun, including solar energy. The City expects those who generate their own off-grid electricity to measure, calculate, self-report and remit a proper tax amount. Similarly, if you use propane tanks for your barbeque grill, you'll also need to send in your tax if it wasn't already collected at the filling station. If you subscribe to Netflix, then yes you too need to remit your tax on video services to City Hall. Do I even need to suggest how ridiculously impractical and unrealistic all of this is? Just this year another new law took effect that requires the collection of the UUT by retailers at the point-of-sale for prepaid cell phone minutes. This means that purchasing prepaid cards at Southland Mall will cost you 5.5% more than if you buy them at Stoneridge Mall, since neighboring Pleasanton doesn't have a UUT.